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Origins of a National Wildlife Refuge System — B&C Impact Series

More than a century ago, members of the Boone and Crockett Club spearheaded efforts to set aside areas of land and water where conservation of our fish and wildlife is the number one priority. This is how it all began.

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Today, America’s National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) System includes more than 567 refuges encompassing more than 150 million acres—larger than the states of Washington, Nebraska and South Dakota combined. Unlike national parks, which are created for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people,” wildlife refuges are created for a specific purpose, typically to help restore one or two specific species in peril. This isn’t to say wildlife refuges are off limits to hikers, birders, hunters, and anglers. 

More than 75 percent of our national wildlife refuges are open to the public with 50 million Americans visiting annually. Many of these places allow hunting. Where deemed appropriate and sustainable, hunting and fishing on national wildlife refuges are used as a management tool.

This article is hardly a complete history on the creation of our NWR system, which would be a monumental undertaking. Instead, we start at the very beginning where the “refuge idea” begins with a freshly minted Boone and Crockett Club, whose members cultivated the idea and then turned it into reality.  

Applying the Tourniquet 

The Carolina parakeet, with its bright yellow head and pale beak, was a sight to behold. It was the only indigenous parrot east of the Rocky Mountains. By 1918, it was gone. Extinct. Those pretty, colorful feathers played a large role in its demise. Birds of all colors were killed both for their feathers and for their meat at the turn of the twentieth century. Records show that upwards of five million birds were killed every year just to supply to millinery trade.

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The Carolina parakeet (center) and other birds like egrets were slaughtered en masse for their feathers to adorn hats, feed restaurant menus and even make old-fashioned feather dusters. ​​​​​​​

 Members of the Boone and Crockett Club, men like John F. Lacey, worked religiously to pass laws to end the wholesale slaughter of birds and other wildlife. The Lacey Act of 1900 prohibited trade in illegally taken wildlife, but for some species like the Carolina parakeet, it was simply not enough. Remnant populations of big game species like bison, elk, and pronghorn were roaming the West, but they were walking a narrow trail between survival and complete extinction. 

In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt signed the first piece of game law legislation protecting the wildlife in the Alaska Territory. Numerous Club members worked on this legislation including Madison Grant, John F. Lacey, and William T. Hornaday. The legislation would become the model for game laws in the Lower 48 states. These new laws put pressure on market hunters and put them on notice. Passing legislation (enforcement was another issue) may have helped to slow the bleeding, but if wildlife populations were going to recover, those birds, fish, and big game were going to need places set aside. They would need safe places where they could eke out an existence and recover. 

Room to Recover 

Near the town of Sebastian, on Florida’s eastern seaboard, there lived a mustache-wearing, shotgun-wielding lover of pelicans. His name was Paul Kroegel, and the year was 1903. His home on the Indian River overlooked Pelican Island, also home to countless brown pelicans and other birds coveted for their plumage. Kroegel befriended ornithologist and Boone and Crockett Club member Frank Chapman. Chapman had a passion for birds. He parlayed that passion into a job  as curator at the American Museum of Natural History, 

These two men, along with others from the Florida Audubon Society, pitched the idea of protecting Pelican Island’s birds from poaching and plunder to President Theodore Roosevelt, a Boone and Crockett founding member. As a result, on March 14, 1903, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order creating the three-acre Pelican Island Reservation. Kroegel became the reservation’s warden, complete with badge, $12 annual salary, shotgun, and boat. 

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While relatively small compared to the rest of the refuge, Pelican Island made huge waves for both brown pelicans and for recovering wildlife across the U.S. 

While most historical records tout this as the first instance of a federal refuge, James B. Trefthen, in his book, An American Crusade for Wildlife, argues this may not have been the first. He notes that at the request of Club member and Secretary of the Interior John Noble, President Harrison set aside Afognak Island in Alaska as a salmon-spawning reservation. Harrison used the powers granted to him by the Forest Reservation Creative Act of 1891, according to Trefethen. 

