First U.S. National Wildlife Refuge Is Established

The establishment of Pelican Island in Florida as the first national wildlife refuge in the United States began a movement toward increased concern with wildlife conservation.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was evident that serious wildlife conservation problems existed in the United States. Plume hunting—the killing of birds to gather showy feathers for use as decorations on hats and dresses—was rampant, as the feathers often sold for almost five hundred dollars a pound. This practice was decimating bird populations throughout the nation. In addition, many fish-eating birds were being destroyed by fishermen who wanted to protect their own access to fish that they could catch and sell. Birds, protection
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
Wildlife conservation
National Wildlife Refuge System, U.S.
[kw]First U.S. National Wildlife Refuge Is Established (Mar. 14, 1903)
[kw]U.S. National Wildlife Refuge Is Established, First (Mar. 14, 1903)
[kw]National Wildlife Refuge Is Established, First U.S. (Mar. 14, 1903)
[kw]Wildlife Refuge Is Established, First U.S. National (Mar. 14, 1903)
[kw]Refuge Is Established, First U.S. National Wildlife (Mar. 14, 1903)
Birds, protection
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
Wildlife conservation
National Wildlife Refuge System, U.S.
[g]United States;Mar. 14, 1903: First U.S. National Wildlife Refuge Is Established[00700]
[c]Environmental issues;Mar. 14, 1903: First U.S. National Wildlife Refuge Is Established[00700]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 14, 1903: First U.S. National Wildlife Refuge Is Established[00700]
Darling, Jay
Roosevelt, Theodore
[p]Roosevelt, Theodore;conservation
Salyer, John Clark, II

President Theodore Roosevelt, an experienced outdoorsman, explorer, and hunter, was appalled at the slaughter of birds that was taking place. At the urging of the American Ornithological Union and other concerned groups and individuals, on March 14, 1903, he issued an executive order establishing Pelican Island on the east coast of Florida as a wildlife refuge. The new refuge was the first in what would become the largest and most comprehensive system of wildlife refuges in the world, preserving more than ninety million acres of wildlife habitat by the end of the twentieth century.

Like most conservation actions, the establishment of the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System had a long, often turbulent gestation period. Federal withdrawal of lands to be protected for wildlife began in 1869, when the U.S. Congress established the Pribiloff Reservation Pribiloff Reservation off the coast of Alaska to protect the northern fur seal, which had been hunted almost to extinction. One of the first steps toward the establishment of a refuge system occurred in 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison established the Afognak Reservation Afognak Reservation in Alaska to protect local wildlife. The Lacey Act of 1900 Lacey Act (1900) gave the Bureau of Biological Survey Bureau of Biological Survey, U.S. true power as a conservation agency. Roosevelt used this legislation to place the federal refuges under the bureau’s control.

In 1904, Roosevelt established by executive order fifty-one other national wildlife refuges in seventeen states and in the territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. (By the end of the twentieth century, every U.S. state had a national wildlife refuge within its borders.) More than sixteen million acres were protected as refuge lands on June 30, 1940, when the Bureau of Biological Survey was transferred to the Department of the Interior and renamed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S.

Most of the early national wildlife refuges were either islands designated as sanctuaries for colonial nesting birds or game ranges intended to prevent the extermination of native big-game mammals such as elk and bison. On January 24, 1905, Congress authorized the president to set aside a portion of the Wichita National Forest Wichita National Forest in Oklahoma for the protection of game animals and birds. No funding was provided for this refuge, so the U.S. Forest Service managed it until 1935, when it was transferred to the Bureau of Biological Survey.

The first national wildlife refuge specifically authorized by Congress was the National Bison Range, National Bison Range which was created by a congressional act on May 23, 1908. On March 4, 1913, the National Elk Refuge National Elk Refuge was established. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) ratified in 1918 by Great Britain, Canada, and the United States, established the international framework for managing migratory waterfowl in North America. It also emphasized the acquisition and management of refuge lands. The first waterfowl unit of the system to be authorized and funded by Congress was the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge In 1924, Congress appropriated $1.5 million to purchase bottom lands along the Mississippi River between Wabasha, Minnesota, and Rock Island, Illinois, primarily to preserve waterfowl habitat.

The Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929, Migratory Bird Conservation Act (1929) authored by Senator Peter Norbeck and Congressman August H. Andresen, legislated the establishment of additional federal refuges, but Congress provided no funds for these acquisitions. Jay “Ding” Darling, as head of the Bureau of Biological Survey, obtained $8.5 million to purchase lands for the refuges from two of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Emergency Acts and the Works Progress Administration. The bureau had until June 15, 1935, to spend the money, and all of it had to be spent in the eighteen states designated as the drought belt.

Darling hired biologist John Clark Salyer II to find, evaluate, and buy suitable lands for refuges by the deadline. Salyer did such an outstanding job in obtaining the needed lands that he remained as chief of the Division of Migratory Waterfowl in the Fish and Wildlife Service until he retired in the 1960’s. Senator Norbeck was so impressed with the progress that Darling and Salyer had made in establishing the National Wildlife Refuge System that he obtained another $6 million for the system from Congress by unanimous consent, a legislative feat usually reserved only for national emergencies.

Funding for the purchase of national wildlife refuge lands remained uncertain and limited by the whims of congressional action until 1934, when the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act (1934) also known as the Duck Stamp Act, Duck Stamp Act (1934) was passed. Under this legislation, all waterfowl hunters sixteen years of age and older were required to buy “duck stamps” (sold at U.S. Post Offices), which they then signed and pasted onto the backs of their state hunting licenses. Revenues from the sale of the stamps were to be used to acquire and manage wetlands for waterfowl. Congress thus shifted the tax burden of funding refuges from general taxpayers to waterfowl hunters. (Darling, who was an artist, designed the first duck stamp in 1934; each stamp sold for one dollar.)

The Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act (1934) of March, 1934, expanded the scope and authority of the Biological Survey by recognizing wildlife and recreational values on federal water development projects. At least seven major refuges were established by the Resettlement and Farm Security Administration’s program to purchase submarginal farmlands. The Inter-American Treaty of 1942 committed the United States to a continuing program of wildlife protection and husbandry.

During World War II, the facilities of the National Wildlife Refuge System deteriorated badly, and no new lands were purchased for preservation. Problems with crop depredation by migratory waterfowl, however, led to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s resumption of land acquisitions. In 1948, Congress passed the Lea Act, Lea Act (1948) authorizing the federal government to acquire lands in California for waterfowl management. Wildlife refuges were established on which crops were grown to lure migratory birds, and commercial crop losses were reduced dramatically. Colusa, Sutter, Merced, and Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuges were added to the refuge system because of the Lea Act.

Eventually, revenues from the sales of duck stamps could not keep up with escalating land prices. In 1949, the cost of a duck stamp was increased from one dollar to two dollars (by 2005, the price was fifteen dollars). In 1961, Congress also authorized a seven-year accelerated program of purchasing wetlands with an advance of funds against future revenues from sales of duck stamps in the Wetlands Loan Act.

In 1956, Congress passed the Fish and Wildlife Act, Fish and Wildlife Act (1956) establishing a national fish and wildlife policy and authorizing the secretary of the interior to acquire refuge lands for all forms of wildlife. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, established in 1964, provided funds for this 1956 legislation. From 1956 to 1976, refuge acreage doubled through withdrawal of federal lands and through acquisition. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 reaffirmed the Fish and Wildlife Service’s role in conserving endangered and threatened species and authorized the use of Land and Water Conservation Fund moneys to acquire refuge lands for the protection of endangered species.


Since the 1960’s, the National Wildlife Refuge System has been the cornerstone of wildlife conservation activities in the United States. The enactment of the Wilderness Act in 1964 led to the classification as wilderness of several million acres of system lands. The Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 formalized the use of National Wildlife Refuge System lands as a means of protecting threatened and endangered species. National refuge lands were added to protect such animals as blunt-nosed leopard lizards and San Joaquin kit foxes.

