When German immigrant Paul Kroegel began advocating for the protection of Florida’s Pelican Island as critical habitat for a quickly dwindling population of brown pelicans more than a century ago, he had no idea that his efforts would lead to the creation of the world’s leading wildlife preservation system. With the involvement of noted ornithologist Frank Chapman and, eventually, President Teddy Roosevelt, tiny three-acre Pelican Island became the country’s first national wildlife refuge on March 14, 1903. And the brown pelicans have been making a comeback ever since.
The United States—with its wide-open spaces, varied topography and commitment to environmental protection—is home to unique wildlife species as well as some of the planet’s most striking landscapes. Visitors to the country’s wildlife refuges can still watch grizzly bears fishing for salmon in evergreen-clad forest streams or flocks of sandhill cranes gliding to a graceful collective landing on a carpet of wind-carved white sand dunes. They can see ghostly moose chomping on fog-shrouded grasslands at the edges of vernal swamps and primordial alligators plying murky blackwater in search of shad and snails.
Beyond such charismatic megafauna, visitors can take in some of nature’s finest panoramas, from the sea-stack skylines of the Pacific Northwest coast to the endless tallgrass prairies of the Midwest to the great meadows of the Northeast. Complementing its important function as the nation’s repository of wildlife and a natural laboratory for species preservation, the system is a feast for the eyes and for the soul.
Today, a century after Pelican Island was established, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) oversees 538 national wildlife refuges across 94 million acres in all 50 states and five U.S. territories. Most refuges are concentrated along major bird migration corridors and serve as vital sanctuaries for millions of migratory birds. More than 700 bird species are found on refuges, as well as 229 mammal species, 250 reptile and amphibian species and more than 200 species of fish. The system is also extremely important for imperiled species, providing habitat for nearly 250 threatened and endangered species.
The refuge system is for people, too. Approximately 98 percent of the system is open to the public, attracting more than 30 million visitors annually to engage in “wildlife-dependent” recreation. An estimated 25 million people per year visit refuges to observe and photograph wildlife, seven million to hunt and fish and more than half a million to participate in educational programs.
But some environmentalists worry that modern threats—such as mechanized resource extraction, overuse from recreation, water contamination and shortages, the invasion of non-native species and rising temperatures from global warming—will be too much for the system to handle as it moves into its second hundred years. Indeed, when the dust clears from the Centennial celebration, USFWS will have its work cut out for it in keeping the network together.
ANWR: Just the Tip of the Iceberg
Perhaps the most famous piece of land administered by USFWS is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska’s northeast corner. When abundant oil reserves were discovered in nearby Prudhoe Bay in the late 1960s, speculators turned their gaze eastward toward ANWR’s coastal plain as another potentially prime source of crude. Then, in 1980, Congress doubled the size of ANWR, but, in a nod to industry, left the million-acre coastal plain out of the wilderness designation afforded the refuge’s other 18 million acres. Under an emboldened Republican-led Congress, oil rigs could begin ripping into the disputed coastal plain (in the heart of the refuge where 120,000 migratory caribou bear their young every summer), compatibility with wildlife conservation be damned. Congressional head counters say that Republicans, despite gains in last November’s elections, are still short of the 60 votes needed in the Senate to cut off debate and vote on an ANWR drilling bill. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, both declared 2004 Presidential contenders, have said they would stage filibusters to prevent the legislation from coming to a vote.
But while the high-profile political battle over whether or not to open ANWR to oil drilling lingers, 45 other national wildlife refuges already host oil development facilities, along with problems such as spill contamination, waste pits as wildlife death traps, toxic chemical leaching, brine spills, salt water intrusion, siltation and erosion of streams, and, generally speaking, widespread wildlife habitat destruction.
“The record is clear: oil drilling in national wildlife refuges is not environmentally sensitive,” says Noah Matson, program manager for the nonprofit advocacy and research group Defenders of Wildlife. “It leaves a toxic legacy of oil spills and pollution that threatens birds and wildlife in the very habitats meant to protect them.” Matson authored a report called “Toxic Tundra” which outlines how oil drilling in Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has resulted in hundreds of spills, fires and explosions while contaminating massive amounts of soil and groundwater with oil and other toxic substances that are known to cause mutations and birth defects in wildlife.
Originally established in 1941 to protect large populations of moose on the lush Kenai Peninsula in south-central Alaska, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for 200 species of birds and wildlife, including bald eagles, trumpeter swans, brown and black bears, caribou and wolves. And of course the Kenai moose have thrived.
Speculators discovered oil reserves on the refuge in 1957 and bought up area mineral rights almost immediately. The ensuing industrialization of parts of the refuge has fragmented and degraded wildlife habitats thanks to oil spills and explosions, widespread soil and water contamination, and airborne and noise pollution.
