Habitat Conservation
forest, © Lindsay Kaun

Protecting National Wildlife Refuges

Our nation's wildlife refuges provide habitat for hundreds of species, including 380 of our endangered or threatened species, from the Florida panther to the leatherback sea turtle. Each year, tens of millions of people visit and enjoy national wildlife refuges in every U.S. state and territory, infusing nearly $1.74 billion into local economies and creating more than 32,500 U.S. jobs. Defenders of Wildlife is working to protect and strengthen the National Wildlife Refuge System, the only system of federal lands in the United States dedicated to wildlife conservation.

Defending Wildlife Refuges

Defending the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, AK
The Arctic Refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge, and protects iconic species such as polar bears, caribou, musk oxen and many migratory birds. It is one of the last undeveloped portions of the north slope of the Arctic Ocean coastline, over 90% of which is already open to oil exploration. Oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge would permanently scar this unique habitat and irreparably harm the wildlife that depend on it. 

Oil related activities such as seismic testing, aircraft and vehicle noise, or even the mere presence of humans nearby can drive mother polar bears away from their dens and cubs, and could alter the annual path of the Porcupine caribou herd, a migration that has occurred for tens of thousands of years. The infrastructure, chronic noise and spills associated with oil drilling could cause the caribou to abandon these historic calving grounds, forcing them into the mountains where there is less for them to eat and greater threat of predators. Drilling could also damage the critical breeding grounds for migratory birds, which could have consequences for entire populations of many species.

Defenders is working to support permanent protection of the Arctic Refuge and to vigorously fight any proposal to open the refuge to oil drilling.

Defending Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, AK
Located on the tip of the Alaska peninsula, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is internationally recognized as an important wetland, protected as a wildlife refuge and designated as a Wilderness Area. It’s one of Alaska’s most ecologically diverse refuges, with lagoons, tundra and stunning mountain peaks. This incredible habitat is home to brown bears, wolverines, caribou and tens of thousands of waterfowl, seabirds and shorebirds.

The Alaska Congressional delegation is pushing for a road to slice through this pristine refuge. Defenders is fighting back, asking our members to take action on behalf of the refuge, educating members of Congress and their staff about the importance of the refuge, and intervening in a lawsuit brought by the state and local communities.

Read Jamie Clark and former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s op ed on Izembek >>

Defending Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, NC
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina was established as a national wildlife refuge in 1937 to provide nesting, resting and wintering habitat for migratory birds. With 13 miles of ocean beach and wetlands, Pea Island is a haven for more than 365 different birds and other wildlife, such as loggerhead sea turtles. Barrier islands like Pea Island protect the coast from storms and serve as unique wildlife habitat. Barrier islands are dynamic, constantly changing shape and being washed over by the ocean, which revitalizes the island and creates new habitat for wildlife. On Pea Island, the ecosystem depends on occasional overwash of sand to build up marshes in Pamlico Sound, creating new habitat for birds and other wildlife.  However, humans have been constantly fighting this natural barrier island process. Highway NC-12 is dangerously close to the ever-changing shoreline. Frequently, it is shut down or backed up by traffic to clear sand off the road. Defenders is pushing for a comprehensive overhaul of the transportation corridor through the refuge to reduce the road’s impacts on the coastal ecosystem.


Protecting Wildlife Refuges from Oil and Gas Development

More than 200 national wildlife refuges have existing oil and gas infrastructure, including 103 refuges with active oil and gas wells. This development leads to toxic spills and habitat destruction, and leaves taxpayers to clean up the damage.

In many places around the country, the surface of the land is considered separate from what is underneath because the oil, gas or minerals are valuable. Even in protected lands like wildlife refuges, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) owns the surface, but rarely has the rights to what lies beneath. When companies purchase those mineral rights, they are allowed to drill or mine to get to them.

But the Service can and should have a say in how that access should occur. Defenders is engaging in the FWS’s rule-making process to develop comprehensive regulations for how non-federal oil and gas beneath the Refuge System are accessed and managed.

Wildlife Refuges and Climate Change

Conserving wildlife and wildlife habitat on national wildlife refuges will become increasingly difficult as the climate changes.  Defenders is working with wildlife refuges to better understand and plan for the impacts of climate change to make sure wildlife refuges are resilient to these changes.


Strategically Growing the Refuge System

The 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act directs the Secretary of the Interior to continue to grow the Refuge System, “to contribute to the conservation of the ecosystems of the United States, [and] to complement efforts of States and other Federal agencies to conserve fish and wildlife and their habitats…”
In an era of rapid climate change and development, strategically growing the Refuge System is more important than ever. Defenders is engaging with the Fish and Wildlife Service to craft new policies to ensure new and expanded refuges meet high priority conservation needs and are resilient to climate change.

Defenders of Wildlife Strategic Growth Policy Comments >>

Refuge Funding

Years of stagnant budgets have ballooned the operations and maintenance backlog of the National Wildlife Refuge System to more than $3.3 billion. Most refuges are forced to operate with only minimal staffing, and 36% of refuges have no staff on site. With this limited capacity, refuge managers struggle to adequately manage wildlife habitat while tackling such challenges as climate change, oil and gas activity, and law enforcement.

Recognizing these problems, the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE) is working to help the Refuge System fight this serious funding crisis. CARE is a diverse coalition of 22 conservation, sporting, recreation, and scientific organizations that represent more than 15 million members. Defenders of Wildlife has been an active member of the coalition since its inception in 1995.

More on Habitat Conservation: Izembek National Wildlife Refuge »

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