March 14, 2003 marks a milestone in the history of wildlife conservation in America — the centennial anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The National Wildlife Refuge System is the United State’s only network of federal lands dedicated specifically to conserving wildlife and protecting our wild heritage.

Humble Beginnings

In 1903, Pelican Island became the center of an epic battle between conservationists and feather hunters. After years of relentless slaughter, many of our most majestic birds were at the brink of extinction. Pelican Island was the last breeding ground for brown pelicans along the entire east coast of Florida and it was here that a stand was made.

Urged on by a man named Paul Kroegel, people rallied around this small island to spearhead the protection of the last remaining areas so vital to the survival of brown pelicans and other wildlife.

President Theodore Roosevelt fostered this conservation legacy when in 1903 he set aside this tiny island as a refuge for birds. Wildlife protection became a national interest, and for the first time, was based upon wildlife’s intrinsic worth rather than its utilitarian value.

Pelican Island became the first National Wildlife Refuge, starting what is now known as our National Wildlife Refuge System. At present, this system includes 575 national wildlife refuges and wetland management districts encompassing more than 93 million acres.

Teeming With Life

National wildlife refuges are home to more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 species of reptiles and amphibians and more than 200 species of fish. This vast network of habitats gives critically endangered species a chance to recover. Refuges provide habitat for more than 250 threatened or endangered animals including manatees, bald eagles and Delmarva fox squirrels.

Each year, millions of migrating birds use refuges as stepping stones to rest as they fly thousands of miles south each winter.

Refuges Are For People, Too

The National Wildlife Refuge System appeals to many cultural traditions of U.S. society, such as enjoying the wonders of the outdoors and ensuring wild, open space for future generations.

More than 35 million Americans visit national wildlife refuges each year to enjoy outdoor experiences.
Most people come during peak periods of bird migration, when refuges are thriving with wildlife.

Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren visit national wildlife refuges each year to learn more about the natural world.

Sportsmen come to fish or hunt, while others savor the solitude of these special places.

The National Wildlife Refuge System offers each person an opportunity to experience the natural world.

Visitors can observe, learn about and enjoy plants and animals in natural surroundings. Other activities include bicycling, birding tours and walks, exhibits, nature hikes, and educational programs for children.

Historical and archaeological sites are also part of some refuges.

About 98 percent of the land in the National Wildlife Refuge System is open to the public for wildlife-dependent education and recreation.

More than 50 percent of refuges offer recreational hunting and fishing.

Depending on the refuge, one may find visitor centers, wildlife observation facilities, auto tour routes, nature trails, and interpretive tours.

Refuges will celebrate the centennial with many special activities and exhibits for the public. So come out in March and help celebrate 100 years of conservation!

Refuges in the Bay Watershed

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Virginia Beach, VA

Blackwater NWR
Cambridge, MD

Bombay Hook NWR
Smyrna DE

Chincoteague NWR
Chincoteague VA

Eastern Neck NWR
Rock Hall, MD

Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR
Cape Charles, VA

Great Dismal Swamp
Suffolk, VA

John Heinz NWR at Tinicum
Philadelphia, PA

Occoquan Bay NWR
Woodbridge, VA

Patuxent Research Refuge
National Wildlife Visitor Center
Laurel, MD

Presquile /James River NWR
Prince George, VA

Prime Hook NWR
Milton, DE

Potomac River NWR Complex
Woodbridge ,VA

Rappahannock River Valley NWR Complex
Prince George, VA

For information about National Wildlife Refuges and waterfowl production areas, and a copy of the Refuge System Guide, call 1-800-344-WILD 800-344-9453 or visit