National Wildlife Refuge System

Happy Birthday, National Wildlife Refuge System!

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A singular number for a singular event: That’s the 111th birthday of the National Wildlife Refuge System, set for celebration on March 14.

Without the country’s national wildlife refuges, many of America’s best-loved birds, mammals, reptiles and fish would not thrive. President Teddy Roosevelt created the first national wildlife refuge on March 14, 1903, at Pelican Island, Florida, to protect brown pelicans from market hunters.

Today, 562 refuges and 38 wetland management districts make up the nation’s premier wildlife conservation network, the Refuge System. Together, these lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provide vital habitat for thousands of iconic animal and plant species.

There’s plenty to celebrate about your Refuge System in 2014. Fifty years ago, on September 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Wilderness Act into law, protecting American wildlands for generations to come. More than 20 million acres within the Refuge System are designated as wilderness — about one-fifth of the designated wilderness in the United States.

Sixty-three national wildlife refuges contain wilderness in 26 states, protecting treasured landscapes — from Florida’s six-acre Pelican Island Wilderness to Alaska’s eight million-acre Arctic Wilderness — and wildlife, such as polar bears, puffins and alligators. Wilderness also provides matchless opportunities for solitude and non-motorized recreation.

National wildlife refuges also help support local communities, pumping $2.4 billion into the national economy and supporting more than 35,000 jobs, according to the recently released, peer-reviewed report by the Service, Banking on Nature. More than 47 million people visit refuges every year.

In 2013, in order to build a connected conservation community that recognizes values for people and wildlife, the Service embarked on a multi-faceted Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative to reflect the diverse perspectives, values and cultures of America. Eight new partnerships are working in geographically dispersed communities to expand the Service’s conservation programs where we do not have an existing nearby national wildlife refuge.

Even if you haven’t had much contact with nature or experience with wildlife conservation, you may find exciting new opportunities near you. Here are some refuge open houses and public celebrations in honor of the Refuge System’s 111th birthday.

Refuge System Birthday Bash!
March 15, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. — Patuxent Research Refuge, MD
Enjoy a free festival complete with wildlife tram tours, live animals, children’s crafts, music and entertainment at the National Wildlife Visitor Center on Powder Mill Road, between Route 197 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Laurel.

Pelican Island Wildlife Festival
March 15 — Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, FL
Celebrate the 111th birthday of Pelican Island and the National Wildlife Refuge System. Enjoy crafts, exhibits, live reptiles and birds of prey, kids’ activities and a nature photo display.

111th Birthday Celebration
March 15, 9 to 11:30 a.m. − Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, DE   
Learn about the establishment of the National Wildlife Refuge System and Bombay Hook Refuge. Tour the refuge and walk a trail to learn about wildlife and habitats. To register, call 302-653-6872.

What refuges can offer you
See great flocks of migratory birds. Hear spring peepers’ joyful chorus. Enjoy guided hikes, nature tours, a chance to see live birds of prey and much, much more. See how refuges conserve some of our nation’s most cherished natural treasures.

Any time is a good time to visit a national wildlife refuge. Refuges offer outstanding recreational opportunities, from fishing, hiking and birding to paddling, snowshoeing and wildlife photography. You can plan a refuge visit around a bird festival or a wildlife tour. Or just enjoy being outdoors or taking a drive along a wildlife viewing route.

Get Started!
Check out other Refuge System birthday events on our special events calendar.
Use the “Find Your Refuge” feature here to look for happenings on a nearby refuge.

Find Your Way
Every state has at least one national wildlife refuge. There’s a refuge within an hour’s drive of most major cities. Find a refuge near you with a quick zip code or state search at

Get Psyched
National wildlife refuges protect wildlife habitat on awe-inducing landscapes that range from Oregon’s rocky cliffs to Texas lagoons, from Alaska wilderness to woods and ponds within Philadelphia city limits. Refuges are great places to experience seasonal wonders, such as spring bird migration, the arrival of monarch butterflies or elk bugling for a mate in fall.

Last updated: March 10, 2014