US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in The Endangered Species Act at Thirty, Volume 1: Renewing The Conservation Promise, edited by Dale D. Goble, J. Michael Scott, & Frank W. Davis (Washington: Island Press, 2006), pp. 90-100.


The National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) has played a key role in conserving at-risk species from its beginnings in 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt established apreserve to protect Pelican Island, in Florida, as a breeding ground for an imperiled population of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) (Fischman 2003). Today, the Atlantic coast population of the brown pelican is no longer in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) , but Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge provides protection for nine threatened and endangered species.

Management of the refuge system has changed significantly since the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, evolving from the creation of "inviolate sanctuar[ies]" (Act ofFebruary 18, 1929, sec. 715d) through aperiod in which conservation of wildlife and natural communities was balanced with public uses, often to the detriment of conservation (Curtin 1993), to the current period in which the refuge system is to be managed to protect biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health, the management mandates enacted in the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 (Act ofOctober 9, 1997; Gergely et al. 2000).

This chapter describes the role the National Wildlife Refuge System plays in conserving species listed under the ESA, identifies factors that limit the refuge system's effectiveness in achieving that objective, and identifies opportunities to increase imperiled species conservation within the refuge system.