Wildlife conservation is at the heart of the National Wildlife Refuge System. It drives everything on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands and waters managed within the Refuge System, from the purposes for which a national wildlife refuge is established to the recreational activities offered to the resource management tools used. Using conservation best practices, the Refuge System manages Service lands and waters to help ensure the survival of native wildlife species.
Conserving the nation’s wildlife and wildlife habitat demands expertise in many specialized fields. The Refuge System counts on its experts to help inform management decisions and policy.
Habitat restoration is one highly visible focus; revitalization projects often demonstrably improve landscapes. Other specialty areas involve animals subject to particular threats and protections, such as migratory birds, pollinators and marine mammals. Still other focal areas revolve around critical challenges such as invasive species, contaminants and climate change.
The Refuge System restores degraded wetlands, forests, grasslands and marine habitats — curbing erosion, re-connecting vital wildlife corridors and returning fish passage to once-blocked or channelized rivers. Since 1903 the Refuge System has restored tens of millions of acres of fish and wildlife habitat. As part of the West Coast’s largest tidal wetland restoration project, Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge is restoring 9,600 acres of former industrial salt ponds to tidal marsh and other wetland habitat.
The Refuge System’s interdisciplinary science team informs decision-making for its frontline managers. The team integrates findings from scientific disciplines including wildlife biology, air quality, hydrology and human dimensions so managers can better address complex environmental challenges. These science programs are administered by the Natural Resource Program Center in Fort Collins, Colorado — where many federal agencies share natural resource research operations and facilities.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the lead federal agency in managing and conserving migratory birds in the United States. More than 200 national wildlife refuges were established to provide nesting, breeding and feeding habitat for migratory birds. The Refuge System uses a science-based approach to prioritize areas for bird conservation efforts and monitoring population trends. Experts on the Habitat and Population Evaluation Team in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and Bismarck, North Dakota, integrate scientific data and conservation planning, with a focus on migratory birds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has primary responsibility for protecting and recovering terrestrial and freshwater species designated as threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The law is administered by the Service and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries. Under the Endangered Species Act, "endangered" means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. "Threatened" means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.
Invasive species destroy and degrade native habitat, attack or outcompete native species and disable infrastructure. They also can increase erosion, flooding and risk of major wildfire while reducing opportunities for public recreation. Among the most notorious non-native pest species challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are feral hogs, Asian carp, Burmese pythons, phragmites, cheatgrass and elodea.
The Refuge System spends $12.5 million a year to fight invasive species on national wildlife refuges and adjacent lands. In 2013, the Service and partners eradicated invasive rats from Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific, and in 2017, from Desecheo National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico and made the islands havens again for native seabirds, lizards (like the endemic Desecheo anole, shown above) and plants. (Video: "Desecheo: An Island Reborn") In 2021, the Refuge System and partners plan to launch an effort to eradicate mice preying on albatross at Midway Atoll Refuge in the Pacific.
When pesticides must be used, Service experts ensure their use is limited and does not cause unintended harm to surface and ground water, plants and animals. The Service's Pesticide User Safety policy, 242 FW 7 guides employees in safe pesticide handling and training. The Service also advises other federal agencies on pesticide use to ensure that applications don’t harm federally listed threatened or endangered species or designated critical habitat.
Birds, bats and insects carry pollen from flower to flower, fertilizing plants and helping to feed the planet. Pollinators drive agriculture production and are indicators of environmental health. Habitat loss and fragmentation, pesticide misuse and disease threaten some iconic pollinators. The monarch butterfly, for example, has been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In an effort to avert a listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners have restored and improved hundreds of thousands of acres of monarch habitat in the Midwest. You can help pollinators by planting a pollinator garden.
National wildlife refuges are affected by a wide range of pollutants that contaminate land, water and air. Contaminants include oil and brine spilled during mineral resource extraction, pesticides applied by former landowners and toxic chemicals leaking from electrical transformers. Some refuges — such as Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver and Vieques National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico — bear remnants of their former use as Defense Department sites used to manufacture chemical weapons or test bombs. Acceptance of these lands and waters involved careful remediation planning, subject to oversight by the Service’s environmental contaminants specialists. These experts ensure that environmental cleanups consider both the immediate area of impact and surrounding areas. They work closely with engineers and rehabilitation experts to minimize toxicological and ecological risks and restore the site to a safe and inhabitable condition.
Climate change is a major disruptor of species and their habitats. It also magnifies other environmental threats and stressors, including wildfire, drought, invasive species and disease. Rising sea levels combined with land sinkage are affecting fish and wildlife distribution at places such as Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. The National Wildlife Refuge System assesses refuge vulnerability to climate change and other stressors to develop management strategies. At Blackwater Refuge, experts applied dredge spoil material from the Blackwater River to 40 acres of sinking marsh vital to two at-risk bird species: black rail and salt marsh sparrow. The project raised surrounding marsh by an average six inches, improving vegetation. Audio surveys in 2019 showed the presence of both bird species.
The Pacific Seabird Program, based in Oregon, is a cooperative effort to coordinate seabird monitoring among public and private partners in Hawaii, the U.S. Pacific islands and some of California. Coordination aims to standardize seabird monitoring and data management to meet all participants’ needs. Improved knowledge of seabird population patterns and trends that result will inform wildlife management and conservation at refuges and in species’ ranges along the West Coast and in the Pacific. For example, analysis of aerial photographs of common murre colonies along the West Coast (above) allows for population estimates across the species’ range.