10 Surprising Facts About the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has protected America’s stunning diversity of native fishes, plants, wildlife and habitats for over 100 years. From counting birds to combating crime — and from stocking fish to genetics and forensics research — we’re an international wildlife conservation leader informed by science and supported by partnerships.

Our work is as diverse as the people and places we serve, conserving America’s natural heritage, wild lands and waters and imperiled species for future generations.

Discover 10 facts you might not know about the only federal agency focused first and foremost on wildlife conservation for the continuing benefit of all Americans.

1. Oldest Wildlife Conservation Agency


Historic Neosho National Fish Hatchery in Missouri is America's oldest operating federal hatchery. Painted rainbow trout sculptures can be found throughout the hatchery's grounds. Photo by Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS.

Our conservation roots run deep. By the late 1800s, people began to recognize America’s fisheries were in trouble and called on Congress to act. The United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries was formed on February 9, 1871. The Commission’s charge: determine if America’s fisheries were declining, and, if so, figure out how to protect them. 

Fast forward 150 years. The agency’s name changed, as did its scope. Yet one thing remains core: working with others to keep fishes, wildlife, plants and their habitats safe, healthy and productive for all Americans.

2. Conserves over 2,000 Fish, Plant, and Wildlife Species Around the World

A cluster of white flowers.
The Colorado butterfly plant is found in southeastern Wyoming, north-central Colorado, and western Nebraska. This unique plant was removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Plants by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2019 due to successful recovery efforts with conservation partners. Photo by Julie Reeves/USFWS.

We oversee numerous laws, treaties, and regulations that protect wildlife at home and abroad. For instance, over 1,000 bird species are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act — these birds breed or winter in over 35 countries across the Western Hemisphere.

Under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), we work with diverse partners to conserve over 1,600 endangered and threatened species across the United States — and nearly 700 foreign species. The ESA provides a critical safety net for imperiled species and the land and water they depend upon for habitat. Bald eagles, American alligators, and interior least terns are a few examples of wildlife that have fully recovered and no longer require federal protection.

Through CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), we work with other countries around the world to ensure trade of wildlife and plants is sustainable, and to conserve healthy habitats.

3. Manages 95 million land acres


A herd of elk grazing on the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. Photo by Kari Cieszkiewcz/USFWS.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is the world’s largest network of public lands and waters dedicated to the conservation of fish, wildlife, and plants. The Refuge System manages 95 million land acres on more than 565 refuges and 38 wetland management districts from Alaska to the Caribbean and from Maine to the Pacific.

First established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, the system today includes at least one national wildlife refuge in each of the 50 states and five territories.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (19.6 million acres) in Alaska is the largest; the smallest is Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge (0.57 acres) in Minnesota. There are more than 100 urban national wildlife refuges located within 25 miles of communities with 250,000 people or more.

National wildlife refuges benefit wildlife and people. They offer world-class recreation opportunities, reduce fire risk to communities, provide storm resilience, ease flooding, improve local air and water quality, boost local economies, protect cultural resources, and more.

4. … and manages nearly 850 million water acres

Colorful fish swim around corals under clear blue water.
Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is within Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument, about 1,100 miles south of Hawaii. Photo by Ian Shive/USFWS.

The National Wildlife Refuge System includes five marine national monuments that conserve nearly 850 million water acres. Four are in the Pacific Ocean and one is in the Atlantic Ocean. These areas protect corals, fishes, and seabirds, and facilitate scientific research.

Pollution, overfishing, and climate change are putting huge pressure on oceans. Explorer Sylvia Earle has called marine national monuments “hope spots” for ocean ecological health.

We partner with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), state and territorial governments and others to manage these special places.

5. … and manages about 70 national fish hatcheries 


A two-year old pallid sturgeon photographed at Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery in South Dakota by Sam Stukel/USFWS. 

For 150 years, the National Fish Hatchery System has worked to restore native fish and aquatic species in decline or at risk. Across America, a network of 70 national fish hatcheries and over 60 research facilities partner with states and tribes to conserve, restore and enhance fishes and aquatic resources for future generations. More than 1 million people visit national fish hatcheries every year to fish, hunt, hike, bird watch and enjoy the outdoors.

Gopher tortoise head start program? Yeah, hatcheries do that too. From mussels and minnows to wild rice, toads and Florida grasshopper sparrows — hatcheries support more than fish.

6. Works closely in partnership with federally recognized Native American and Alaska Native Tribal governments

Bird soars through the air over trees with a rainbow in the background.
America's public lands have meaningful connections to Native American history, heritage, traditions, and cultures, including Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington State. Photo by Michael Schramm/USFWS.