In the summer of 2000, USFWS biologists found an abnormally high number of deformed frogs in the Kenai Refuge. Frogs found in the vicinity of the refuge’s oil fields had missing or misshapen hind legs and feet, and missing eyes.
Sensitive to environmental changes and especially vulnerable to pollution, frogs and other amphibians have been declining worldwide for years, possibly serving as a warning about the spread of contaminants and the ecosystem effects of pollution in general. Matson points to the oil companies’ releases of toxic chemicals—such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), anti-freeze, solvents, diesel fuel, triethylene glycol, benzene and xylene—as the likely cause of the Kenai frogs’ reproductive maladies, and is looking to USFWS to crack down on the industry’s negligent drilling and clean-up practices. And while improvements are possible, it may be too late for Kenai’s frogs and for as-yet unknown species there.
Matson, among others, points to the oil industry’s legacy at Kenai, as well as at several other refuges in Louisiana and Texas, as a red flag regarding extraction of natural resources in wildlife conservation areas. “Repeating the Kenai mistake by allowing environmentally destructive oil drilling and industrial development in the Arctic Refuge is environmentally unacceptable,” says Matson, pointing out that the proposed oil development area in ANWR would be much larger and more extensive than the oil field that has contaminated the Kenai Refuge. “Industrial infrastructure, oil spills and pollution would destroy the wilderness character of the Arctic Refuge while introducing grave new environmental risks to the birds and wildlife inhabiting this pristine and irreplaceable refuge.”
Unfortunately, refuge managers are often powerless to stop the drilling. Back when many of the refuges in the system were pieced together, landowners could sell sub-surface mineral rights separately from their land deeds, and did so accordingly, giving extractors full rights to the underground oil and gas. And even though many of the drilling sites on refuges in Louisiana and Texas have been tapped out by now, their dirty legacy continues to foul the land, air and water so precious to area wildlife. Environmentalists list cleaning up these existing drill sites and stopping proposals for new ones as top priorities for USFWS.
Loving the Land to Death
While many refuge managers encourage human recreation on the lands they oversee, the presence of lots of people (not to mention off-road vehicles, powerboats, horseback riding, hunting and fishing) can take its toll on wildlife populations. And while wildlife refuges by law are closed to the public unless specifically opened for a compatible use, less than two percent of refuge lands in the United States are actually closed.
Virginia’s Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was originally established in 1943 as a vital stopover along the Atlantic flyway for snow geese and other migratory birds. Today the refuge provides habitat for waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds and song birds, and is best-known among wildlife enthusiasts as a major breeding area for the endangered piping plover. Yet Chincoteague is a popular destination for more than birds: Every year 1.4 million human visitors flock to the refuge’s pristine beaches to drive off-road vehicles, sunbathe, swim and fish. Given its proximity to several mid-Atlantic population centers. Chincoteague is consistently one of the country’s most heavily visited wildlife refuges.
In the 1980s refuge biologists began to worry that the human-caused disturbances were making it difficult for piping plovers to nest successfully. The birds were officially listed as threatened in 1986 under the Endangered Species Act. Beginning in 1988, to the chagrin of many locals, the refuge closed down two and a half miles of prime beach during the spring and summer to protect the plovers during their breeding season.
“Recreational users, especially the off-road vehicle crowd, fought the closures big time at first,” says John Schroer, Chincoteague’s refuge manager. “But we held to our position, and eventually the controversy died down.”
Within just one year of the closures, biologists noted an eight-fold increase in the population of fledgling plover chicks to survive their precarious first few months of life. As a result, the refuge instituted the seasonal closures on an on-going annual basis, and the piping plovers, as well as black skimmers and other species reliant on sandy shore nesting, have started to thrive in the area.
Yet despite the progress at Chincoteague, recreational usage still plagues the refuge. In September of last year, for example, two men in a 4×4 pick-up truck violated the closure and ran over a couple of fledgling black skimmer chicks. The men were arrested and face a stiff fine as well as banishment from refuge lands for three to five years. Refuge officials hope that the attention given the violation in the local media will serve to prevent others from violating closures and menacing wildlife.
Similar issues plague other refuges across the country, especially as more and more people look to escape their sprawling urban environs for recreational purposes on public lands. And as habitat surrounding refuges shrinks due to increasing development, already stressed wildlife may not be able to stand the additional pressure of human encroachment.
Refuges Running Dry
Water is the lifeblood of refuges, and shortages due to human development, agriculture and drought can be devastating to wildlife dependent on wetlands for survival. Yet despite the importance of abundant and clean water sources for wildlife, many refuges in the federal system have to get in line behind agricultural and other interests for stingy allocations of water doled out from reservoirs and dammed rivers.