From 1940 to 1962, the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System shifted from an emphasis on protection and enhancement of wildlife numbers to an emphasis on the use of system lands for “outside” purposes. This shift occurred because of increased demand for outdoor recreation areas as well as pressures for the commercial exploitation of other natural resources on refuge lands. Since 1962, the system has emphasized compatibility of uses. All uses of national wildlife refuge lands must be compatible with the primary purposes for which their specific areas were established. The issue of compatibility, which first appeared in federal law in 1918, has been central to the administration of the refuge system since the early 1940’s, acquiring formal legal prominence with the enactment of the Refuge Recreation and Refuge Administration Act of 1962. This act recognized the need for the recreational use of refuges but emphatically stated that such recreation must be limited in type and scope so that it does not compromise the purpose for which refuges were created.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 more than doubled the size of the National Wildlife Refuge System, adding more than seventy-seven million acres to it. By the end of the twentieth century, the system included more than 477 refuges, waterfowl production areas, and cooperative projects covering more than ninety million acres. More than thirty million people visited lands in the system each year to hunt, fish, photograph, and enjoy the views that wildlife species provide.

In the 1980’s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s approach to refuge lands changed from a focus on protection to a focus on expanding the lands’ uses. In 1989, activities harmful to the wildlife in these areas were occurring on nearly 60 percent of all national wildlife refuge lands. In 1992, a report by the Commission on New Directions for the National Wildlife Refuge System (Defenders of Wildlife) titled Putting Wildlife First provided an extensive outline of needed changes in the system. The authors of the report stressed that refuges must be protected from activities outside their borders, such as air and water pollution. They argued that biological principles, not economic pressures, must determine the actual management priorities and activities of each individual national wildlife refuge.

By the early twenty-first century, opinions concerning the proper purposes of the National Wildlife Refuge System differed widely. Some believed that refuge lands should be public hunting grounds, whereas others argued they should be totally protected wilderness. Some saw them as nuisance areas harboring animals that destroy crops on private lands; others thought they should be public playgrounds where any activity should be permitted. Regardless of opinions, each refuge has a primary or dominating function, and the principle of compatibility determines what activities are acceptable on a specific refuge. The most important objective of land use in these areas continues to be the protection and husbandry of all animals and plants associated with the areas’ particular ecosystems.

The entire refuge system continues to be based on the idea that the wildlife on refuges is for the enjoyment of the public. In 1997, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act provided for the organic management of the refuge system, strengthening its mission, clarifying the compatibility standard for public use of refuges, and requiring the development of a comprehensive plan for each refuge. Birds, protection
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
Wildlife conservation
National Wildlife Refuge System, U.S.

Further Reading

  • Butcher, Russell D. America’s National Wildlife Refuges: A Complete Guide. Lanham, Md.: Roberts Rinehart, 2003. Provides descriptions of all refuges in the U.S. system, including the species of animals found on each refuge. Also includes information on the accessibility of each refuge and the facilities available.
  • Defenders of Wildlife. Putting Wildlife First: Recommendations for Reforming Our Troubled Refuge System. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1992. Provides many excellent suggestions for improving the management of national wildlife refuges.
  • Fischman, Robert L. The National Wildlife Refuges: Coordinating a Conservation System Through Law. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003. Presents the history of all legislation related to the National Wildlife Refuge System and offers a detailed breakdown of the 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act. Includes maps, a chronology, and index.
  • Grove, Noel. Wild Lands for Wildlife: America’s National Refuges. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1984. Provides a wealth of information on the National Wildlife Refuge System. Illustrated with outstanding photographs and maps.
  • Laycock, George. The Sign of the Flying Goose: The Story of the National Wildlife Refuges. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1973. One of the best histories of the National Wildlife Refuge System available, written in an enjoyable style. Includes detailed accounts of many key refuges.
  • Murphy, Robert W. Wild Sanctuaries: Our National Wildlife Refuges—A Heritage Restored. New York: Dutton Press, 1968. Excellent coverage of the national wildlife refuges. Includes many details on specific refuges and their histories.

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