40 Species in the Refuge System – Part 1

To continue the celebration of our 40th anniversary, we will be doing a four part series that will highlight 40 different species found throughout the Refuge System. Some will be common species, others are endangered or threatened, some are birds, others are mammals – all have one thing in common: they are protected by the world’s largest network of public lands and waters, the National Wildlife Refuge System. Part one of this series highlights species with refuges named after them, species that are currently endangered, and others that have been successfully recovered.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican at Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge | Roy W. Lowe, USFWS

The species that started it all. In the late 1800’s, a man named Paul Kroegel recognized that these bird populations were declining because they were being harvested for their feathers for use in women’s hats. In 1901, a successful petition was signed to protect these birds, and in 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order to create the nation’s first national wildlife refuge: Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

Unfortunately even after the creation of the refuge and reduction of hunting, their populations declined further because they were being slaughtered in fear that they were ruining the commercial fishing industry and their reproduction rates took a deep nosedive due to the use of DDT. In 1970, before the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared them endangered. DDT was banned, and studies showed that the birds were no threat to the commercial fishing industry, and in time the populations recovered. Today it is estimated that the worldwide population is over 650,000. For more information, see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brown pelican fact sheet.

Florida Panther/Mountain Lion

Florida Panther | Connie Bransilver, USFWS
Florida Panther | Connie Bransilver, USFWS

Mountain lions and Florida panthers are both found in the Refuge System. Florida panthers are a subspecies of mountain lion. Mountain lions are found in the western United States and their range stretches up to Canada and down to South America. They used to roam into the east of the U.S., but are no longer found there due to habitat destruction – the endangered Florida panther is the only remnant.

Today, the Florida panther is highly endangered. By the late 1800s, much of the habitat for the Florida panther had been removed due to development and other human impacts. By 1995, only 20-30 panthers remained in the wild. That same year, eight female Texas cougars were introduced to the area to restore genetical variability in the population. Over the next ten years, populations tripled. Today the population is at about 100-160 individuals.

In 1981, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission introduced intensive radio-instrumentation and monitoring of the panthers to track the animals and determine preferred habitat, home range size, dispersal behavior, and provide information on birth rates and causes of death. This research is helping scientists determine courses of action for recovering this beautiful species. The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1989 for increased protections of this endangered species. For more information, see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service page here, and here.  

American Bison

Bison at the National Elk Refuge | Stacee Sadler
Bison at the National Elk Refuge | Stacee Sadler

American bison are the heaviest land mammals found in North America. Although, despite their size they can run quickly when needed – sometimes up to 40 miles per hour. Where they thrive, so do native plants and prairie dogs. Today, they can be found in many refuges including the National Bison Range in Montana, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado, and the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming.

At one time, 20 to 30 million bison ranged from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains, and from the Gulf Coast to Alaska. Unregulated hunting and habitat loss resulted in a steep decline in population, diping to 1,091 individuals by 1989. To bring these species back, reserves and refuges were established – the National Bison Range included. Today, the population is up to about 50,000 across North America. Click here for a detailed timeline about bison populations.


Bobolink at Malheur NWR | Larry Mcferrin
Bobolink at Malheur NWR | Larry Mcferrin

The bobolink is an exceptional migrant, completing a round-trip of 12,500 miles every year. This bird spends the breeding months in North American grasslands and meadows, then travels south to the rice fields of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay for the winter.

Although populations once thrived as farmers felled forests to create pastures and fields favored by these birds, today bobolinks are in decline. Pesticides, climate change and habitat loss all pose threats to this species. The National Wildlife Refuge Association is working to protect the Connecticut River Watershed where the bobolink and many other species live. You can see bobolinks at Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota, Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota, Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge in Washington, and Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. Click here to learn more about this species!

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge | Sandra Seth
Whooping Crane at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge | Sandra Seth

Standing as the tallest North American bird, the whooping crane is listed as endangered. In 1870 with an already low population of 500-700 birds, the population declined further with only 16 individuals in 1941 primarily as a consequence of hunting, habitat loss, and human disturbance. The Refuge System is currently playing a large role in the bird’s recovery.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas is vital wintering grounds for a population of whooping cranes that moves between Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, and the Texas Gulf Coast including Aransas. At Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland, the refuge and the U.S. Geologic Survey are partnering on a captive breeding program. Click here to learn more about the whooping cranes at Patuxent Research Refuge.

Active management and the captive breeding program is assisting these birds on the road to recovery.   Click here to learn more about Whooping Cranes.


