Beyond the Boundaries

Habitat Loss Around Our Refuges

National wildlife refuges in the lower 48 states tend to be relatively small in size compared to their critical habitat conservation mission.  In many cases, refuges were established to protect core habitat areas in an area surrounded by working lands or undeveloped areas.  But, times have changed, and today many refuges are increasingly affected by human encroachment– whether by development, oil and gas exploration, water diversion, pollution, or intensive recreational use.  Rather than being confined by refuge boundaries NWRA has long contended that the Refuge System is uniquely positioned to become a catalyst for landscape conservation initiatives on a larger scale. In 2005, NWRA launched the Beyond the Boundaries program to expand support for conserving landscapes surrounding national wildlife refuges.

Mission: The National Wildlife Refuge Association’s Beyond the Boundaries Program helps refuges work in strategic collaboration with surrounding communities to advance landscape-level conservation efforts.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah | Elizabeth Norris

Why look “Beyond the Boundaries?”

By design, National Wildlife Refuges tend to be located where biodiversity is highest; along waterways and river corridors, coastal marshes, grasslands and unique desert ecosystems. Many refuges were originally designated to protect critical biological “hotspots” or migratory stopovers, which were buffered by private lands, often agricultural or other rural working landscapes.In order for the National Wildlife Refuge System to achieve its wildlife conservation mission, it must look beyond refuge boundaries to surrounding ecosystems and communities.

NWRA’s Beyond the Boundaries Program

To protect landscapes beyond the boundaries of refuges, partnerships are essential. Land owners, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other stakeholders need to come together to make decisions that benefit the land and the people living near by. Working closely with its partners, NWRA’s Beyond the Boundaries program conserves landscapes and wildlife by:

  • Conservation Science: Identifying science-driven conservation objectives at the landscape scale.
  • Implementation Strategies: Creating specific strategies to protect and restore wildlife populations and the habitat they depend on; including land or easement acquisitions, fostering cooperative management among public and private landowners, bringing together tools and resources for restoration projects, or supporting planning efforts to create new conservation designations.
  • Partnerships: Forging creative, inclusive partnerships that involve multiple federal agencies, state counterparts, local businesses, nonprofit groups, and citizens including Refuge Friends groups, volunteers, and others.
  • Funding: Leveraging diverse sources of public and private funding to accomplish significant and measurable conservation benefit on the ground.
  • Knowledge Sharing: Sharing lessons learned throughout the Refuge System, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the broader conservation community.


  • Facilitated the acquisition and conservation of the 57-acre Three Sister Springs in Crystal River, Florida. This project conserves five important warm water springs critical to West Indian Manatee during the winter months.  An endangered species, the manatee is also a very important international tourist draw to the Crystal River region.  Once permitted for development, this property and its water resources regularly attract more than 500 manatees, especially cows with calves.

  • Developed the first in the nation Strategic Habitat Conservation Plan for the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.  Blackwater is one of the most important estuaries on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, as well as a beloved recreational destination within two hours of the Nation’s Capitol.  Blackwater offers an important microcosm that reflects many of the issues and challenges that communities and public agencies are rising to meet as part of President Obama’s Chesapeake Bay Executive Order.

  • At Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Southern Nevada, NWRA helped FWS win more than $50 million in grants to support visitor education centers, an inter-agency marketing concept known as “Wild Vegas” to build awareness for the 7.2 million acres of public land that surrounds Las Vegas — from the Grand Canyon to Death Valley — , secure funds for research on bighorn sheep migratory corridors, and help Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge acquire critical springs and wetlands to benefit Ash Meadows and Amargosa pupfish, two unique and endangered fish

Collaborative Conservation as the New Strategy

William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon
Great Blue Heron with fish in William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon | NWRA

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a long history of working through effective partnerships.  The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program is specifically designed to bring federal resources to private landowners.  The Service plays a central role in the  evolution of Landscape Conservation Collaboratives.  In a world increasingly without borders, environmental challenges such as climate change, and a difficult economic climate, cooperation and leverage is essential to success.


In its Conserving the Future Vision for the 21st Century, the Refuge System has places an extra emphasis on collaboration and partnerships.  Rather than looking at small areas of core habitat, the Refuge System is increasingly moving to conservation landscapes – where the Service might own land, but also hold conservation easements, work in tandem with other federal agencies such and the Natural Resources Conservation Service or the Department of Defense – as well as with state fish and game departments, state parks, and state water agencies, local municipalities, and conservation NGOs.

Successful partnerships take work and they take time. National wildlife refuges can play a central role as biodiversity anchors in this evolving system of public and private conservation lands. As a nation, we have already made an investment in our wildlife and habitat – now it is time to leverage the investment in order to generate even greater returns for both wildlife and people. That is where NWRA comes in.

NWRA’s role in the New Strategy

The NWRA is an independent nonprofit that is dedicated to furthering the goals and objectives of the National Wildlife Refuge System, yet NWRA also retains the flexibility of an NGO. NWRA often forms a bridge between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a range of NGO and private sector partners. Finally, because refuges attract such a diverse group of supporters, from conservationists and ecologists, to hunters and anglers to birders and hikers, and many more, NWRA represents a broad spectrum of interests and is well-positioned as a facilitator for the benefit of refuges.

NWRA’s Beyond the Boundaries Focus Areas

Beyond the Boundaries Focus Areas

Bear River Watershed Connecticut River Watershed Everglades Headwaters Lower Mississippi Sheldon - Hart Sheldon - Hart Bear River Watershed Connecticut River Watershed Everglades Headwaters Lower Mississippi

Together we will protect the land and wildlife beyond the boundaries of our refuges.

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