The Chesapeake Bay watershed encompasses 64,000 square miles and is home to more than 16 million people. That translates into a lot of roads, parking lots, malls, schools, houses and office buildings. In this increasingly concrete world, we need wild places to explore and discover nature. These places also help us to calm our unusually busy agendas and reflect on our lives.

Our wildlife needs theses natural areas, whether they are forests, fields, wetlands, creeks or rivers, even more. These are habitats, places where they find food and water, as well as places to nest or rest. Natural habitats are critical to the survival of native plants, insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals and more.

The National Wildlife Refuge system is a network of public lands set aside specifically for the conservation of fish, wildlife and plants, including endangered and threatened species. The National Wildlife Refuge system has protected and restored prairies, wetlands and woodlands, providing much-needed habitat for America’s wildlife.

Established in 1903, this system of natural areas provides habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, more than 1,000 fish, and countless species of invertebrates and plants. It spans approximately 100 million acres and includes 3,000 waterfowl production areas. Nearly 260 threatened or endangered species are found on national wildlife refuges, where they often begin their recovery or hold their own against extinction.

Although teeming with wildlife, the refuges are great for people, too. They provide opportunities to see wildlife in a natural environment. Many refuges have interpretive foot and vehicular trails. Birding, hiking, biking, wildlife observation and photography are some of the activities available to visitors. Visitor centers offer exhibits, videos and slide shows.

Sometimes, hunting, fishing and trapping are also permitted on refuges.

About 98 percent of the land in the refuge system is open to the public for wildlife-dependent education and recreation. More than 50 percent of refuges offer recreational hunting and fishing.

Nearly 37 million people visited National Wildlife Refuges in 2004. Refuge visitors include hunters, anglers, wildlife watchers, school groups and photographers. Recent legislation, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, directed the expansion of opportunities for several public uses, including wildlife photography, fishing, hunting, wildlife observation, environmental education and interpretation.

Depending on the refuge, there are visitor centers, wildlife observation facilities, auto tours, nature trails, interpretive tours, outdoor classrooms or workshops. These activities help to build an understanding and appreciation for wildlife, habitat and the role management plays in the stewardship of U.S. resources.

Kathy Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

Wildlife Refuges Located Throughout Bay Watereshed

Mark your calendars. National Wildlife Refuge Week is Oct. 9-15, although anytime is a good time to visit one of the many wildlife refuges around the Chesapeake Bay and the nation. There are more than 540 National Wildlife Refuges, so chances are there’s a refuge close to you. So spice up your autumn and do something wild! Here’s a list of some nearby refuges.

For information about the National Wildlife Refuge system, call 800-344-WILD or visit