US National Wildlife Refuge System

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The United States National Wildlife Refuge system (NWRS) was established in 1903 with the mission “to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans." The system comprises over 540 refuges and 37 wetland management districts. Managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) within the Department of Interior, these refuges are priority sites for collaborative programs with local partners to restore, protect, and manage habitat for wildlife and recreational purposes.

Goals and Priority Issues

The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 brought together the numerous types of lands administered by the Department of the Interior into a single National Wildlife Refuge System. The Act established a unifying mission and a process for determining compatible uses within refuges. It also required comprehensive conservation plans for each refuge.

In addition to its central task of conserving wildlife, the Refuge System manages six wildlife-dependent recreational uses that range from hunting and fishing to birding and photography.

Coastal Element of the NWRS

There are 177 refuges with coastal or marine conservation responsibilities. These cover an estimated 30,000 coastal miles across 30 million coastal acres, with tidally influenced holdings totaling 7 million acres. Coral reefs within the Refuge System total 2.95 million acres (NWRS). The FWS considers their refuges some of the finest examples of marine conservation in the US dedicated to a ‘wildlife first’ approach (NWRS). The NWRS is also the largest and most ecologically comprehensive series of fully-protected marine areas under unified conservation management in the world.

Projects include Federal, State, tribal, local, and private partnership efforts. They are directed toward

  • habitat enhancement, restoration, and habitat reclamation; ((see also: Principles of conservation, rehabilitation and restoration of estuarine and coastal habitats))
  • conservation area management as natural classrooms and laboratories;
  • law enforcement;
  • removal and control of exotic and invasive plant and animal species;
  • removal of hazardous wastes;
  • listed species reestablishment, reintroduction, and recovery to historic habitats;
  • environmental, economic, and public health and safety risk and threat reduction;
  • protected species’ monitoring and research;
  • education and outreach efforts.

The refuges are supported by the FWS Coastal Program, a non-regulatory community-based stewardship effort dedicated to fish and wildlife protection. The Coastal Program provides partners with financial and technical assistance to accomplish stewardship projects that benefit Federal Trust Species.

The Small Wetlands Program began in 1958 in an effort to halt the loss of wetland habitat for migratory waterfowl. This innovative and highly successful program sells duck stamps (hunting licenses) to fund the protection and restoration of valuable wetland habitat as part of the NWRS. This nationally recognized program focuses on inland wetlands and to date has permanently protected nearly 3 million acres of prairie habitat.


In 2007, the NWRS was assessed on its effectiveness in achieving 12 strategic goals [1]. It was rated as highly effective in facilitating partnerships and cooperative projects. As a result of budget cuts and a decline in purchasing power, it was rated only partially effective in achieving nine of its goals. It was deemed ineffective in achieving two goals—protecting resources and visitors through law enforcement, and strategically growing the system.

See also

Internal Links

External Links


  1. Management System International (MSI). 2008. An Independent Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System.

The main authors of this article are Stephen Bloye Olsen and Glenn Ricci
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Stephen Bloye Olsen; Glenn Ricci; (2023): US National Wildlife Refuge System. Available from [accessed on 15-07-2024]