>National Wildlife Refuge Centennial

National Wildlife Refuge Centennial

{ Safe Havens }

Across the country, Americans flock to our national parks, forests, and seashores. But only the National Wildlife Refuge System, one of the nation's best-kept secrets, exists to protect our wild animals and plants. This unique network of protected lands and waters, the largest system of its kind in the world, safeguards habitat for everything from high-flying hawks to the biggest bison to the most delicate desert plants.

Where Wildlife Rules

It started on a tiny island off the coast of Florida. Today, 100 years and 95 million acres later, the refuge system stands as a towering achievement and a testament to our national commitment to conservation.

by Frank Graham Jr.

The Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge has played an ever-present role in my life since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped restore its seabird colony in the mid-1980s. At night, if the wind is right and the fog rolls in, I hear the throaty blast of the foghorn on Petit Island, a couple of miles off the Maine coast. On late summer days I watch common terns lead their young from the island to rock ledges within 200 yards of our house to feed their chicks on tiny fish snatched from shallow water at the head of Narraguagus Bay. And all through the nonfrigid months, I comb the refuge's mainland segments as a volunteer, not for signs of the showy birdlife but for cryptic spiders sheltered in marshes, woods, and shoreline rocks.

Petit Manan is a 10-acre granite pedestal overlaid by a mat of turf and rank plants and marked dramatically on the sea by a 123-foot stone lighthouse. That it still hosts one of the premier seabird colonies in the Gulf of Maine is a tribute to the efficacy of wildlife protection and management. In 1901, when plume hunters were decimating tern colonies on the Maine coast, William Dutcher (four years later he would become the first president of the new National Association of Audubon Societies) hired the keepers of various lighthouses to protect their islands' nesting birds. On Petit Manan the tern colony rebounded as the warden system took effect.

The National Wildlife Refuge System protects 700 species of birds and an equal number of other vertebrate animals; 282 of the species are either threatened or endangered.

The local terns again went into eclipse in the 1970s, this time after the Coast Guard automated the lighthouses and removed the keepers. Now the threat was great black-backed and herring gulls, which took over the island, driving out the terns. After the Coast Guard ceded management of the birds to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1974, the island became a refuge on which biologists were eventually able to organize a management program that sent the gulls packing. Cooperation has been vital here, as specialists from the National Audubon Society's Seabird Restoration Program, led by Steve Kress, worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a number of Maine islands—particularly in fostering new colonies of Atlantic puffins.

Although the terns have had their ups and downs, today Petit Manan Island presents a noisy, turbulent scene. The air above it is pierced by the cries of thousands of common, Arctic, and endangered roseate terns, while the birds' abundant droppings spread a pervasive acrid odor across the refuge. Atlantic puffins, attracted by the tumult, have now joined laughing gulls, Leach's storm-petrels, and other species that have been given new leases on life by attentive refuge management.


Petit Manan Island is but one in a complex of 42 offshore refuges that its managing agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, likes to say is "strung along the Maine coast like a strand of pearls," providing invaluable habitat for seabirds, wading birds, and bald eagles. Yet this complex is a small part of the most extensive system of lands protected for wildlife anywhere on our planet. It reaches down the Atlantic coast to the Caribbean and across the Gulf of Mexico and the continental United States to embrace hundreds of islands along the west coast from the Mexican border to beyond the Arctic Circle in Alaska. From there the system sweeps across the Pacific to provide an umbrella of protection for the remotest U.S. possessions in that vast ocean.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is unique in that it was created specifically to protect the nation's wild animals and plants. It carries out its mandate on 540 refuges covering 95 million acres of water, shoreline, desert, rock, marshland, forest, prairie, tundra, and swamp. It protects 700 species of birds and an equal number of other vertebrate animals; 282 of the species are either threatened or endangered.

Consider the diversity in the following.
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), in southern Georgia and northeastern Florida, where nearly 400,000 acres of peat bogs, lakes, cypress swamps, and pinelands nurture carnivorous plants, 230 species of birds—including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the American wood stork—15,000 alligators, and the greatest concentration of black bears in the Southeast.
Ash Meadows NWR, in southern Nevada, a desert oasis of springs and seeps that is home to two dozen species of obscure and endangered plants and animals, including the Devil's Hole pupfish and an endangered herbaceous plant called the Amargosa niterwort.
Quivira NWR, in central Kansas, attracts clouds of shorebirds, including black-necked stilts, American avocets, and two dozen or more additional shorebird species to its salt flats and shallow, wind-whipped water. Some half-million or so geese and ducks stop over at Quivira on their way to their wintering grounds. Such refuges help Kansas reach a state list of more than 460 bird species, among the richest in the United States.
Bitter Lake NWR, near Roswell, New Mexico, where UFOs are akin to imaginary toads in real gardens, but North America's largest species of dragonfly and smallest damselfly provide genuine sightings for visitors.