Elk at Neal Smith NWR | Charles L. Miller
Elk at Neal Smith NWR | Charles L. Miller

The National Elk Refuge in Wyoming provides, preserves, restores, and manages winter habitat for the nationally significant Jackson Elk Herd as well as habitat for endangered species, birds, fish, and other big game animals. This specific herd of elk is estimated at 11,000 individuals that migrate across several jurisdictional boundaries. Their migration can happen in a few days or take several weeks. Some Jackson elk don’t move much at all, and others can travel up to 60 miles between summer and winter ranges.

Bull elk lose their antlers each spring and regrow them in May for the late summer mating season.Since antlers can be worth a large amount of money, the National Elk Refuge staff collects them to keep others from coming onto the refuge and taking them illegally, an act known as poaching. Removing antlers also reduces damage to tractors, trailers, and other equipment used during the winter by refuge personnel. The antlers can easily blend in with the snow, potentially damaging machinery if the antlers are accidentally run over. They are then auctioned off in May at an event called ElkFest. 75 percent of the proceeds from this auction go back to the refuge and goes toward elk management and habitat enhancement on the refuge.

The elk are an incredible sight to see. Click here to learn more about the National Elk Refuge.

American Alligator

American alligator at Ding Darling NWR | Michael Dougherty
American alligator at Ding Darling NWR | Michael Dougherty

A member of the crocodile family, the American alligator is a living fossil from the Age of Reptiles, having survived on earth for 200 million years. Found throughout the Southeast, from the Carolinas to Texas and north to Arkansas, the American alligator is a terrific success story of bringing a species back from the brink of extinction. American alligator populations reached all-time lows in the 1950s, primarily due to market-hunting and habitat loss.

The species was listed as endangered in 1967, in a law preceding the Endangered Species Act, prohibiting hunting of the animals. As populations began to rebound, states established alligator monitoring programs to ensure the populations would continue to increase. In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pronounced the American alligator as fully recovered and it was removed from the endangered species list. The American Alligator can be found at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, and Loxahatchee Refuge National Wildlife Refuge all in Florida.  To learn more, click here to read the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet.

California Condor

California Condors at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge | Angela Woodside
California Condors at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge | Angela Woodside

The largest land bird in North America used to range from California to Florida and western Canada to northern Mexico. Populations began to decline because of lead poisoning and in 1967, the species was listed as endangered. California Condors feed on carcasses and end up ingesting lead bullets and fragments of bullets left in the animal carcases. In 1982, populations dipped dangerously low to just 23 individuals. By 1987 all California condors were placed in a captive breeding program to bring population numbers back up. This was the start of an intensive captive breeding program to help the species recover. The program is being conducted at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex in California.

Today the birds are being reintroduced to the wild and populations are up to 410 birds. 2008 marked a milestone for the program with the first time that more birds were flying free in the wild than in captivity since the captive breeding program began. Click here to learn more about this interesting bird.

Bald Eagle

Bald eagle, Driftless area
Bald eagle, Driftless area | Alan Stankevitz

Another success story is that of our national bird – the bald eagle. With populations decimated by the use of DDT and habitat destruction, bald eagles were almost wiped out. In 1940, Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act in an effort to help protect the species from being hunted, but that didn’t solve the entire problem. By 1963, the species was down to just 417 nesting pairs partially due to the continued use of DDT and other pesticides.

The banning of DDT in 1972 jump-started the recovery efforts for the bird. Captive breeding programs, reintroduction efforts, law enforcement, and nest site protection all contributed to the birds recovery. In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially removed the species from the endangered species list. Bald eagles can be seen all over the Refuge System at The Klamath Basin Refuges in Oregon, Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in New York, Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge  in Florida, DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge  in Iowa, Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington,  Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge  in Tennessee, North Platte National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska, and Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.   Click here to learn more about the recovery of our national bird.

Blacktip Reef Shark

Blacktip Reef Shark | Kydd Pollock, USFWS
Blacktip Reef Shark | Kydd Pollock, USFWS

Found throughout the Pacific Reefs National Wildlife Refuge Complex, these predators serve as indicators of healthy reef ecosystems with high fish diversity. Unfortunately they are facing threats. With overfishing pressures compounded with their low reproductive rates, blacktip reef sharks are struggling to maintain healthy populations in their native range throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This is also an indicator of declining ecosystem health.

Thankfully, the Pacific Reefs National Wildlife Refuge Complex is providing much needed protection. The 12 nautical miles surrounding the complex provide refuge for blacktip reef sharks, where they can remain protected and have a safe place to hunt and reproduce. At Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of the complex, ongoing research is happening to better understand these sharks and their habitats. Click here to read more!

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2015/03/40-species-in-the-refuge-system-part-1/

1 comment

  1. Aroshani Wijesekare says:

    can i know more details about wildlife and pls send me your wildlife photograph

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