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What Is a National Wildlife Refuge?

You may have visited and enjoyed some amazing state parks in your home state, and maybe you’ve camped and hiked in several marvelous national parks. But did you know that there are 568 national wildlife refuges in this country, and you’ve got at least one (and very likely more) in your state? 

But what exactly is a national wildlife refuge, and what can you do if you visit one? Let’s find out!

A Beginner's Guide to the National Wildlife Refuge System

What Is a National Wildlife Refuge?

A national wildlife refuge is an area of public lands and waters meant to conserve America’s wild animals, fish, and plants. There’s at least one in every state, with government entities protecting and managing each. In total, they make up more than 150 million acres throughout the United States!

Visitors are welcome to enjoy a variety of outdoor adventures and recreational activities. Nearly 50 million people visit these conservation areas throughout the nation every year.

Who Runs National Wildlife Refuges? 

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) protects and manages America’s national wildlife refuges. The USFWS is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

The agency exists to manage, conserve, enhance, and protect fish, wildlife, and natural habitats for present and future generations. 

Sandhill Cranes at Bosque Del Apache Refuge in San Antonio, New Mexico
Sandhill Cranes at Bosque Del Apache Refuge in San Antonio, New Mexico

What Is the Purpose of a National Wildlife Refuge? 

A national wildlife refuge’s purpose is to restore, preserve, and manage natural habitats. Rangers encourage wildlife viewing, photography, and education, and they allow hunting and fishing with proper permits, unlike in national parks. 

Their primary focus is–you guessed it–wildlife. They establish a network of habitats for wildlife across the states. 


President Theodore Roosevelt established the first wildlife refuge in America in 1903. During this time, many citizens were screaming for land conservation. These individuals, especially Paul Kroegel, inspired Roosevelt to make this decision. 

The first preserve would later be known as Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. It was established on the ancestral lands of the Miccosukee Tribe in Florida. Shortly after that, President Roosevelt created the National Wildlife Refuge System and named 53 wildlife sanctuaries.

First National Wildlife Refuge

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida is part of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge complex. President Roosevelt named it a refuge on March 14, 1903. East of Sebastian, Florida, and just off Orchid Island in the Indian River Lagoon, it’s a 3-acre island off the east coast, including 2.5 acres of water. 

American settlement was increasingly threatening Pelican Island’s bird populations in the area, as many settlers were killing exotic birds to sell their feathers to the fashion industry. Plumes were highly valuable for women’s hats, and this led to the birds’ near-extinction. 

As a result of plume hunting, the first American wildlife conservation area aimed to protect egrets and other exotic birds from extinction. 

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
Learn about wildlife at the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.

State With The Most National Wildlife Refuges

Alaska has the most national wildlife refuges in the country. There are 16 there, encompassing nearly 76.8 million acres.

Alaska’s preserved regions are some of the nation’s last truly wild places on earth. Of these areas, the smallest is the 300,000-acre Izembek Refuge at the Alaskan Peninsula’s edge. The largest is the 19.6 million-acre Arctic Refuge that runs from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean.

Alaska is home to eleven wildlife sanctuaries.

Largest Wildlife Sanctuaries in the United States

The 11 largest wildlife sanctuaries in the United States are also in Alaska.

The most extensive wildlife system in the United States is the Arctic Refuge, which covers around 30,135 square miles in northern Alaska. The U.S. government named it a protected area in 1960.

The second-largest wildlife sanctuary–also in Alaska–is the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, which covers around 30,000 square miles. President Roosevelt established this refuge in 1909. Later on, President Jimmy Carter increased the refuge’s size based on the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Pro Tip: With so many amazing national wildlife refuges to explore, deciding where to go first can be stressful. Discover Why You Should Visit Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.

sign of federal public lands in alaska including arctic national wildlife refuge
While in Alaska, learn about the wildlife you are spotting at a refuge.

National Wildlife Refuge vs. National Park–Major Differences

As mentioned previously, a refuge focuses on preserving wildlife. Currently, there are more than 560 wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts in the United States doing just that.

According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, they provide habitats for over 700 bird species, 220 mammal species, 1000 fish species, and 250 reptile and amphibian species. Those numbers include 238 threatened or endangered plants and animals.

Pro Tip: Beware! Even though they’re cute, Moose are Bigger Than You Think.

Sign for the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia/Maryland
Search for wildlife in Chincoteague and Assateague.

National parks serve a large number of visitors. The parks provide facilities for people, roadways, and walking trails. They also differ from sanctuaries because hunting and off-road vehicles are generally prohibited. 

National parks also focus on preserving ecosystems and public spaces to protect plants and animals’ natural habitats, but visitors enjoy them slightly differently. In national parks, the public can enjoy camping, hiking, and exploring nature as well. 

Tom and Caitlin Morton at Yosemite National Park
We love exploring national parks and spotting wildlife.

What Activities Are Allowed on a National Wildlife Refuge?

Environmental education is a focus on these lands. Many provide nature walks for school children, and some offer training programs for teachers.

Rangers also allow photography, wildlife observation (especially birding), hunting, and fishing.

We spotted this Ibis at Ding Darling Refuge in Sanibel Island, Florida.


Some (but not all) refuges allow camping in certain areas. Some camping spots are primitive, just large enough to hold a tent. Others are a small gravel lot or a large area suitable for RV boondocking

Some have RV hookups, toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables, but that’s not the norm. Search the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website to see if a park allows camping and what amenities it has. 


National wildlife refuges allow fishing according to state and federal rules, including license guidelines. Check with the refuge staff for updates regarding species, season dates, and other rules. Refuge offices and visitors’ centers are closed on federal holidays.

More than 340 refuges offer opportunities for fresh or saltwater fishing, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Fishing Guide will tell you the rules of the region you want to visit. 


According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the preserves permit hunting “when it is compatible with the purposes for which the refuge was established and acquired.” 

Visit their website for more information about hunting in a specific park. Their “Hunting” page includes a searchable map to help you “find your hunt.” Click a dot on the map to search or enter a state, station, zip code, or species.

Keep on trails when in a refuge.

Tips for Visiting National Wildlife Refuges

Following are suggestions to make your visit to any national wildlife refuge safe and enjoyable:

Before you visit, research the area. Time of day and year may be critical to your visit’s success. Wildlife behavior patterns are seasonal, and some preserves provide wildlife nesting habitats. Other refuges provide wintering habitats. Both are important things to know before you visit.

You’ll also want to learn whether the refuge has walking trails and what they’re like. They could be hilly, flat, on a boardwalk, or in a remote or rocky location. You’ll want to know before you go!

There are a few rules that apply to pretty much any preserve you visit: Be patient and be quiet to avoid disturbing wildlife. Remember that these are wild animals in their natural habitats. You shouldn’t try to approach or disturb them.

Dress for conditions in the refuge, and bring drinking water. Finally, always be respectful of the land and waters, picking up trash and avoiding off-limit areas. 

Closeness to the Wild

Which Refuge Would You Like to Visit? 

The United States has established more than 560 national wildlife refuges. The chances are good that there’s one near you. In fact, almost every major metropolitan area has a preserve within an hour’s drive. 

If you have children, there’s no better school than nature. Take them to a wildlife sanctuary to experience its rich, vast education. It’s impossible to imagine what embracing nature does for the soul until you do it. 

What wildlife refuges have you visited? Let us know in the comments. 

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About Tom and Caitlin Morton

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for and an Arizona travel guide.

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