October 16, 2019

The second week of October marks National Wildlife Refuge Week, an event that draws attention to our only system of public lands and waters devoted to wildlife conservation and the many benefits it provides to both natural and human communities. The system includes 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts spread across all 50 states. Chances are there is a refuge located near you

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Patuxent NWR lake
Image Credit
Albert Cramer
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Patuxent NWR lilypads
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Albert Cramer
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Patuxent NWR lake view
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Albert Cramer

As our country has urbanized, refuges have become increasingly important for wildlife and recreational opportunities for Americans. I recently visited Patuxent Research Refuge where I spoke with refuge staff about the importance of the refuge to wildlife conservation and people. The refuge hosts over 200 bird, 38 mammal, 55 amphibian and reptile, and 55 fish species, and 25 orders of insects. Located between the metropolises of Washington and Baltimore, the refuge and refuge staff serve as a bridge that connects urban audiences to outdoor recreation, including wildlife observation and environmental education. Patuxent is also the home of the National Wildlife Visitor Center, an introduction to the entire National Wildlife Refuge System. 

Phil Lu, Landscape Conservation Coordinator

Get out and enjoy a refuge - maybe check out one of these favorites recommended by Defenders staff.

Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge

I live in Montana, which is home to several amazing national wildlife refuges, including Charles M. Russell, Lee Metcalf and Red Rock Lakes. But my favorite national wildlife refuge is nearly 2,000 miles away in Louisiana’s Mississippi River Delta. The Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge contains 80,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, a precious remnant of what was once an expansive 25 million acre ecosystem, much of it now lost to development and agriculture. It was also the site of the last known sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker, considered to be extinct, another victim of habitat loss, although intrepid hopeful people keep looking for them in the remnant hardwood forests of Louisiana. I had the chance to visit Tensas River and I honestly believed I was going to see an ivory-billed woodpecker, and for me that is the point: national wildlife refuges give us hope for a brighter conservation future.

Pete Nelson, Director of Federal Lands

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Green jays Santa Ana NWR
Image Credit
Danielle Brigida/USFWS
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Screech owl Santa Ana NWR
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Danielle Brigida/USFWS
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Santa Ana NWR house
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Danielle Brigida/USFWS

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas provides an incomparable experience for birdwatchers and nature lovers. Established in 1943 to protect migratory birds, this refuge along the Rio Grande provides habitat for 400 bird species. A visit in May can reap a wide range of species such as black-bellied whistling-duck, plain (but not in call!) chachalaca, buff-bellied hummingbird, black-necked stilt, gray hawk, ringed kingfisher, northern beardless-tyrannulet, green jay, clay-colored thrush, altamira oriole, tropical parula, and the exquisite painted bunting. And if you can’t wait until spring, come join the fun at the 26th Annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, featuring trips to Santa Ana, November 6-10, 2019.  

Carol Beidleman, Southwest Program Coordinator

Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge

Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge is situated in Colorado’s remote northwest corner sandwiched between Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area to the north and the Gates of Lodore in Dinosaur National Park to the south. Straddling the Green River Valley, the refuge conserves riparian, aquatic, wetland, grassland and sagebrush habitats for a variety of species, including migratory birds, greater sage-grouse, and numerous waterfowl. Perhaps the best way to experience Browns Park and view wildlife is to float the Green River. Moose can be spotted in the riparian vegetation while the bugle of elk can be heard echoing across the valley. Complementing the refuge’s rich natural history is its cultural resources. Cultural artifacts and sites dating as early as 300 AD can be found on refuge lands, along with artifacts from more recent Native American use. In addition, the refuge for a brief period sheltered Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch as they evaded the law and rustled cattle.

Vera Smith, Senior Federal Lands Analyst

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Canoes landing near the start of the Estuary Boardwalk Trail Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR
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Michael Schramm/USFWS
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Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR
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Orin Blomberg
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Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Ceremony
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USFWS

Billy Frank, Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

My favorite refuge is the Bill Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. This estuary is located between Tacoma and Olympia. Not only is it a great space to get away from the urban centers along Interstate 5, but the refuge also has an incredible story. Collaboration between refuge staff, neighboring farmers, and the Nisqually Tribe resulted in a massive estuary restoration project in the Nisqually River Delta. By removing dikes and restoring floodplain habitat, partners were able to restore salmon to the refuge. President Obama also renamed the refuge to include Billy Frank, Jr., who was a fierce advocate for tribal treaty rights and salmon recovery in the region. Mr. Frank, who is a member of the Nisqually Tribe, was beaten and arrested by Washington state troopers when he and other tribal fishermen were exercising their treaty rights to fish in their usual and accustomed areas. His passion, tenacity, and activism inspired countless others to stand up for tribal treaty rights and salmon habitat restoration.  