Pelican Island, though, put the idea of animal refuges into both the public and political consciousness. More islands favored by birds would receive protection. That little barrier island with its shotgun toting protector became the first of 55 official reservations and preserves President Roosevelt would set aside. 

Birds were not the only beneficiary of this radical idea. In their quest to restore the nation’s fledgling bison populations, Club members worked to establish the Wichita Mountains Forest and Game Preserve in 1905 and the National Bison Range in 1908. Club member and National Audubon Society president T. Gilbert Pearson worked to protect a chunk of high desert in northern Nevada for both pelicans and pronghorn. In January 1931, President Hoover signed an executive order that created the Charles Sheldon National Antelope Range at 34,325 acres. Today, the Sheldon-Hart National Wildlife Refuge Complex now spans 851,000 acres.


Since its inception, the Duck Stamp has raised more than $1 billion, the money being used to protect six million acres of wetland habitat. For every dollar spent on a Duck Stamp, 98 cents goes directly to purchase vital habitat or acquire conservation easements. 

This laundry list of wins isn’t to say that everything Club members proposed was met with rubber-stamp approval. In 1919, Club members tried to establish a refuge for mountain sheep (presumably bighorns) in the Black Hills, but it failed. In 1922, influential Club members Charles Sheldon and George Bird Grinnell failed to establish a refuge for desert sheep in Arizona. Even so, Club members were achieving their goals to help wildlife populations recover by setting aside and protecting land. 

Paying for It All 

Wildlife restoration has never been cheap, and groups like the Boone and Crockett Club and Audubon Society were able to foot the bill for decades. Yet they could only raise so much. As the idea of a refuge system gained steam, it was apparent that acquiring more land was going to need more money. 

In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed the Committee on Wildlife Restoration. Thomas Beck, Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling and Aldo Leopold worked to outline a program that would be used to acquire lands for the conservation of not just waterfowl and songbirds but for upland game and mammals as well. 

That same year, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, commonly referred to as the “Duck Stamp Act.” All duck hunters would be required to buy this stamp, the first of which was designed by Ding Darling, a writer and Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist. In its first year, the $1 stamp generated $635,000, roughly $12.5 million in today’s dollar. The Duck Stamp idea would become a massive conservation success and earn Darling the honor of being “the best friend a duck ever had.” 

Since its inception, the Duck Stamp has raised more than $1 billion, the money being used to protect six million acres of wetland habitat. For every dollar spent on a Duck Stamp, 98 cents goes directly to purchase vital habitat or acquire conservation easements. 

In the 1940s, the newly established Fish and Wildlife Service recognized four “flyways” of migratory waterfowl, which helped managers identify specific areas and habitat used by various species. Yet it wasn’t until 1966 that the habitat previously set aside for fish and wildlife received recognition as the official National Wildlife Refuge System. 

In our next installment on the National Wildlife Refuge System, we’re going to show you how Boone and Crockett members have worked to continue building upon their successful wildlife restoration efforts, which began more than a century ago. 


About the Impact Series

The Impact Series is dedicated to showing how sportsmen, members of the Boone and Crockett Club in particular, saved the wildlife and wild places of the United States. Early members of the Boone and Crockett Club comprised the movers, shakers, and initiators of the American conservation movement. They were hunters, anglers, explorers, lawmakers, soldiers, and above all conservationists. These members established laws that allowed our wildlife resources to flourish. They also protected landscape-scale geologic marvels and American icons like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Denali, and many, many more. These members may no longer be with us, but their legacy remains. This series aims to honor their accomplishments and remind us of the good work still yet to do.


In 2022, there are more than 567 refuges.

Refuges provide habitat to more than 220 species of mammals, 700 species of birds, and 1,250 species of fish, reptiles and amphibians. Refuges also provide a place of recovery for nearly 400 endangered and threatened species.


 

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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt