Here at Defenders, we love our wildlife and public lands, and especially the National Wildlife Refuge System, the only federal lands system dedicated specifically to protecting wildlife and its habitat. Our staff work all over the country, and have the opportunity to advocate for some of our amazing refuges and the vital role they play in our conservation work. Here are a few of our favorites:
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 to restore the Great Basin’s declining populations of pronghorn antelope, the fastest land animal in North America. Today, Hart Mountain in Oregon and neighboring Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada anchor the western edge of the Sagebrush Sea, a vast but imperiled landscape that covers parts of 11 western states. The refuges are expansive and livestock-free, making them vital strongholds for pronghorn, sage-grouse, American pika, California bighorn sheep, and more than 300 other species that depend on sagebrush grasslands.
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge
Encompassing 1.1 million acres, the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (often called the “CMR”) is the second largest refuge in the lower 48 states, containing Missouri River bottomlands, treed uplands and midgrass prairies. As America’s largest grassland refuge, the CMR plays a key role in anchoring conservation for the Northern Great Plains and its wildlife. It is home to one of Montana’s three populations of black-footed ferrets, as well as 235 species of birds (including sage-grouse), pronghorn, elk, bighorn sheep, cougar, and several federally protected species of fish. Along with partners, Defenders is advocating to reintroduce wild bison to the CMR as the best place to reintroduce them in Montana outside of Yellowstone National Park.
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
Crystal River was established in 1983 specifically to protect the endangered Florida manatee, a key species in Defenders’ work in Florida. This refuge preserves the last undeveloped spring habitat in Kings Bay, which provides critical warm-water habitat for the nearly 600 manatees that migrate there each winter to seek refuge from the cold. Manatees are also protected in Kings Bay by seven federal manatee sanctuaries, and the establishment in 2012 of the Kings Bay Manatee Refuge protection area. Together, Crystal River and Kings Bay make up the largest winter refuge for manatees in the world.
Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge
Even among refuges, this one is unique. It was established not to protect a specific species, but the water quality of the Suwannee River. The refuge’s 53,000 acres flank the river’s final twenty miles and protect 30 miles of coastline on the Gulf of Mexico. The flow of the Suwannee feeds the estuarine waters of the Gulf, and provides habitat for Gulf sturgeon and feeding grounds for resident and migratory shorebirds, wading birds and waterfowl. More than 360 species are found in the refuge, including the swallow-tailed kite, gopher tortoise, Florida black bear, Brazilian free tail bat and Rafinesque’s big-eared bat.
Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge
This sprawling refuge protects more than 36,000 acres of the Connecticut River watershed, spanning parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont. More than 200 species of birds reside or migrate through the watershed annually. It is home to seven animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, including the dwarf wedgemussel, shortnose sturgeon, American eel, and Canada lynx. This refuge is a vital network of protected habitat for fish and wildlife in the Northeast, where large, wild spaces are fewer and smaller than out West.
Willapa National Wildlife Refuge
Though home to many kinds of wildlife, Willapa National Wildlife Refuge on the Willapa Bay in Washington was established for the birds. It provides habitat for more than 200 species, including northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet, both protected under the Endangered Species Act. The refuge includes many types of habitat, from open water to wetlands, grasslands and forest, making it a sanctuary for hundreds of species, including frogs, salamanders, bears, bats, harbor seals and more.
Kodiak Island National Wildlife Refuge
Established in 1941, this refuge’s unspoiled ecosystem spans 1.9 million acres of Kodiak Island and three adjacent islands. Much of it is inaccessible by roads, and it has over 800 miles of coastline. Its seven river drainages support six species of Pacific salmon and the predators that depend on them, including grizzly bears. The Kodiak grizzly, a larger subspecies of Alaskan brown bear, has a robust population of 2,300 within the refuge, and the Karluk Lake drainage has one of the highest concentrations of bears in the world. The refuge is also home to more than 247 species of birds. Many of these species are migratory, but during the winter months Kodiak is home to 12 of the 14 species of sea ducks in North America.
Kofa National Wildlife Refuge
Kofa is largely wilderness, with 80 percent of its 665,400 acres designated as the Kofa Wilderness in 1990. The refuge was established in 1939 after a successful campaign by the Boy Scouts to save its most famous resident, the desert bighorn sheep. Another resident, the venomous Gila monster is common in the refuge, along with more than 35 other reptile species. Resident mammals include mule deer, bats, mountain lions, and the ringtail cat, a nocturnal relative of the raccoon. The rare Sonoran pronghorn, a species that Defenders has worked for decades to restore, also occurs within the refuge.
Our National Wildlife Refuge System is critical for fish and wildlife conservation across the country. Refuges are often the last, best habitat for more than 380 species listed under the Endangered Species Act. In these places, they can find sanctuary from development, pollution and other threats that have eliminated much of their natural range. But another great thing about these wild places is that you can visit them, and appreciate the wildlife and landscapes that generations of Americans have worked to protect. This week, find a wildlife refuge near you and plan a visit to enjoy your conservation legacy up close.