Celebrating 115 Years of the National Wildlife Refuge System


In the late 1800s, the whims of fashion dictated that women’s hats would be decorated by bird feathers. To meet this need, poachers hunted many species of birds to the brink of extinction. Concerned citizens, scientists and conservation groups found a champion in President Theodore Roosevelt.

Their concern about the rookery at Pelican Island on the Atlantic Coast of Florida inspired Roosevelt to use his presidential powers to protect pelicans, egrets, ibises and other birds. With the establishment of the first national wildlife refuge on Pelican Island on March 14, 1903, Roosevelt created the National Wildlife Refuge System. While in office, he would go on to create 50 more federal bird reserves and four national game preserves within the refuge system.

Building on that foundation, the National Wildlife Refuge System today spans 95 million acres, including 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetlands management districts.

While wildlife refuges are set aside for the protection of wildlife and their habitat, they also provide a variety of great outdoor experiences -- from wildlife observation, photography and hunting to fishing, environmental education and interpretation. More than 53 million people visit refuges every year, creating economic booms for local communities. These visitors generated nearly $2.4 billion in consumer spending and supported over 35,000 local jobs. 

Find a wildlife refuge near you to witness the curious behavior of mammals, hear the sweet melodies of birds, cast a line into a rippling river and more


A bird with glossy feathers stands on a marsh with green plants.
A glossy ibis at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Photo by Keenan Adams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Pelican Island is a small piece of land in the Indian River Lagoon in Florida. It may look tiny, but it has a very large international footprint. The 5,400+ acres of land and water (mostly water) at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge represent the world's first wildlife refuge. Its designation as a wildlife refuge came about through the valiant efforts of many individuals, from a modest boat builder living on an ancient shell mound overlooking the island in the late 1800s, to a conservation minded President, to bird lovers, sportsmen and environmentally conscious citizens.


Sun shines through the branches of a large tree, a small deer stands in the middle of the field
Photo by Erik Fremstad (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Running along the Minnesota River, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge is a natural escape from the nearby Twin Cities. The refuge provides valuable habitat for a diversity of waterfowl and other migratory birds, fish and resident wildlife. Sometimes it’s so beautiful, even the deer have to stop and admire the scenery.


Open field with many trees and a snowy mountain peak in the background, the sun casts a light over the trees
Photo by Henry Kammetler (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Nestled near the foot of Mount Adams in Washington's Cascades Range, Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a scenic gem. Conboy Lake's lush seasonal marshes and vibrant forests beckon to both visitors and wildlife. Located within an easy drive of Portland, Oregon, the refuge is a great escape for those seeking diverse scenery, idyllic recreational opportunities and a link to the history of the Pacific Northwest.


White bird perched on the back of a small brown haired pony in the middle of a grassy field
Photo of a bird getting a pony ride by Cristina Scalise (www.sharetheexperience.org). 

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia is one of the most visited refuges in the United States, providing visitors with opportunities to enjoy wildlands and wildlife. The refuge includes more than 14,000 acres of beaches, dunes, marsh and maritime forest. Established in 1943 for migratory birds, the refuge today provides habitat for amazing plants and wildlife -- including the famous Chincoteague ponies.


Sky over field is illuminated in blues, reds, pinks, and oranges as storm approaches and a sing lighting bolt rips through the middle of the sky
Photo by Tom Koerner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rich in wildlife and history, visiting Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge can be a thrilling experience. The 27,230-acre refuge protects a mosaic of wetlands and upland shrub habitats along 36 miles of the Green River in southwest Wyoming. Many big game and small mammals can be found on the refuge, as well as resident and migratory birds. The refuge is also well known for its fishing opportunities along the Green River.


Hundreds of birds flying over a field with a sunset in the background
Photo by Ginny P. Gillam (www.sharetheexperience.org). 

The forested wetlands of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina provide excellent habitat for migratory birds. Large numbers of waterfowl concentrate on this relatively small area in the winter, peaking at well over 100,000 birds in December and January, including snow and Ross’s geese. It also supports several clusters of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. Here, a large flock of tundra swans flies over the refuge at sunset.


A brown bear lays on its back on a grassy hill.
Photo by Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Kodiak is known as the “Island of the Great Bear.” Genetically distinct, Kodiak brown bears live on the wild, rugged Kodiak Archipelago in the Gulf of Alaska, 252 miles southwest of Anchorage. Inspired by concerned sportsmen and conservationists, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in 1941 to protect Kodiak bears and their habitat. With misty fjords, deep glacial valleys and lofty mountains, the refuge attracts thousands of visitors a year to explore its spectacular Alaska scenery.


A sunset illuminates the sky in orange and red shades over a body of water
Photo by Kris Orr (www.sharetheexperience.org). 

Icy water reflects the sunset at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. More than 80 percent of the refuge’s 47,000 acres are wetlands. The quiet tidal waters serve as nurseries, spawning and feeding grounds for fish and shellfish, which are important in the diets of many wildlife species -- particularly the migratory birds that live and visit here. 


A seal lies on sand and rock, water and a rainbow in the background
Photo of a Hawaiian monk seal napping on the beach by Mark Sullivan, @NOAA/HMSRP, NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer.

Encompassing the most remote island archipelago on Earth, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument supports a reef ecosystem with more than 7,000 marine species and is home to many species of coral, fish, birds and marine mammals. This includes the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the endangered leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles.


Snowy bison stands in field covered in snow
Photo by John Carr, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Don’t you just love bison? Today, they roam freely in Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, ignoring the Denver skyscrapers in the distance and the land’s former military use. Joined by deer, coyotes, bald eagles and owls, the refuge’s inhabitants can easily be viewed along hiking trails or on the wildlife drive auto tour. It’s a true conservation success story.


Man fishes off small boat in the middle of large body of water, the  sun sets in the background illuminating the sky in orange
Photo by Jay Fleming (www.sharetheexperience.org). 

Pine Island National Wildlife Refuge is located on the southwest coast of Florida, north of Sanibel Island in the Pine Island Sound. The 500-acre refuge has been expanded to over 17 islands and consists of densely forested mangroves. Several of the islands are important nesting and roosting areas for colonial birds, particularly the brown pelican. Raccoons are the primary mammal found on the islands, and dolphins and manatees can be seen in the surrounding waters.


Five elk graze in a grassy field
Photo by Lee Eastman, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

When you visit your local wildlife refuge, we hope you have as much fun as these elk at Tule Elk National Wildlife Refuge. Once estimated to have a population of fewer than 30, these unique Tule elk now number more than 4,000. See them -- and other terrific wildlife -- just two hours outside of San Francisco, California. 


Large fish is front and center of the photograph as a reef and other smaller fish rests in the background
Photo by Kristie Killam, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

We can’t help but smile after seeing this big grin from a parrot fish at Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Made up of four refuges situated in the Florida Keys, the complex protects the critical habitats on the land and in the water for wildlife like the American crocodile, the endangered Key deer, the great white heron and others. 


Action shot of a bird on the water catching a fish in its mouth.
Photo by Wayne Watson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Observing wildlife can be a startling experience. What is everyday life for an animal can be a shocking moment for a person. Visitors to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah might be amazed to watch American white pelicans devour meals that seem too big to swallow.

Find a wildlife refuge near you, and learn tips about safely observing wildlife at https://www.fws.gov/refuges/