National Wildlife Refuges: Keeping the wild in them

Posted: Dec 9, 2019

I’ve never thought much about this country’s National Wildlife Refuges (NWR). With the exception of controversial ones like the “drill, baby, drill” Artic National Wildlife Refuge, they’re stealthy public lands that don’t get the airtime our national parks and monuments do.

It wasn’t until recently, when I learned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is planning for the future of the refuges, and asking the public for ideas on how they should proceed, that I started considering what their purposes are, and what part people should play in their future.

I was surprised to find out that the FWS oversees 553 wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts—more than 150 million acres in all (our national parks cover a comparatively paltry 84 million acres). At a time when we’re losing ground, literally, in a fight to keep spaces wild, our refuges are crucial. More than 20 million acres of NWRs are designated wilderness.

They also play a critical role in ecosystem conservation and as anchors for biodiversity. At a minimum NWRs support 700 bird species, 220 mammals, 250 amphibian and reptile species, over 1,000 fish species and innumerable plants and invertebrates. Among those is habitat for almost 300 of this nation’s 1,300 or so endangered or threatened or species. Fifty-nine of our existing refuges were established specifically to shelter endangered species. The bald eagle, American crocodile and whooping crane, among others, have reestablished their existence in these safe havens.

The refuges are based on the famous naturalist, Aldo Leopold’s idea that, “We seek to instill the land ethic in our communities.” He meant in part that, regardless of where we live, we care about the open spaces that exist within and beyond our backyards.

Given the fact that 80 percent of Americans now live in cities or suburbs, and are spending a waning amount of time outdoors, the importance of intact ecosystems offering critical habitat—in places we may never see—is a flickering concept. For people who are addicted to Facebook, and/or boxed-in by a developed landscape, embodying an ethos of preservation requires some education and imagination. And working to conserve and grow our NWRs will take considerable effort.

There are a number of well-defined suggestions in the FWS’s draft proposal, Conserving the Future: Wildlife Refuges and the Next Generation, including bolstering species resilience and adaptation to climate change, battling invasive species, increasing law enforcement to protect natural resources, and maintaining conservation tracts while acquiring additional land in the face of major population growth (by 2050, there’s projected to be 400 million Americans, existing in the same amount of space as today’s 311 million).

However integral sound strategies are to the future of NWRs they rely on people supporting the overarching purpose of wildlife refuges—to preserve species other than humans. How to get people invested in wild lands is the most important but least well-conceived element of the FWS’s proposed management plan. “The Refuge System’s challenge is to make wildlife refuges relevant to citizens’ lives,” says their draft proposal. “Being relevant to America demands the delivery of lasting benefits to all of America’s citizens,” it says.

In other words, as a society, they're implying that our collective conservation mission relies on understanding what, as individuals, we get out of wildlife refuges. It’s no longer enough to know, as President Theodore Roosevelt did when he established Pelican Island as the first wildlife refuge in 1903 (and 52 others over the course of his presidency), that he’d played a part in protecting these unique places and creatures for future generations, without ever enjoying them himself. “People care about what they know and what they can experience,” says the FWS’s draft vision.

The FWS is torn between putting people or wildlife first. It describes refuges as places where “wildlife come first.” But its mission states that it works to protect refuges for the “continuing benefit of the American people.” Its draft vision furthers that mission. “This changing America deserves the utmost service and access to the appropriate nature-based benefits of its public lands,” it says.

But continuing to pretend that, within refuges, the needs of both animals and people deserve equal weight, will keep the FWS stuck in a quandary that may put species at risk. Over 44 million people visited national wildlife refuges in 2009, up from 34 million a decade earlier. Most of them took photos, fished, shot some stuff (permitted hunting is allowed in 300 refuges) or looked for birds through binoculars. For many refuges these are fine activities, supported by the Compatibility and Appropriate Refuge Use policies and regulations.

But, as it has in the past, the FWS will continue to struggle with other uses demanded by their users including jogging, cycling and dog walking. In limited numbers, these activities may have little impact on wildlife but, says the draft plan, “Refuge managers have become rightly cautious because they have seen what happens to wildlife resources when participation is too large and incompatible.” Yet, says the draft vision, “As the constituency of the Refuge System changes, the Service needs to interpret the Appropriate Refuge Use policy more flexibly.”

Should we adapt refuge use to our changing values as a population, essentially changing the ethic upon which refuges were preserved in the first place? Or do we challenge the disconnection many people have with the natural world and devise, as the draft vision says, “innovative and dynamic ways to increase society’s conservation literacy?” What should the refuge/human interface look like in the years to come?

Until Earth Day, April 22, the FWS is accepting ideas on the future of our wildlife refuges. What will I say? That I fully support the strongest protections for our wildlife refuges. That I’m comforted to know there is a NWR within an hour’s drive of every major city. (I learned that there are, in fact, three within 60 miles of my home.) I’ll tell them that my first instinct was to go check out the closest one, and that my second thought was that I’ll leave the wildlife alone.

Read the FWS's report, Conserving the Future: Wildlife Refuges and the Next Generation, here.

Comment on the draft plan here.

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