Reflecting On 2016 and Preparing for 2017


The Blitzen River flows through Malheur NWR in Oregon | Marilyn Circus
The Blitzen River flows through Malheur NWR in Oregon | Marilyn Circus

Accomplishments in 2016

The past year presented many challenges for our National Wildlife Refuge System. We found ourselves confronted with some expected obstacles, such as insufficient Operations and Maintenance funding, while others developed suddenly and severely threatened the integrity of our Refuge System, such as the attempt to give away thousands of acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico.

Yet from these challenges arose terrific victories, galvanizing Refuge System supporters like you and the conservation community at-large like never before.


It was only 24 hours into 2016 before the first punch was thrown at the Refuge System – and it was a doozie. On January 2, heavily armed militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon. The FBI in coordination with federal and state law enforcement agencies led the operation to stop the occupation, which finally ended on February 11. The saga was far from over, however, as the first trial of seven occupiers in October found the defendants not guilty. This was a devastating blow to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the FBI, Burns locals, Refuge System supporters, the conservation community, and all who were affected by the occupation. Yet despite the fear and anger the occupation created, there were several silver linings.

  • Led in large part by Malheur National Wildlife Refuge project leader Chad Karges, the High Desert Partnership was established as a 501(c)3 nonprofit to bring together different interest groups to develop the refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan. The relationships formed by this process built cohesiveness within the community that, while strained, held throughout the occupation and almost certainly prevented the scenario from descending into chaos.
  • The Friends of Malheur received overwhelming national support, gaining thousands of new members and tens of thousands of dollars in donations that will be used to support the refuge.
  • Seven more occupiers will be tried in early 2017, and the prosecution will surely use the lessons learned from the first trial to strengthen their case. Conviction will be essential to dissuade the radical, growing anti-federal lands movement in the West.


A provision that would have given away more than 3000 acres of Vieques National Wildlife Refuge was included on a must-pass debt relief bill that sought to alleviate Puerto Rico from its financial crisis. Lawmakers were under a time crunch to pass the bill before Puerto Rico defaulted on its multi-billion dollar loan payments that would have sent the island’s economy spiraling out of control, dragging the mainland U.S. economy down with it.

Vieques National Wildlife refuge found supporters from a wide array of interest groups, including:

  • More than 120 Friends organizations
  • Hispanic organizations, such as Green Latinos and National Hispanic Leadership Agenda coalition
  • Local Puerto Rican groups
  • Faith-based organizations

The outpouring of support from such diverse constituencies coupled with leadership from Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and other key lawmakers resulted in the passage of a Vieques-free Puerto Rico debt relief bill.

Marine Monuments

White terns on Midway Atoll NWR in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, with Laysan albatross in the background | Megan Nagel/USFWS
White terns on Midway Atoll NWR in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, with Laysan albatross in the background | Megan Nagel/USFWS

There was no greater victory for the Refuge System in 2016 than President Obama’s decision to expand Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Pacific from 89 million acres to 373 million acres. Established in 2006 by President George W. Bush, Papahānaumokuākea is now the largest protected area on Earth, conserving wildlife and safeguarding native Hawaiian cultural resources throughout the monument’s millions of acres of open ocean, undersea mountain ranges, coral reefs, islands, and atolls.

Yet even after the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea, President Obama still was not finished protecting our marine resources. In September, President Obama announced the creation of the first marine monument in U.S. Atlantic waters. Located approximately 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, the 4,913 square mile Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument became the latest addition to the National Wildlife Refuge System.

To top it all off, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell issued a Secretarial Order to officially transfer all marine national monuments into the National Wildlife Refuge System. With the stroke of a pen Secretary Jewell changed the Refuge System forever, creating an 850 million-acre system of protected lands, open ocean, and submerged marine lands.

Other Refuge System Legislative Accomplishments

  • Congress took a historic vote on the Arctic Refuge Wilderness bill, offered by Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA) as an amendment to the SHARE Act, the Sportsmen’s Bill. This marked the first time Congress has ever voted to designate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Coastal Plain as wilderness, the highest level of protection awarded to America’s public lands, even though it ultimately did not become law.
  • The Senate became the first chamber pass permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) when it was included on their version of the Energy Reform bill. While Congress failed to send a final Energy bill the President’s desk, the Senate vote generated enormous momentum for permanent LWCF reauthorization in 2017.

Final Rules

The FWS issued more than a dozen final rules in 2016 to update regulations enforced by the agency. For the Refuge System, two major rules years in the making were finally completed.

  • On August 3, the FWS issued a final rule to clarify predator control rules on Alaskan national wildlife refuges. This final rule prohibits aggressive predator control practices. Specifically, the rule prohibits the take of mother bears and their cubs, the take of brown bears over bait, the killing of wolves and their pups at den sites, and aerial gunning.
  • On November 10, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized a rule to update non-federal oil and gas development regulations on national wildlife refuges. This final rule ensures future oil and gas resources will be conducted responsibly and with the least amount of disturbance to the natural environment and refuge wildlife.

New Lands Added to the Refuge System

Everglades Headwaters NWR in central Florida | Keenan Adams/USFWS
Everglades Headwaters NWR in central Florida | Keenan Adams/USFWS

The Refuge Association has worked for years not only to facilitate the establishment of the following refuges, but also with the ranchers and private landowners who partnered with the FWS by creating the conservation easements that make up the refuge lands.

  • Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge in Central Florida grew substantially this past February as more than 5,300 acres of critical ranch, farming, wildlife habitat, flood protection area and water storage lands were acquired using $12.5 million in LWCF dollars.
  • After more than seven years of outreach by the Refuge Association and other partners, the Bear River Migratory Bird Conservation Area became the 565th unit of the Refuge System on June 28. The FWS is authorized to conservation easements for Bear River Migratory Bird Conservation Area within a 920,000 acre acquisition zone that includes the states of Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming.
  • And most recently, the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge in New England was approved to become the 566th refuge of the Refuge System.

Urban Wildlife Conservation Program

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

As part of the FWS’s Urban Wildlife Conservation program, Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico and John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Pennsylvania each received a one million dollar boost in base funding. These additional funds will provide refuge staff with the necessary resources to build and strengthen relationships with community partners.

Challenges in 2017

While the above achievements are just a sample of what was accomplished in 2016, we expect 2017 to offer up its fair share of Refuge System challenges. Some of these issues will carry over from 2016, others will be new, and of course no year would be complete without a few surprises thrown in. We at the Refuge Association will work tirelessly along with refuge Friends and our conservation partners to protect the integrity of the Refuge System for the benefit of all Americans and for future generations.

Refuges at Risk

Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee NWR in southeast Florida | Ian Shive
Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee NWR in southeast Florida | Ian Shive
  • The State of Florida has declared the FWS is not doing enough to eradicate invasive species from Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, and has consequently begun the process to revoke the lease agreement and evict the FWS from the refuge.
  • A dispute over Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge’s western border has resulted in a push to adjust the boundary and effectively cut the refuge in half. Legislation was introduced late this past year to address the boundary issue, and while Congress adjourned before any action could be taken, we expect to see some version of the legislation introduced again in the 115th
  • There has been an ongoing push for the past two years to give management authority over half the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada to the military. Previous years have seen riders attached to the House Defense Authorization bill that would force this transfer by law, and now that Nevada Senator Harry Reid has retired, the Refuge Association expects a tougher fight over the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in 2017.

Refuge System Funding 

On December 9, Congress passed a Continuing Resolution that funds the government at FY16 levels ($481 million) through April 28, 2017. In 2017, Congress must now appropriate funds for the last five months of FY17, in addition to passing appropriations bills for FY18. The Refuge Association will work closely with the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to ensure the Refuge System receives the necessary funding to successfully carry out its conservation mission.

Alaska Refuges, Budget Reconciliation, and the Congressional Review Act


The next year, and indeed several years, has to potential to significantly impact Alaska’s national wildlife refuges. Issues the Refuge Association has worked on for decades, such as opposing the construction of a road through designated wilderness in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge or fighting against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s fragile Coastal Plain to oil exploration, are at risk of finally succumbing to these threats. There are several contributing factors to this heightened threat level:

  • The Executive Branch has been a solid backstop in years past, and it is unknown what stance a Trump Administration will take on Alaskan refuge issues.
  • Budget reconciliation and the Congressional Review Act (CRA) are two complex, rarely used political tools Congress plans to utilize to cut environmental programs and permanently overturn regulations implemented in the latter half of 2016, such as the Alaska predator control rule. Neither budget reconciliation nor the CRA are subject to filibuster, which means they only need a 51-vote majority to pass in the Senate.

Goals for 2017

2017 will not be a year spent just playing defense. There are several opportunities to move forward on critical programs that will bolster the effectiveness of the Refuge System in conserving our nation’s wildlife, including:

  • Passing the Resource Protection Act to give the FWS the authority to seek and retain compensation directly from those who damage Refuge System resources.
  • Leveraging the 30th anniversary of Partners for Fish and Wildlife program to reauthorize and increase funding for the FWS’s most effective tool for building partnerships with private landowners to achieve landscape-scale conservation.

We Can’t Do This Alone – We Rely on the Support of Conservationists Like You

San Diego NWR | USFWS
San Diego NWR | USFWS

Just like 2016, 2017 will be filled with challenges and opportunities. And also just like 2016, the Refuge System needs dedicated conservationists like you to stand up, speak out, and support America’s threatened wildlife and habitats. We at the Refuge Association will be calling on Friends, birdwatchers, hunters, anglers, ranchers and everyone who enjoys national wildlife refuges and our public lands to join us in protecting and enhancing the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Please consider making a donation to the National Wildlife Refuge Association today to protect and conserve our National Wildlife Refuge System. 

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2016/12/wrapping-up-2016-and-preparing-for-2017/

1 comment

  1. Mark July says:

    This is an inspiring and disturbing commentary on current circumstances. As a UK conservationist (ex-government) who has visited several refuges in the south-west and Florida, I am very interested and motivated by the Association’s mission. Is it possible to receive email newsletters or must I become a member?

    The hard-won UK National Nature Reserve (NNR) system is waning fast from cumulative budget cuts, political antipathy to state land ownership/control for nature and statutory wildlife body re-organisations, that have divided a UK approach between four country agencies, thus further policy divergence is gathering pace. The lack of any organisation with a similar dedicated purpose to the Association makes the British situation even more vulnerable to decline. I am turning my thoughts to ways and means to create a champion for our NNRs, and your example is perhaps the best to emulate.

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