The National Wildlife Refuge System, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a network of public lands set aside specifically for the conservation of fish, wildlife and plants, including endangered and threatened species.

The refuges have helped to protect and restore prairies, wetlands and woodlands, providing much-needed habitat for U.S. wildlife. Refuges contain a priceless gift — the heritage of a wild United States.

Since President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida’s Pelican Island as the first national wildlife refuge in 1903, the system has grown to include more than 560 protected areas encompassing 150 million acres of land and water. There is at least one national wildlife refuge in every state and territory and within an hour’s drive of most major metropolitan areas.

National wildlife refuges provide habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species and more than 1,000 species of fish. More than 380 threatened or endangered plants or animals are protected on wildlife refuges.

Each year, millions of migrating birds use refuges as stepping stones while they fly thousands of miles between their summer and winter homes.

But plants and animals aren’t the only beneficiaries. National wildlife refuges host more than 47 million visitors each year. Extensive trails, auto tour routes, boardwalks, observation decks, hunting and photography blinds, fishing piers and boat launches offer great opportunities for children and adults to discover wildlife.

Hunters are welcome on more than 360 units of the refuge system, while anglers can fish more than 300. The online Guide to Hunting on National Wildlife Refuges (www.fws.gov/refuges/hunting/) helps users zero in on their favorite species — deer, big game, exotics, waterfowl, turkey, upland or migratory birds, small game, as well as by state or hunts for youth or those needing special access. The Guide to Fishing on National Wildlife Refuges

(www.fws.gov/refuges/fishingguide/) describes every type of fishing opportunity and includes information on state licenses and the most up-to-date refuge-specific hunting and sport fishing regulations.

Refuges welcome visitors on foot or wheel. Many trails on refuges are nationally designated for their scenery, history or recreational value. National Wildlife Refuge Trails

(www.fws.gov/refuges/trails/index.cfm) provides a description of each trail, including length, surface, grade, GPS location and special features.

Birders are awed by unbelievable congregations of birds, numbering in the tens of thousands during peak migration seasons. Nature trails, observation decks and photo blinds provide superb vantage points for viewing and photographing wildlife.

National wildlife refuges offer a full menu of educational activities for school and community groups, families and individuals. Many refuges have visitor centers with interactive exhibits. Some lend binoculars or backpacks filled with guides and tools to enhance a refuge visit. Others offer cultural and historical sites, often with special programs.

With iPhones in hand, visitors to national wildlife refuges in the Chesapeake Bay region can photograph and share their sightings with a worldwide community of wildlife watchers. The free National Wildlife Refuges Chesapeake Bay app (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/national-wildlife-refuges/) is a new tool for exploring the outdoors.

So mark your calendars. October 13–19 is National Wildlife Refuge Week. Refuges will be offering special events, including tours, guided walks, exhibits, live animals, crafts and children’s activities. So spice up your autumn and do something wild at one of these refuges:

  • Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge: Smyrna, DE. 302-653-6872
  • Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge: Milton, DE. 302-684-8419
  • Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge: Cambridge, MD. 410-228-2267
  • Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge: Rock Hall, MD. 410-639-7056
  • Patuxent Research Refuge: Laurel, MD. 301-497-5580
  • John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum: Philadelphia, PA. 215-365-3118
  • Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge: Virginia Beach, VA. 757-721-2412,
  • Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge: Chincoteague, VA. 757-336-6122
  • Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge: Cape Charles, VA. 757-331-2760
  • Great Dismal Swamp: Suffolk, VA. 757-986-3705,
  • Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge: Lorton, VA. 703-490-4979
  • Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge: Woodbridge, VA. 703-490-4979
  • Presquile National Wildlife Refuge: Chester, VA. 804-829-9020
  • James River National Wildlife Refuge: Charles City, VA. 804-829-9020
  • Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge: Warsaw, VA. 804-333-1470