National Wildlife Refuge is a designation for certain protected areas of the United States managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The National Wildlife Refuge System is the world's premiere system of public lands and waters set aside to conserve America's fish, wildlife and plants. Since President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida's Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge as the first wildlife refuge in 1903, the System has grown to more than 150 million acres (610,000 km2), 556 national wildlife refuges and other units of the Refuge System, plus 38 wetland management districts.
The mission of the Refuge System is to manage a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitat. The Refuge System maintains the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of these natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.
National Wildlife Refuges manage a full range of habitat types, including wetlands; prairies; coastal and marine areas; and temperate, tundra and boreal forests. The management of each habitat is a complex web of controlling or eradicating invasive species, using fire in a prescribed manner, assuring adequate water resources, and assessing external threats like development or contamination.
Among these hundreds of national refuges are home to some 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species and more than 200 species of fish. Endangered species are a priority of National Wildlife Refuges in that early sixty refuges have been established with the primary purpose of conserving 280 threatened or endangered species.
National Wildlife Refuges are also places for outdoor recreation. The Refuge System manages six wildlife-dependent recreational uses in accordance with the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, including hunting, fishing, birding, photography, environmental education, and interpretation. Hunters visit more than 350 hunting programs on refuges and on about 36,000 Waterfowl Production Areas. Opportunities for fresh or saltwater fishing are available at more than 340 refuges. There is at least one wildlife refuge in each of the fifty states.
The National Wildlife Refuge System faces a number of challenges and ongoing issues, including urban intrusion/development, habitat fragmentation, degradation of water quantity and quality, climate change, invasive species, increasing demands for recreation, and increasing demands for energy development. However, the system has had numerous successes, including providing a habitat for endangered species, migratory birds, plants and numerous other valuable animals; implementation of the NWRS Improvement Act, acquisition and protection of key critical inholdings, and establishing leadership in habitat restoration and management.
An important success for the refuge system has been the creation of Comprehensive Conservation Plans (CCPs)for each refuge, which must be completed by the end of 2012, with a subsequent review process to follow. CCPs must be consistent with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) goals for conservation and wildlife management.
The CCPs outline conservation goals for each refuge for fifteen years into the future, with the intent that they will be revised every fifteen years thereafter. The comprehensive conservation planning process requires several phases, including: a scoping phase, in which each refuge holds public meetings to identify the public’s main concerns; plan formulation, when refuge staff and FWS planners identify the key issues and refuge goals; writing the draft plan, in which wildlife and habitat alternatives are developed, and the plan is submitted for public review; revision of the draft plan, which takes into consideration the public’s input; and plan implementation.
A major requirement of each CCP is that it adheres to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Each plan must therefore propose several potential alternatives to habitat and wildlife management on the refuge and identify their possible impacts on the refuge. Additionally, NEPA requires FWS planners and refuge staff to engage the public in this planning process to assist them with identifying the most appropriate alternative.
Comprehensive Conservation Plans are important documents for guiding wildlife and habitat management on national wildlife refuges. The completed CCPs are available to the public and can be found on the FWS website.
Read more about National Wildlife Refuge: Special Management Areas
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