How Our National Wildlife Refuges Changed America Forever

by Jon D. B.

“To conserve, protect, and enhance.” In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt would establish Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. A threshold for iconic coastal American species, this Florida refuge along the Atlantic coast was only the beginning.

From this single locale, the National Wildlife Refuge System would blossom. It’s the heart of American wildlife conservation. And it’s importance – and impact – cannot be understated.

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge was the first of 53 wildlife sanctuaries Roosevelt would sanction during his presidency. By 1908, the staunch conservationist would establish the National Bison Range within Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation. Home of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, this refuge marked the first instance of U.S. Congress using tax dollars to purchase land specifically for wildlife conservation.

The journey, however, began some decades earlier in the 1800s. As America expanded at record pace, both state and federal governments began to take notice of the crippling effect expansion had on North American wildlife. With the forward-thinking advancements of the 20th century, many heads and hearts went into making the NWRS a reality. And we’re far better for it.

To Conserve, Protect, and Enhance: The National Wildlife Refuge Service

At it’s core, the mission of the NWRS is “Working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”

Through the hard work of thousands of Americans and participation by the public, this has come to fruition. Today, the NWRS is “both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service,” their government website states.

But this isn’t just talk. It’s truth; backed up by decades of incredible conservation success stories.

By the mid 20th century, hallmark U.S. species like the American Alligator and grizzly bears were on the brink of extinction. Countless other species, such as the California condor – and even our national symbol, the bald eagle – were on their way out forever.

To put it plainly, we have the National Wildlife Refuge System and the folks within it to thank for their continued existence. And in 2021, the current administration would enhance conservation by leaps and bounds with the America the Beautiful initiative.

2021’s ‘America the Beautiful’ Initiative

Through the Biden-Harris administration, the Department of the Interior would announce in August of 2021 the largest expansion of outdoor recreation opportunities in recent history.

In doing so, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) expands hunting and sport fishing opportunities across a whopping 2.1 million acres. And it’s all for America the Beautiful.

The end-goal is to restore 30% of lands and waters in America to their natural state by 2030. It’s a bold move. But nothing worth doing has ever happened without such gusto.

(photo by John Edwards, Getty Images)

As U.S. Secretary Deb Haaland said in the NWRS’s August statement, “Responsible hunting and fishing helps to promote healthy wildlife habitats while boosting local recreation economies.”

Harmony between American hunters and conservation is paramount. In fact, this Outsider argues they are one and the same. Many of our great hunters, anglers, and outdoors-folk across the nation would, too.

“By expanding these opportunities, we are enhancing the lives of millions of Americans while stimulating the national economy to which hunting and fishing contribute significantly,” adds Service Principal Deputy Director Martha Williams.

In total, 2021 adds 910 opportunities for hunting and fishing for Americans. This comes on top of the existing network of 567 U.S. national wildlife refuges, which receive more than 61 million visitors every year. It is the most significant opening and expansion of both by the NWRS in history.

Here’s to many more to come.