Yet the system remains one of America's best-kept secrets. Its 95 million acres (and consequently its constituency and $368 million annual budget) are dwarfed by the holdings of the other big natural resource agencies—the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management manage 350 million acres between them; the U.S. Forest Service, 200 million acres. There is at least one national wildlife refuge within an hour's drive of every major city, and each year more than 35 million people visit them. Still, national parks attract nearly 10 times that number. Therein lies an explanation: The other public lands exist chiefly for people—for recreation or exploitation. The refuges are unique in that they are set aside chiefly for wildlife. Their reason for being was perhaps best explained by the Fish and Wildlife Service's most illustrious employee, Rachel Carson, who served as both an aquatic biologist and the chief editor of the agency's publications between 1936 and 1952.

"Wild creatures, like men, must have a place to live. As civilization creates cities, builds highways, and drains marshes, it takes away, little by little, the land that is suitable for wildlife."
—Rachel Carson

"Wild creatures, like men, must have a place to live," Carson wrote. "As civilization creates cities, builds highways, and drains marshes, it takes away, little by little, the land that is suitable for wildlife. And as their space for living dwindles, the wildlife populations themselves decline. Refuges resist this trend by saving some areas from encroachment, and by preserving in them, or restoring where necessary, the conditions that wild things need in order to live."

The protection and management of wildlife populations has been the highest priority for the refuges from the start. One can trace a direct line in time and space from the granite base of Petit Manan Island south along the Atlantic coastline to an even smaller site on Florida's Indian River called Pelican Island. They are coevals in the uncertain venture of preserving America's birds. About the same time Audubon's William Dutcher was paying lighthouse keepers to guard the seabirds on Maine islands, President Theodore Roosevelt chose Pelican Island, an unlikely 5.5-acre lump of shells and mud (now eroded to a bit more than 2 acres) as the foundation of what would become the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Roosevelt's passion for the natural world is unequaled among U.S. presidents. "The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life," he once told Congress. He listed birds and bison, as well as timber and minerals, as natural treasures. Among Roosevelt's many naturalist friends was Frank M. Chapman, an ornithologist at New York City's American Museum of Natural History, a prolific writer, and the founder of Bird-Lore (the magazine that became Audubon).

The other public lands exist chiefly for people—for recreation or exploitation. The refuges are unique in that they are set aside by the federal government chiefly for wildlife.

Chapman once described Pelican Island during nesting season as "by far the most fascinating place it has ever been my fortune to see in the world of birds." It was an estimate colored perhaps by the fact that he and his bride, Fanny, had spent part of their honeymoon on the island preparing pelican skins for the museum collection. Plume hunters had destroyed colonies of wading birds on the island in earlier years, and Chapman was aware of the vulnerability of this colony's 3,000 pelicans. It was a dangerous time for bird protectors in Florida: Audubon warden Guy Bradley was to be murdered in the Everglades in 1905. Chapman urged members of various Audubon societies to buy the island from the government and protect it forever. In 1903, when the plan bogged down in red tape, he and Dutcher took the matter to Roosevelt. The sympathetic president promptly declared Pelican Island "a preserve and breeding ground for native birds" and with this stroke created the first federal wildlife refuge.

Before Roosevelt left office in 1909, he had set aside more than 50 refuges on federal property, including 6 in Alaska. During the system's early years, before Congress appropriated money to monitor the refuges, the Audubon societies paid some of the wardens' salaries or supplied them with patrol boats. The practice continued whenever certain refuges were shortchanged by the government, and persisted into the 1920s here and there in Florida and along the Louisiana coast.

Photo by Joel Sartore

Roosevelt's foresight becomes even more apparent with time. During his administration, plume hunters from Japan had ransacked their way across the Pacific and had reached atolls on the fringes of the Hawaiian Islands many hundreds of miles from Honolulu. Specks of land dusted in a faint arc toward nowhere, those atolls are more remote from any continent than all other islands on earth. Yet all lie open to man's tireless penchant for predatory ventures. As marine biologist Carl Safina writes in The Eye of the Albatross, "More than ninety percent of the birds that have gone extinct over the last few centuries have been island nesters, including both sea and land birds." In 1909, again by executive order, Roosevelt set aside most of those outlying atolls in what is now the Pacific Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Today the islands are home to at least 18 species of seabirds, Laysan and black-footed albatrosses prominent among them. Last year Chandler Robbins, biologist and bird bander extraordinaire for the Fish and Wildlife Service, visited sites on Midway Atoll and adjacent refuge lands where he had studied albatrosses 36 years earlier. "I recaptured 200 previously banded albatrosses, one of which was a Laysan albatross I had banded as a five-plus-year-old nesting bird on my first trip there in 1956," he wrote recently. "At age 51, now wearing its fifth successive band, it was raising a newly hatched chick. This sets a new record as the oldest wild bird in the files of the Bird Banding Lab."

"The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life," Theodore Roosevelt once told Congress.

As early as 1843, John James Audubon had predicted the extinction of the American bison. In 1905 Theodore Roosevelt, sharing that concern, set aside a "game preserve" for bison in an Oklahoma forest reserve (now part of Wichita Mountains NWR). But by 1908 the bison's plight was dire enough to touch the heartstrings of even legislators. So Congress authorized the purchase of some 13,000 acres on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana to preserve a remnant herd. It was the first federal appropriation to buy land specifically for wildlife protection. Today the 18,763-acre National Bison Range (part of the refuge system) shelters not only the species it was acquired to protect but other animals, too, including pronghorns, elk, deer, and bighorn sheep.

Under the stewardship of the Fish and Wildlife Service the refuge system has expanded into every U.S. state. The agency's mission has been complicated over time as more special interests want a piece of the action. By law, wildlife protection holds priority over other refuge uses. Yet refuges permit cattle grazing, which damages grasslands, polluted water seeps in from nearby developments, and snowmobiles and other unsuitable vehicles destroy wildlife habitat.

Today hunting takes place on more than half of the 540 refuges. How does the agency justify hunting in the light of its mission to protect wildlife? With two reasoned arguments: that it manages wildlife populations, not individual animals (thus putting itself at odds with animal-rights groups); and that the scarcity of predators on many refuges allows populations of prey species to "explode," leading to habitat destruction and, inevitably, to disease and starvation.

Through dedicated refuge staffs, however, protection and management on these lands is strengthened now by wildlife research and population surveys. Refuge biologists try to understand the forces (water shortages, predation, etc.) that reduce waterfowl breeding in the prairie pothole country, or how they can increase vegetative cover for seabirds on nesting islands. From Mille Lacs NWR, two rocky islets comprising one-half acre in Minnesota's Mille Lacs—where the Fish and Wildlife Service struggles to protect a vulnerable colony of common terns against the depredations of ring-billed gulls—to the awesome complexity of the 19.8-million-acre Arctic NWR in Alaska—where the oil industry wants to drill the "American Serengeti"—the system generally works.


Like their colleagues at many other units in the system, the staff at Petit Manan has studied its birdlife in great detail but is only beginning in-depth surveys of the full range of species diversity. Freelance biologists and college interns help inventory the plants, reptiles, and amphibians on the island and its adjacent mainland units. A group of professionals and amateurs, organized in the Friends of the Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge, do volunteer work. I have found my niche assisting Daniel T. Jennings, a retired U.S. Forest Service research entomologist, in collecting spiders. To date we have bagged 178 species in 17 different families, one or two of the species apparently new to science.

Why spiders? These remarkable animals, which perhaps evolved silken webs to counteract the development of flight in their insect prey, are among the planet's dominant terrestrial predators. They make up in numbers for their small size: araneologists (spider experts) have identified more than 37,000 species and believe there may be five or six times that many out there. In other words, spiders are significant as both predators and prey in almost all land-based ecosystems.

It's sweaty work, slogging through a freshwater marsh to sweep crab spiders from grasses with a tough canvas net, or digging pitfall traps with a small trowel among the forest's tangled roots to snare a new species of wolf spider for the refuge list. But there's the thrill of a successful chase, intensified by a sharpened awareness that all around me is a community of dragonflies, wood frogs, black-bellied plovers, red foxes, and the myriad other creatures whose well-being justifies the existence of this countrywide refuge system.

All over the world species drift into extinction even before biologists have a chance to record them. The cumulative treasures on our refuges have yet to be fully documented, but the precedent set 100 years ago at Pelican Island ensures that most of them will hang around to be counted.

Field editor Frank Graham Jr. lives in Maine, just five miles from the Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge.




© 2003  NASI

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