to the National Atlas Home page
About | Fact Sheets | Contact Us | Partners | Products | Site Map | FAQ | Help | Follow us on Twitter 
Part of Project LogoAgricultureBiologyBoundariesClimateEnvironmentGeologyGovernmentHistoryMappingPeopleTransportationWater
to the Interactive Map MakerMap LayersPrintable MapsWall MapsDynamic MapsArticlesMapping Professionals

Map Maker
Federal Lands
Wilderness Preservation System Areas
Map Layer
Federal Lands
Wilderness Preservation System Areas
Printable Maps
Reference and Outline Maps of the United States
Wall Maps
Federal and Indian Lands
National Wildlife Refuge System

Map Maker
Breeding Bird Survey Routes
Map Layer
Breeding Bird Survey Route Locations


  National Wildlife Refuge System—A Visitor's Guide

downAbout the National Wildlife Refuge System
downWhy Wildlife Refuges?
downAmerica's Best Kept Secret
downFrom the Smallest Beginning
downCaring for Wildlife and Their Surroundings
downTips When Visiting a National Wildlife Refuge
downRelated Links

  About the National Wildlife Refuge System

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle.
Photo by Steve Maslowski, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) administers the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) which consists of over 530 wildlife refuges, 38 wetland management districts (administering over 26,000 waterfowl production areas), and 50 coordination areas.

Most of these lands are designated National Wildlife Refuges, while only about 4 percent have other classifications. There are 16 refuges in Alaska which contain almost 83 percent of all lands in the NWRS.

The NWRS was created mostly with land withdrawn from the Public Domain. About 5 percent of the NWRS comes from purchases by Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriations and Migratory Bird Conservation Fund receipts.

There are a number of different types of lands within the National Wildlife Refuge System, which are loosely defined as:

  • National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) are tracts of land or water protected for the preservation of wildlife, except for Coordination Areas and Waterfowl Production Areas. NWR's are sometimes named National Fish & Wildlife Refuges (NFWR).
  • Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA) are wetlands or grasslands critical to waterfowl and other wildlife, acquired pursuant to the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act or other statutory authority. Waterfowl production areas are administered by 38 Wetland Management Districts (WMD).
  • National Game Preserves (NGP) are NWR's designated by Presidential Proclamation or by Congress for the protection of wildlife, and were originally established to help save the American bison.
  • Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) are areas established to conserve and enhance wildlife and wildlife habitat, and to provide public recreation opportunities.
  • Coordination Areas are those lands administered as part of the NWRS and managed by the States under cooperative agreement between the FWS and a State Fish and Wildlife Agency.
  back to top
  Why Wildlife Refuges?

The National Wildlife Refuge System is the only network of federal lands dedicated specifically to wildlife conservation. There are more than 500 National Wildlife Refuges throughout the United States. There is at least one refuge within an hour's drive of most major cities. Home to more than 700 types of birds, 220 different mammals, 250 reptiles, and more than 200 kinds of fish, the amazing variety of wildlife found on refuges reflects America's bountiful natural heritage. Many wildlife refuges were created to protect and enhance the resting and feeding grounds of migratory birds, creating a chain of stepping stones along major migration routes. Others were established to conserve the natural homes of our rarest wild species, including bald eagles, bison, and whooping cranes.

Brown bear
Brown Bear in the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.
Photo by Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
In southern wildlife refuges, peaceful coastal backwaters and bayous provide important spawning areas for fish. Countless shallow ponds and marshes in the Upper Midwest, created thousands of years ago by receding glaciers, are now prairie "pothole" refuges, critical for waterfowl as well as wildflowers. In the Northeast, a variety of unique wetlands and forests provide havens for songbirds, waterfowl, whitetail deer, and a multitude of small game. The rich grasslands and mountain streams of western wildlife refuges offer magnificent scenery for viewing elk, cutthroat trout, and sandhill cranes. Alaska refuges' vast horizons are home to more than 12 million ducks, geese, and swans each summer, and host the most vibrant salmon runs, the world's largest brown bears, and magnificent herds of caribou.

