The mission of the Refuge System is "To administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate restoration of fish, wildlife,and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of the present and future generations of Americans" (National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997). The Refuge System maintains the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of these natural resources and enables for associated public enjoyment of these areas where compatible with conservation efforts.
National Wildlife Refuges manage a full range of habitat types, including wetlands, prairies, coastal and marine areas, and temperate, tundra and boreal forests. The management of each habitat is a complex web of controlling or eradicating invasive species, using fire in a prescribed manner, assuring adequate water resources, and assessing external threats like development or contamination.
Among these hundreds of national refuges are home to some 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species and more than 1000 species of fish. Endangered species are a priority of National Wildlife Refuges in that nearly 60 refuges have been established with the primary purpose of conserving 280 threatened or endangered species.
National Wildlife Refuges are also places where visitors can participate in a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities. The National Wildlife Refuge System welcomes nearly 50 million visitors each year. The Refuge System manages six wildlife-dependent recreational uses in accordance with the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, including hunting, fishing, birding, photography, environmental education, and interpretation. Hunters visit more than 350 hunting programs on refuges and on about 36,000 Waterfowl Production Areas. Opportunities for fresh or saltwater fishing are available at more than 340 refuges. There is at least one wildlife refuge in each of the fifty states.
National Wildlife Refuge System employees are responsible for planning, biological monitoring and habitat conservation, contaminants management, visitor services, outreach and environmental education, heavy equipment operation, law enforcement, and fire management.
The National Wildlife Refuge System is dealing with such issues as urban intrusion/development, habitat fragmentation, degradation of water quantity and quality, climate change, invasive species, increasing demands for recreation, and increasing demands for energy development. The system has had numerous successes, including providing a habitat for endangered species, migratory birds, plants and numerous other valuable animals; implementation of the NWRS Improvement Act, acquisition and protection of key critical inholdings, and establishing leadership in habitat restoration and management.
The agency has created Comprehensive Conservation Plans (CCPs) for each refuge, developed through consultation with private and public stakeholders. These began a review process by stakeholders beginning in 2013. The CCCPs must be consistent with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) goals for conservation and wildlife management.
The CCPs outline conservation goals for each refuge for fifteen years into the future, with the intent that they will be revised every fifteen years thereafter. The comprehensive conservation planning process requires several phases, including: a scoping phase, in which each refuge holds public meetings to identify the public’s main concerns; plan formulation, when refuge staff and FWS planners identify the key issues and refuge goals; writing the draft plan, in which wildlife and habitat alternatives are developed, and the plan is submitted for public review; revision of the draft plan, which takes into consideration the public’s input; and plan implementation.
Each CCP is required to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and must contain several potential alternatives to habitat and wildlife management on the refuge, and identify their possible effects on the refuge. Additionally, NEPA requires FWS planners and refuge staff to engage the public in this planning process to assist them with identifying the most appropriate alternative.
Completed CCPs are available to the public and can be found on the FWS website.
Comprehensive wildlife and habitat management demands the integration of scientific information from several disciplines, including understanding ecological processes and monitoring status of fish, wildlife and plants. Equally important is an intimate understanding of the social and economic drivers that impact and are impacted by management decisions and can facilitate or impede implementation success. Service strategic habitat conservation planning, design, and delivery efforts are affected by the demographic, societal, and cultural changes of population growth and urbanization, as well as people’s attitudes and values toward wildlife. Consideration of these factors contributes to the success of the Service’s mission to protect wildlife and their habitats.
The Refuge System works collaboratively internally and externally to leverage resources and achieve effective conservation. It works with other federal agencies, state fish and wildlife agencies, tribes, non-governmental organizations, local landowners, community volunteers, and other partners. Meaningful engagement with stakeholders at a regional, integrated level adds to the effective conservation achievements of the Service and allows individual refuges to respond more effectively to challenges.