Competition among water users in the Klamath Basin region on the California-Oregon border, for instance, often leaves area refuges dry during critical wildlife nesting and migration periods. And during droughts, the only water flowing into the refuges trickles downstream from farms, and as a result contains abnormally high levels of pesticides and other contaminants, further jeopardizing the health of the region’s 400-plus species of resident and migratory wildlife.
When Teddy Roosevelt created the area’s wildlife refuges as well as a large agricultural reclamation project with the same signature in 1905, water flows were abundant enough to meet different needs. But today water flows have dwindled, and area wildlife refuges are a last priority after restoring salmon, providing for tribal subsistence needs, and supplying farm irrigation.
Phil Norton, manager of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges Complex, has been beating the drum to elevate the refuge’s status among the region’s water users. “We”d like to be considered at the same level as the other water users. We”re prepared to suffer in kind as long as we can benefit in kind,” says Norton.
Those closest to the Klamath issue are the first to admit that a resolution satisfactory to everyone is inconceivable at this point, with so little water to go around, especially in drought years like 2002. Even though the Klamath situation is extreme, the impasse there does not bode well for the hundreds of other refuges across the country suffering from insufficient water or poor water quality.
Climate Change for the Worse
With refuges quickly becoming islands in a sea of human development, global warming is perhaps the biggest threat looming for the entire system and all of the wildlife it protects. Unmitigated urban and suburban sprawl throughout the United States leaves wildlife with little habitat beyond refuge borders. What makes even small jumps in local temperature from global warming such a threat is that habitat for specific species will likely shift northward, onto unprotected and often privately held lands too developed to sustain healthy wildlife populations. Also, many coastal refuge wetland areas will likely dry up completely,
leaving hundreds of species of waterfowl and other wildlife with nowhere to go but on the path to extinction.
“In making their long-term plans, it’s important for refuge managers and the refuge system in general to factor in the potential effects of climate change on individual species and on the system as a whole,” says Jeff Price, director of Climate Change Impact Studies for the American Bird Conservancy. “We need to figure out where these species will be shifting and provide for suitable habitat in those new locations. This is going to be difficult given the pressures already exerted by development on our existing refuge lands.”
Price cites the case of the golden-cheeked warbler, an endangered avian resident of Central Texas’ Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. “The golden-cheeked warbler really doesn”t have anywhere to go in the case of even moderate climate change,” Price says. “The species won”t be able to shift its range to compensate, and as a result is facing extinction if temperatures continue to rise.”
Other scientists are reserving judgment on the golden-cheeked warbler and other cases. “If someone could suggest to me what the anticipated changes in the weather and rainfall patterns might be for [the bird”s] breeding and wintering ranges, we might be able to extrapolate some gross changes in habitats that may result, and then, with even less confidence, we might try to estimate what may happen to a habitat specialist like the golden-cheeked warbler in those landscapes,” says Chuck Sexton, wildlife biologist at the Balcones Refuge. “But that becomes such an iffy string of correlated changes and causal relationships that confidence in any suggested population changes would be low. From a professional and personal standpoint, I have serious concerns about global warming, but as a scientist I”d need more detail before making an extrapolation.”
If global warming does turn out to be capable of bringing about the extinction of the golden-cheeked warbler, other areas besides Texas will be affected. In some of the other scenarios Price has studied, the forests of northern Minnesota and southern Ontario could lose up to 14 species of warblers. Without these insect eaters, there would likely be more severe outbreaks of spruce budworms, which could devastate both commercially and recreationally important forests throughout the northern Midwest. Every region of the country (and the world, for that matter) would be affected with equally devastating results for wildlife.
But despite the potential impacts, the political turmoil and scientific uncertainty regarding the existence and extent of global warming make preparing for its onset at local and regional levels an impractical proposition at best for refuge managers already dealing with shoestring budgets.
Environmentalists, however, warn that the risks of not preparing for global warming could be catastrophic to all the wildlife the refuge system was created to protect. “The potential impacts of climate change aren”t happening in a vacuum,” says Price. “They have to be considered in concert with other well-established stresses such as habitat conversion, pollution and invasive species.” In short, even if refuge managers are able to cobble together solutions for the other major problems facing the refuge system, global warming could be the last straw.
In celebrating the centennial of the national wildlife refuge system, USFWS and the general public have a lot to be proud of. Refuge lands serve as safety nets for hundreds of thousands of species in the face of encroaching human development and myriad other pressures.
Yet, despite the successes of the system’s first hundred years, America’s wildlife refuges will face some of their toughest threats in the next century. The success or failure of the very idea of a national system of wildlife refuges hangs in the balance.
Working with limited resources, refuge personnel at every level of the system need to sensitively balance a myriad of environmental problems to preserve these habitats that are vital to the survival of America’s unique natural heritage. Environmentalists remain optimistic that the system will work, and that we will bring our wildlife forward with us. But if the system is not up to the challenges ahead, the U.S. could irreparably damage its precious natural heritage.