A hundred years in the making, the National Wildlife Refuge System is a network of carefully chosen habitats that support abundant wildlife, protect a healthy environment, and provide unparalleled outdoor experiences for all Americans.

  back to top
  America's Best Kept Secret

A tour group exploring a creek bottom
Creek bottom tours.
Photo by Elise Smith, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
National wildlife refuges are far more than havens for wild plants and animals. In fact, visitors—nearly 40 million each year—are welcome on 98 percent of wildlife refuge land. Visitors join in a variety of outdoor activities, especially hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography, interpretation, and environmental education.

Wildlife refuges host recreational hunters at more than 300 locations and welcome anglers at more than 260—a testament to the abundant wildlife resulting from successful conservation and management programs. Birdwatchers from around the globe visit wildlife refuges to be awed by amazing congregations of our feathered friends, numbering in the tens of thousands at peak migration in many locations. And there's no better place than wildlife refuges for children and adults alike to learn about the natural world. More than 230 wildlife refuges attract visitors with innovative educational programs showing how we manage refuges to ensure that future generations can experience America's wildness. Still, the discovery opportunities don't end with wildlife. Wildlife refuges also protect important historic sites, from Native American campsites to World War II artifacts, preserving interesting facets of the American culture.

  back to top
  From the Smallest Beginning
  Warden Paul Kroegel
Warden Paul Kroegel (with brown pelican) was America's first Federal game warden and refuge manager. He never lost his abiding passion for the ungainly waterbirds on Pelican Island.
Photo by George Nelson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
President Theodore Roosevelt established the first wildlife refuge in 1903, Florida's 3-acre Pelican Island, to protect egrets, herons, and other birds from market hunters who killed these birds by the thousands to satisfy turn-of-the-century fashion demands. From this humble beginning, Americans have embraced the concept of providing unique places for wildlife to flourish, while also allowing for many forms of wildlife dependent recreation. Through cooperative efforts with a growing number of partners and committed citizens, the National Wildlife Refuge System has become a model of stewardship where all Americans and International visitors can enjoy our precious natural resources.
  back to top
  Caring for Wildlife and Their Surroundings

Sockeye salmon
Sockeye salmon.
Photo by Dave Menke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
For millennia, America's wildlife thrived in natural surroundings stretching across millions of acres. Areas that in recent times have been reduced to a fraction of their original size—but are still crucial to the survival of wild species—require active, consistent, research-based management. The National Wildlife Refuge System oversees the world's most comprehensive wildlife management programs, combining biological research and monitoring with strategic habitat management. In Alaska for example, brown bears are fitted with global positioning system collars to track their movement. The FWS builds secure floating nests on the California coast to attract and protect rare light-footed clapper rails during breeding and nesting season. Periodic burning, grazing, or harvesting of grasslands stimulates plant growth providing food and cover for elk, endangered Attwater prairie chickens, and waterfowl alike.

Sometimes the best management system is making sure nothing is done at all. Within the National Wildlife Refuge System, 21 million acres of wilderness—an area larger than the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New Jersey combined—allow species as diverse as Florida panthers and barren-ground caribou to survive in undisturbed surroundings.

  Unnamed Lake in Brooks Range, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
Camping on Unnamed Lake in Brooks Range, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.
Photo by David Cline, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  back to top
  Tips When Visiting a National Wildlife Refuge
  • American (pine) marten
    American (pine) marten.
    Photo by Erwin and Peggy Bauer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
    Watch wildlife from a distance. When you approach a wild animal, it may defend itself, or flee, but by keeping your distance you can see its natural behavior.
  • "Wake up with the birds." Arrive in the early morning (or late afternoon) when wildlife is most active.
  • Contact the wildlife refuge before you visit for up-to-date information on access, special activities, weather conditions, and more.
  • Bring binoculars to get the best view
  back to top
  Related LInks


  Adapted from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publication National Wildlife Refuge System—A Visitor's Guide, 2003, posted by the USFWS National Conservation Training Center's Online Conservation Library and the USFWS Division of Realty's National Wildlife Refuge System Lands Database.
  back to top