The National Wildlife Refuge System is the world’s foremost system of protected lands designed to protect America’s wildlife and plants, and includes 553 refuges covering over 150 million acres of land. National Wildlife Refuges provide recreational opportunities to millions of Americans each year, including wildlife watching, hunting, fishing, hiking, and boating.
Visitor Opportunities in Refuges
Hunting and Fishing:
Each year, hundreds of thousands of sportsmen have the opportunity to hunt at over 3000 national wildlife refuges throughout the country. Hunters have played a critical role in supporting wildlife refuges, through their purchase of Federal Duck Stamps, which supports land acquisition primarily in the Midwest prairie pothole region.
In addition, fishing is available at 270 refuges throughout the nation. Fishermen can fish for many species including bass, catfish, perch, redfish, salmon, sea trout, striped bass, sunfish, trout, and walleye.
Boating and Hiking:
The overwhelming majority of refuges throughout the nation are open to some form of water or land based recreational activities. Each refuge carefully balances the needs of wildlife and resource conservation with the need to provide recreational opportunities to the public.
Protection of Special Places
Many refuges include land that is also designated as wilderness, a special designation by Congress for those places “where the Earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man is a visitor who does not remain.” For example, nearly 1,000 square miles of Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is designated as wilderness. This refuge was set aside in 1939 to save the desert bighorn sheep and Sonoran pronghorn from extinction.
Wild and Scenic Rivers:
The refuge system contains over 1,400 miles of congressionally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers. These rivers exist in their natural state, free of dams, provide vital fish and wildlife habitat, or that possess scenic, recreational, geologic, historic, cultural or other unique values worthy of preserving. The Niobrara River, for example, flowing through Nebraska’s Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, is a designated Wild and Scenic River. The Niobara provides recreational opportunities to wildlife watchers throughout the year.
Wetlands of International Importance:
As a party to the Ramsar Convention, the United States has designated biologically important fresh and saltwater wetlands as Wetlands of International Importance. Many refuges provide protection to these wetlands. The wetlands of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge supports the entire world population of emperor goose. Thousands of migrating ducks and shorebirds also use the refuge as a critical stopover to fuel their long-distance migrations.
National Natural Landmarks:
National monuments and memorials include “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” located on federal lands, including wildlife refuges. Midway Island was the location of the turning point in the Pacific Campaign during World War II. Midway Island is both a national memorial and a national wildlife refuge, home to hundreds of thousands of albatross, Laysan Duck, and Hawaiian Monk Seals.
Economic Benefits of Refuges
Recreational use on national wildlife refuges generated almost $1.7 billion in total economic activity during in 2006. In that year, nearly 35 million people visited national wildlife, supporting almost 27,000 private sector jobs and producing about $543 million in employment income. In addition, recreational spending on refuges generated nearly $185.3 million in tax revenue at the local, county, state and federal level.
As a result, National Wildlife Refuges generate a great return for the taxpayers. For example, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Delaware generated $23.38 in economic activity for every $1 in budgeted expenditures by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and is responsible for supporting 200 private sector jobs.
Threats to Refuges
Refuges face numerous threats including habitat fragmentation, invasive species, pollution and declining water quality, poorly planned development, and climate change. All of these, in combination, place severe stress on refuges ability to protect wildlife and plants, and to provide quality recreational opportunities to the public. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a critical tool to protect the biological integrity of wildlife refuges yet is chronically underfunded and has been targeted for further cuts in the current Congress.