About the Refuge System and FWS

The National Wildlife Refuge System is the world’s premier system of public lands set aside for the protection of wildlife, fish and plants.


Bosque del Apache
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge | Gail Diane Yovanovich

Our national wildlife refuges are home to more than 700 types of birds, 220 varieties of mammals, 250 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, 1,000 species of fish and countless invertebrates and plants. They provide havens for some 280 endangered species, from the Florida panther to the polar bear.

National Wildlife Refuges: A tradition of protecting America’s wildlife heritage

The National Wildlife Refuge System has helped the snowy egret, once hunted for it’s plume, come back from the brink of extinction. | John Blumenkamp

The story of the Refuge System began in 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt created a “Federal Bird Reservation” at Pelican Island in Florida to save brown pelicans. The protection of this three-acre mangrove island was a pivotal moment for the American conservation movement, laying the groundwork for what would become our system of national wildlife refuges.

Today, there are more than 560 national wildlife refuges across the country, with at least one in every U.S. state and territory. Although some are in remote areas, others are within an hour’s drive of many major cities, enabling millions of Americans to visit and cherish their natural heritage up close.

Our national wildlife refuges:

  • Attract approximately 46.5 million visitors each year, offering activities such as wildlife-watching, hunting, fishing, photography, hiking, canoeing, kayaking and environmental education
  • Protect clean air and safe drinking water for nearby communities
  • Generate more than $2.4 billion for local economies and create nearly 35,000 U.S. jobs annually
  • For every $1 appropriated to the Refuge System, an average of $4.87 is returned to local economies.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: America’s Conservation Agency

The National Wildlife Refuge System is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Created in 1940, FWS is charged with conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Refuge Association is a leading FWS partner and supports the agency’s core objectives.

Read more about the objectives and vision of FWS: Read more...

USFWS employees organizing to cleanup after Buzzards Bay oil spill in Massachusetts
USFWS employees organizing to cleanup after Buzzards Bay oil spill in Massachusetts
  1. Assist in the development and application of an environmental stewardship ethic for our society, based on ecological principles, scientific knowledge of fish and wildlife, and a sense of moral responsibility.
  2. Guide the conservation, development, and management of the nation’s fish and wildlife resources.
  3. Administer a national program to provide the public opportunities to understand, appreciate, and wisely use fish and wildlife resources.

FWS’ vision for the future of the refuge system is set out in Conserving the Future, a document released in October 2011. Developed with the assistance of the Refuge Association and with substantial public input, Conserving the Future makes the case for concerted and cooperative action to advance wildlife conservation in the United States. From protecting large landscapes to working with Friends and volunteers to engaging a more diverse public, it’s a compelling vision for addressing the myriad challenges facing wildlife today.

The Refuge Association and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – A Natural Partnership

Visiting students learn about birding from USFWS employees at the William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge.
Visiting students learn about birding from USFWS employees at the William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge.

The Refuge Association’s mission to conserve national wildlife refuges and associated conservation programs ties into the broader FWS mission and objectives. The Refuge Association actively promotes FWS programs that are complementary to the Refuge System mission:

    • Land conservation and habitat restoration;
    • Endangered species;
    • Migratory birds;
    • Land management;
    • Public engagement and education;
    • Hemispheric conservation objectives;
    • Resources for law enforcement

The Refuge Association was established in 1975 by retired FWS refuge professionals. The organization continues to benefit today from a staff and board that includes former agency professionals who bring an intimate knowledge of FWS’ objectives and processes.

Learn more about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 

NWRS Map - 2009
Courtesy of FWS Division of Realty

Permanent link to this article: http://refugeassociation.org/about/about-the-refuge-system/