Wildlife and habitat management activities include:
- Monitoring plant and animal populations
- Restoring wetland, forest, grassland, and marine habitats
- Controlling the spread of invasive species
- Reintroducing rare fish, wildlife and plants to formerly occupied habitats
- Monitoring air quality
- Investigating and cleaning contaminants
- Preventing and controlling wildlife disease outbreaks
- Assessing water quality and quantity
- Understanding the complex relationship between people and wildlife through the integration of social science
- Managing habitats through manipulation of water levels, prescribed burning, haying, grazing, timber harvest, and planting vegetation
During fiscal year 2015, the Refuge System actively manipulated 3.1 million acres of habitat (technique #9 from the preceding list) and managed 147 million acres of the system without active habitat manipulation (using techniques #1 through 8 from the preceding list).Uplands actively managed: 1.9 million acres
Wetlands actively managed: 1.0 million acres
Open water actively managed: 0.2 million acres
Treated by prescribed burning: 0.3 million acres
Treated to control invasive plants: 0.2 million acres
Protected but not actively manipulated: 147 million acres
Refuges attract nearly 50 million visitors each year who come to hunt, fish, observe, and photograph wildlife, and are a significant boon to local economies. According to the Service's 2013 Banking on Nature Report, visitors to refuges positively impact the local economies. The report details that 47 million people who visited refuges that year:Generated $2.4 billion of sales in regional economies
Supported over 35,000 jobs
Generated $342.9 million in tax revenues at the local, county, state, and federal levels
Contributed a total of $4.5 billion to the nation’s economy
The Refuge System has a professional cadre of law enforcement officers that supports a broad spectrum of Service programs by enforcing conservation laws established to protect the fish, wildlife, cultural, and archaeological resources the Service manages in trust for the American people. They also educate the public about the Service’s mission, contribute to environmental education and outreach, provide safety and security for the visiting public, assist local communities with law enforcement and natural disaster response and recovery through emergency management programs, and help protect native subsistence rights. They are routinely involved with the greater law enforcement community in cooperative efforts to combat the nation's drug problems, address border security issues, and aid in other security challenges.
Prevention and control of wildland fires is also a very active part of refuge management. Completion of controlled burns to reduce fuel loading, and participation in the interagency wildland fire suppression efforts, are vital for management of refuge lands.
A considerable infrastructure of physical structures is also essential to proper management of refuge lands. As of September 30, 2015 there were 13,030 roads, bridges and trails; 5,284 buildings; 8,007 water management structures; and 7,886 other structures such as visitor facility enhancements (hunting blinds, fishing piers, boat docks, observation decks, and information kiosks). The overall facility infrastructure is valued at nearly $30 billion.Area of land and water under management: 150.3 million acres
Number of management units: 562 refuges and 38 Wetland Management Districts
Number of wilderness areas: 74
Area of wilderness: 20.7 million acres
Length of rivers within the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System: 1,086 miles (1,748 km)
Length of refuge boundary with Mexico: 120 miles (190 km)
The area of the Refuge System is heavily influenced by large areas devoted to protecting wild Alaska and to protecting marine habitats in the Pacific Ocean; however, the number of units and public visitation overwhelmingly occurs in the lower 48 states even though these refuges and wetland management districts constitute only a little over 1% of the System. See highlights in the below table.Wildlife observation visits in FY 2014: 29.8 million
Nature photography visits in FY 2014: 8.4 million
Fishing visits in FY 2014: 6.7 million
Interpretive program visits in FY 2014: 2.8 million
Hunting visits in FY 2014: 2.4 million
Environmental education visits in FY 2014: 0.7 million
Total visits in FY 2014: 47 million
Total volunteers in FY 2014: 36,000
Total volunteer hours in FY 2014: 1.4 million
Total staff: 3,036 FTEs (full-time equivalents, thus two half-time employees count as one FTE; FY 2015 total)
Number of refuge enforcement officers: 256 (source: Washington Office)
Number of firefighters: 460 (360 permanent and 100 temporary staff)
In addition to refuge status, the "special" status of lands within individual refuges may be recognized by additional designations, either legislatively or administratively. Special designation may also occur through the actions of other legitimate agencies or organizations. The influence that special designations may have on the management of refuge lands and waters may vary considerably.
Special designation areas within the Refuge System as of September 30, 2014 included the following:Biosphere Reserves (3 units)
Maine Protected Areas (106 units)
National Historic Landmarks (10 units)
National Monuments (7 units)
National Natural Landmarks (43 units)
National Recreation Trails (72 units)
National Wild and Scenic Rivers (13 units)
RAMSAR Wetlands of International Importance (26 units)
Research Natural Areas (207 units)
Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (19 units)
Wilderness Areas (74 units) (the Refuge System has 20.7 million acres of wilderness, 19% of U.S. wilderness)
World Heritage Sites (1 unit)