By Shreema Mehta

Among the numerous reasons to keep forests thriving and growing in the U.S. are the hundreds of wildlife species that depend on them for survival. One critical way that the U.S. protects both forest habitat and wildlife species is through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) System, a network of public lands that safeguard millions of acres of forest and other habitat around the country.

Great egret at Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

Great egret at Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, Washington. Credit: Kitaro & Kawauso/Flickr

The first wildlife refuge, Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Since then, the system has grown to 556 refuges that preserve more than 150 million acres of wilderness. Refuges are unique from national parks or national forests in that they prioritize wildlife protection over other interests, setting aside public lands to maintain and protect the habitats on which wildlife species rely. America’s NWRs provide homes for more than a thousand wildlife species, including more than 250 endangered plants and animals.

But wildlife isn’t the only beneficiary of America’s wildlife refuge system. While refuges’ first priorities are protecting wildlife, they also welcome around 35 million visitors each year, who come for hiking, hunting and wildlife watching. In 2006, it was estimated that these visitors generated almost $1.7 billion in sales for regional economies and provided jobs for more than 27,000 Americans.

Despite the ecological and economic value of a national wildlife refuge, the system itself is not without its share of problems. Chronic underfunding and unplanned habitat acquisition have made it difficult for the system to fulfill its mission in recent years.

NWR Woes: Budget, Expansion and Management
The federal government acquires land to establish wildlife refuges through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded primarily from royalties paid by oil- and gas-drilling companies. The system also receives funding through the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, whose programs include Duck and Migratory Bird Stamps.

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Credit: U.S. Marine Corps

Despite the name, these programs do not issue postage, but hunting licenses. Since its implementation in 1934, the Duck Stamp Program has generated more than $750 million, allowing the NWR System to acquire more than five million acres of habitat for waterfowl and other species. Efforts are underway to capitalize further on the program, as the Obama administration has proposed raising the duck stamp price from $15 to $25, which could generate up to $24 million more in revenue each year. In addition, organizations such as Friends of the Stamp are seeking to expand the customer base of the stamps beyond hunters to other wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists since hunters only make up 15 percent of NWRs annual visitors.

Because the system is funded primarily through these two flexible programs, funding can often be unpredictable. This has caused the refuge system to grow haphazardly over the years, with growth based on immediate factors such as the presence or absence of funds, legislators’ preferences or urgent threats to wildlife. As a result, it has not always taken into account the complexities and benefits of managing wildlife habitats from a large-scale or long-term perspective.

Habitat restoration is fraught with challenges, as it involves human engineering to revert an environment back to a state free of human influence. The work can include removing invasive species, employing sound fire-management practices and restoring contaminated, cultivated or developed land to a more natural state suitable for wildlife habitat. One important way refuges restore habitat is through reforestation, particularly by connecting fragmented patches of forested land.

Through years of steady, sprawling urbanization in America, countless trees have been cut down to make way for paved roads or agriculture fields — leaving small patches of forests disconnected from each other. As a result, both resident and migratory wildlife species are forced to survive on increasingly isolated patches of habitat that are unsuitable for hunting food, hiding from predators or making a home. For some, this isn’t easy —the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, for instance, often requires between 125-200 acres of territory to make its home.

In recent years, the refuge system has shifted its view. Instead of simply reacting to situations as they arise, the system is now striving to address the larger issues at hand and has begun prioritizing efforts to increase habitat connectivity.

Ocelot

Ocelot. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Lower Rio Grande
The Lower Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas is home to a great range of wildlife, including subtropical species. Wildlife native to the area includes the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi. Located at the bottom of two flyways, it is a prime location for spotting North American migratory bird species that pass through on their way south. But, the area is also rapidly urbanizing, which poses a threat to the area’s wildlife.

American Forests has teamed up with multiple NWRs in the area to reverse some of the ill effects of urbanization by linking fragmented ecosystems through tree plantings to create a continuous wildlife corridor for species that live along the Rio Grande River.

The area’s NWRs have been purchasing land dotted along the Rio Grande River, as well as nearby farmland, with the goal of planting trees. While the idea of buying land and planting trees is fairly straightforward, many challenges are involved in its implementation. Not all property owners wish to sell their land or agree to an easement. Even if they do, an underfunded refuge system means refuge staff cannot necessarily purchase all the land required to establish a healthy corridor for wildlife. In addition, the forces of nature are tricky. In the presence of invasive species or natural disasters, a newly forested area going through ecological succession may or may not result in a viable habitat for wildlife.

Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: American Forests

According to Bob Barry, supervisory wildlife refuge specialist for Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, refuge staff in the Lower Rio Grande plant a variety of seedlings, trees or shrubs so that they can better tailor their approach to the different soils and topographies and can establish a representative sample of the species that are supposed to be in the different habitat types.

Within three to five years, it becomes clear whether the tree plantings will grow into a viable forested habitat, says Barry: “The key is to get the density of shrubs so that they interlock, outperform non-native grasses and establish habitat.” If reforestation is successful, within 20 years, the habitat is fully viable to support generations of wildlife.

Since 1995, refuges in the Lower Rio Grande have replanted more than 9,600 acres with nearly 3.2 million seedlings. American Forests has been a partner on the project since 1997, providing nearly half that number. Seventeen years later, what was once a number of small patches of forest scattered across developed farmland is now a complex, but unified ecosystem, with the project’s earliest seedlings supporting a healthy habitat large enough for the area’s myriad of wildlife.

Despite the importance of reconnecting habitat fragments and developing a management plan that addresses habitats across the landscape as a whole, projects like the one in the Lower Rio Grande are rare. Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) maintains only smaller-scale plans. That’s why American Forests supports the creation of a national management plan to encompass all of the 556 refuges. This will encourage the FWS to look at the whole country and identify parcels of land that would connect refuges to each other or to other protected parcels of land — instead of having acres here and acres there disconnected by roadways and other developments. A national plan would allow lands that might have been overlooked by one regional FWS office — because it didn’t affect species in its region — to now be managed for the benefit of species in adjacent regions. You can help support this plan by signing our letter to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, making your voice heard on behalf of wildlife.