Some National Wildlife Refuges are designated wilderness areas. Most are not. Many are on land that was once used for something else, farms that were marginally productive, farms that failed, former military bases. Some are on land that wasn’t considered good for anything else. All are now places of wildness if not wilderness. All are places that are preserved or managed for wildlife.
By executive order in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt made a three acre island in the Indian River in Florida, Pelican Island, the first National Wildlife Refuge. It was the nesting place of brown pelicans, herons and egrets. But eleven years before, in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison had proclaimed Afognak Island off the coast of Alaska a sanctuary for “salmon and other fish and sea animals, and other animals and birds.” Afognak Island is now one of many islands in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Many National Refuges, like Pelican Island, were established for birds. They’re nesting areas, wintering grounds and places birds can stop, rest and feed along migratory routes. But not all National Refuges were set up for birds. The Wichita Mountains National Refuge in Oklahoma was established to protect bison, Cabeza Prieta in Arizona to protect desert bighorn sheep, and San Bernadino, also in Arizona, for three species of little fish that are rare. There is the National Bison Range in Montana, the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming, the national Key Deer Refuge in Florida, and the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Oregon.
Every national Wildlife Refuge, regardless of why it was established however, is a place of birds. I visit national Wildlife Refuges to see birds. But I enjoy seeing other wildlife, too. I have seen white-tailed deer in many refuges, mule deer in several, Key deer in the Key Deer Refuge, Elk, moose. I saw bison in the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge in Texas, pronghorn antelope in the Upper Souris Refuge in North Dakota. I heard wolves howl while I was out listening for night calling birds in the Rice Lake National Refuge in Minnesota.
National Wildlife Refuges vary in size from the Arctic Refuge and Yukon Delta Refuge, both in Alaska, both over 19 million acres to Mille Lacs Refuge in Minnesota. Mille Lacs is two rocky little islands, Hennepin and Spirit, in Lake Mille Lacs. The total area of those two islands is six tenths of one acre.
There are 58 National parks in the United States and 155 National Forests. Add National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Battlefields, and National Cemeteries, which are also managed by the National Park Service, and the total for Parks and Forests is still less than the total number of National Wildlife Refuges.
There’s a National Wildlife Refuge in every state. North Dakota has 64, California 38, Florida 29. A few refuges are closed but most are open to visitors, at least during the day. Many have auto tour routes and hiking trails, observation points and platforms and towers. A few have primitive camping areas.
At every National Wildlife Refuge I have visited I have enjoyed the wildlife, the scenery, a sense of solitude, and a feeling that I have gotten away from development and commercialization. And I have enjoyed seeing the birds.