Robb Krehbiel, Representative, Northwest Program

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Sandhill Cranes in the field just South of Willow Deck Bosque del Apache NWR
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Jessie Jobs/USFWS
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Snow geese fly over Bosque del Apache NWR
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Jessie Jobs/USFWS
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Bosque del Apache NWR overview from Point of Lands
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Jessie Jobs/USFWS

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

I don’t mind the 4:00am wake up call to catch the Sandhill cranes—thousands of them—congregating in the shallow ponds at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of New Mexico between the Chupadera and San Pascual mountains. As the sun rises and winter’s frozen waters thaw, the cranes fly off to the refuge’s open fields. Sometimes they take flight all at once, creating a spectacle of sight and sound with large wings flapping into formation and primeval bugling cries that fill the sky. Mid-November through January is “peak crane,” when the birds stopover to feed on the way north to their breeding grounds. Winter also brings masses of snow geese and a diversity of ducks, all keeping an eye out for coyotes, bobcats, and foxes, waiting from the surrounding woodlands. Bosque del Apache is a refuge for all seasons with birds migrating north and south, using the wetlands and waters of the Rio Grande. There are snipes and sandpipers, raptors and redwing blackbirds, an array of colorful hummingbirds, and so many others attracted to this gorgeous wildlife hotspot.             

Lauren McCain, Senior Federal Lands Policy Analyst

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Ibis along canal run Okefenokee
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Steve Brooks
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Alligator Okefenokee NWR
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Steve Brooks
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Canal Run Okefenokee NWR
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Stacy Shelton/USFWS

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is the largest refuge east of the Mississippi and my personal favorite. Paddling its black waters, beneath a canopy of cypress trees and in the presence of thousands of wading birds, alligators and other critters is a truly special experience. With most of the swamp protected as congressionally designated wilderness, there are few places on the east coast that offer the same potential for adventure and wildlife viewing as the “Land of the Trembling Earth.” The refuge has been tapped as one of the World’s 100 Most Beautiful Places and I would agree!

Christian Hunt, Associate, Southeast Program

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Desert NWR Alamo Rd
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Kurt Kuznicki
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Desert bighorn sheep
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Sharon Scafer
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Desert NWR Alamo Deadhorse
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J. Witt

Desert National Wildlife Refuge

Golden eagles soaring overhead, desert bighorn sheep bounding amongst rocky crags, Joshua trees reaching their twisted arms towards the sun – these are just a sampling of the natural treasures protected by Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. Even with its scant rainfall and temperature extremes, Desert Refuge supports an astounding diversity of wildlife. Encompassing six major mountain ranges and nearly 1.6 million acres, it is a haven for dozens of mammals and reptiles, as well as more than 320 bird species that find their ecological niche in habitats ranging from arid Mojave Desert and Great Basin ecosystems to snowcapped peaks topping 10,000 feet high. First established in 1936 to protect bighorn sheep that were plummeting toward extinction, today the refuge safeguards a herd of about 750 of these animals. Wrapped in wild beauty and solitude, Desert Refuge is one of my favorite national wildlife refuges. 

Jenny Keatinge, Senior Federal Lands Policy Analyst

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Polar bear walking in Arctic Refuge
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Cheryl Strahl
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Caribou migration Arctic refuge
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Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Wolves howling from ridgetops as wolf pups play clumsily around a den; caribou swimming in front of our raft; long-tailed jaegers patrolling the sky, then angling and dive-bombing nests with chicks on the delicate tundra underfoot; a polar bear splashing and swimming with her cub; and bulbous, white cotton grass gently bending in the breeze, silhouetted against the pallid light from the midnight sun . . . . these are all memories etched in my brain from trips to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. At over 19 million acres, it is the largest national wildlife refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System and one of the wildest places remaining on earth. There are no roads or designated trails – just an open, vast landscape, marked with wildlife and rivers and mountains that give way to flatlands reaching the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The refuge encompasses five distinct ecological regions that support 42 fish species, 37 land mammals, eight marine mammals, and more than 200 migratory and resident bird species.  The Arctic Refuge is a national treasure that provides critical habitat, including the most important onshore denning habitat for the most threatened polar bear population – the Southern Beaufort Sea population - and other iconic species, and should remain protected for future generations.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska Program Director

Panther with kittens
fStop Foundation

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

My favorite national wildlife refuge is Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1989 to protect its namesake animal and its habitat. Encompassing about 26,400 acres, the refuge is located at the core of occupied panther territory and also protects habitat for numerous other wildlife species, including black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, Big Cypress fox squirrels, Florida bonneted bats, alligators and wood storks. I enjoy being on the refuge, being in panther habitat, observing wildlife in its natural community, seeing tracks and sign of panthers and other wildlife, knowing bears and panthers are close by in their natural habitat, and just appreciating a piece of nature that has been spared from development in the Sunshine State.

Elizabeth Fleming, Senior Florida Representative

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