Road to 30: National Wildlife Refuges

Hannah Rider
Jul 21, 2020 · 6 min read
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National Bison Refuge | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This story map is the third installation in our ongoing “Road to 30” series exploring the vision of protecting 30 percent of our land and water by 2030. Here we will look at how National Wildlife Refuges play an important role in reaching 30 percent protected land while also increasing recreation access and environmental education opportunities for local communities.

Across America, natural areas that we rely on for clean air and water, biodiversity, outdoor recreation, and local economies are disappearing. From habitat fragmentation to the widespread impacts of climate change, lands and waters throughout the country are being lost to development and degradation every day. To combat this crisis, scientists are urging that we conserve 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030.

There is not just one path to conservation. Finding diverse and innovative ways to protect landscapes that support local communities and preserve the land’s specific values will be critical in achieving the “30x30” goal. Currently, about 12 percent of American lands are protected. While we still have a ways to go, strong leadership and grassroots momentum are bringing us closer to the goal. In this series, we will explore some of the protected places on the road to conserving 30 percent of America, celebrating past conservation efforts and considering how to move forward to protect our lands, waters, wildlife, and the communities that rely on them.

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National Elk Refuge | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As biodiversity plummets worldwide, protecting wildlife and their habitat has never been more important. Around one million species are at risk of extinction worldwide, and there has already been a 30 percent reduction in terrestrial habitat integrity due to habitat loss and degradation in the past decades.

The National Wildlife Refuge System, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, creates a network of lands protecting the health and habitat of species. It is the only land designation that prioritizes wildlife and habitat conservation and restoration above all other uses. Established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the National Wildlife Refuge System manages 95 million acres of land and 760 million acres of water, including national wildlife refuges, wetland management districts, marine national monuments, and refuges with wilderness areas.

Each refuge has an individual mission which guides management decisions. The specific species and habitats located within the refuge, as well as the proximity to populated areas and input from local communities, guide the process. Across all refuges, wildlife conservation is the primary focus, and wildlife-specific recreation is a secondary priority. Hunting, fishing, and wildlife photography is allowed to the extent that it does not adversely affect species or habitat. This makes wildlife refuges popular with hunters and anglers. The System is spread across the country and is representative of a wide variety of ecosystems. As one of the strongest conservation designations, national wildlife refuges are an important piece of protecting 30 percent of America by 2030.

Over 100 of the national wildlife refuges are located within 25 miles of a population center with over 250,000 people. Although wildlife conservation remains the primary objective, urban wildlife refuges offer unprecedented access to urban and suburban populations for recreation and wildlife viewing. These sites host over 11.7 million visitors annually, with an emphasis on local visitation.

At these locations, the Fish and Wildlife Service aims to dedicate resources to improving recreation access and addressing barriers in order to become an asset, particularly for communities that have traditionally had less access to outdoor experiences. Environmental education and convenient access to recreation are primary goals of these refuges.

While refuges near population centers tend to be smaller, National Wildlife Refuges can encompass millions of acres, preserving large swaths of ecosystems. These areas are particularly important for large and migratory species.

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Valle Del Oro National Wildlife Refuge | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Refuge serves as an important urban habitat for wildlife in the Rio Grande ecosystem. It restores the native habitat of the Rio Grande floodplain, particularly important for migratory birds. Over 100 species of birds visit the area every year.

The Refuge was the first urban wildlife refuge established in the Southwest. It’s proximity to Albuquerque provides easy access to the outdoors for 150,000 students and two-thirds of the state’s population. Established with strong community support and continued involvement, the Refuge aims to serve as an educational resource and place for convenient and close-to-home recreation. Environmental education programs for the local community have been an important part of the refuge’s management goals. A new visitor center will hold an amphitheater, education center, and conservation career center.

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Bison at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge | Michael Levine-Clark, Flickr

Today, Rocky Mountain Arsenal provides habitat for 330 species, as well as recreation and educational opportunities near Denver, Colorado. Before becoming a wildlife refuge, the area held a chemical weapons manufacturing facility during World War II and the Cold War, and was used to manufacture agricultural chemicals in between. As the area was cleaned up from decades of toxic manufacturing, bald eagles began inhabiting the area, and it was designated as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1992. Opportunities for hiking, birding, and photography, as well as wildlife tours and environmetal education, make this Refuge beneficial to the local community.

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Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As the second largest refuge in the continental U.S., the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana protects a wide variety of ecosystems, including native prairie, forested coulees, river bottoms, and badlands, and habitat for elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and eagles. Nearly 1 million acres itself, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge is a part of the Charles M. Russell Complex, a group of refuges managed together with similar objectives. The complex includes the Hailstone National Wildlife Refuge, Grass Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Mason National Wildlife Refuge, Warhorse National Wildlife Refuge, and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, as well as theCharles M. Russell Wetlands Management District. Despite its remote location, hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing are popular recreation activities, with the Refuge experiencing 439,000 visits in 2017.

Valle Del Oro National Wildlife Refuge, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, and Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge demonstrate the wide range of benefits that wildlife refuges can have for wildlife, habitat, and communities in the process of protecting 30 percent of America by 2030.

Learn more through the interactive storymap.


Public lands and the outdoors, from the Center for Western Priorities

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