We work closely with 574 federally recognized Native American and Alaska Native Tribes through policy, partnership, conservation, science, traditional ecological knowledge and government-to-government consultation. Since 2002, we’ve awarded more than $99 million in competitive Tribal Wildlife Grants to support over 550 conservation projects throughout Indian Country.

We also manage the National Eagle Repository, which provides bald and golden eagle feathers and parts to federally recognized Native American and Alaska Native Tribes for cultural traditions and spiritual ceremonies. The one-of-a-kind facility is located at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver, Colorado.

We additionally work with more than 45 Native American and Alaska Native Tribes to stock over 5 million fish into tribal waters every year.  

7. … and works closely in partnership with states and private landowners


A mule deer buck at sunset. Photo by Shelley C. Koerner/USFWS.

We provide millions of dollars in grants every year to states, the District of Columbia, and Native American and Alaska Native Tribes. These grants support hunting, fishing, boating, and habitat conservation.

We also work directly with private landowners to serve as habitat consultants. About 70% of land in the United States is privately owned, so landowners who enroll in voluntary conservation projects with us are essential for accomplishing large-scale and long-term conservation. These projects benefit wildlife like pollinators and migratory birds, while keeping working lands working. The projects take place on forests, farms and ranches to support important habitats such as wetlands and grasslands. 

8. Oversees Four Highways in the Sky: Flyways

Large gray birds flying in the sky and walking on dry grass with snowcapped mountains and a blue sky in the background.
Greater sandhill cranes fill the land and air at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. Photo by Kate Miyamoto/USFWS.

North America’s migratory birds use four major migratory routes: the Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyways. Each is a highway in the sky for birds every spring and fall.

Each flyway has distinct habitats and conservation challenges, so we work with partners through four flyway councils — a partnership that goes back to the 1940s. Many of our feathered friends spend their winters outside North America, so we also work with partners in over 35 countries to help migratory birds throughout their life cycles.

Scores of national wildlife refuges are found along the four flyways too, providing important nesting, resting, breeding and feeding habitat for hundreds of native bird species.

Did you know that you can support migratory birds by purchasing a federal Duck Stamp? Ninety eight percent of the purchase price goes directly to help acquire and protect wetland habitat and purchase conservation easements for the National Wildlife Refuge System.

9. Combats wildlife trafficking at home and abroad


pangolin, one of the world’s most heavily trafficked mammals. Photo by Frank Kohn/USFWS.

We work domestically and internationally to end wildlife trafficking: the poaching or other taking of protected or managed plants and wildlife, and the illegal trade in wildlife and their related parts and products. Wildlife trafficking is an international crisis. It threatens well-known and beloved wildlife like elephants, rhinos, sea turtles, and scarlet macaws — and plants like cacti and ginseng. Wildlife trafficking also negatively impacts lesser known species such as pangolins, totoaba and cycads.

We provide grants to organizations around the globe leading on-the-ground conservation projects. Through our work with CITES and other groups, we create partnerships with government agencies, businesses, and nonprofits too.

Our law enforcement officers protect wildlife and plant resources through effective enforcement of federal laws. Wildlife inspectors at major United States ports of entry ensure wildlife trade is legal and sustainable, and they interdict illegal wildlife and wildlife products.

Our special agents conduct investigations and activities to disrupt and dismantle transnational organized criminals who attempt to profit from wildlife trafficking. Special agent attachés stationed around the world combat wildlife trafficking, support host governments in transnational wildlife investigations and help with regional capacity building.

We also manage the world’s only full-service wildlife crime lab in Ashland, Oregon.

10. Protects more land management units from fire than any other federal agency

A firefighter wearing protective equipment, including a yellow jacket and brownish hard hat with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service logo, while smiling at the camera as fire burns brown, dry vegetation in the background.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service firefighter lights a prescribed burn. Photo by Justin Hughes/USFWS.

We’re responsible for protecting more land management units than any other federal agency. Across the nation, the agency’s responsible for applying fire to 75 million acres of land, including 24 million acres of forest and brushland, and 4 million acres of grasslands.

More than 80% of national wildlife refuge lands rely on fire to support healthy wildlife habitat — these lands evolved with regularly occurring fire. (Yup, fire can be a good thing for wildlife.)

We work with federal, state, and local partners — and tribes — to protect human health and safety, as well as America’s wild places. The agency proactively manages fire-prone areas where wildfires have potential to impact local communities, sensitive ecosystems, and wildlife populations.

After a wildfire, we work to stabilize, restore, and enhance burned areas and protect waters, roads, and communities from erosion and sedimentation.

With fewer than 9,000 employees nationwide, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a small but mighty agency. We’re powered by passionate public servants dedicated to science, environmental stewardship and collaboration.

As wildlife and public lands face new and emerging threats in the 21st century, we’re up to the challenge. Are you? Visit www.fws.gov to learn more and get involved.