The US NWR system was officially established in 1903 by president Teddy Roosevelt, although the history of "official" wildlife habitat restoration goes back further, finding its genesis perhaps in the 1864 act of Congress that transferred Yosemite Valley to the state of California with the stipulation that its wildlife and flora must be protected.
The NWR System has more than 560 refuges, 38 wetland management districts, and other protected areas that protect 150 million acres of land and water from the Caribbean to the far reaches of the Pacific. Habitat is protected for over 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 1,000 species of fish. More than 380 threatened or endangered plants or animals are protected on wildlife refuges. Each year, millions of migrating birds use refuges as as resting and recharging "fueling stations" while they fly thousands of miles between their summer and winter homes. There is at least one NWR in every state and territory and within an hour’s drive of most major metropolitan areas.
Author Rachel Carson, who worked as the chief editor for the USFWS from 1939 to 1952, wrote about the refuge system:
Wild creatures, like men, must have a place to live. As civilization creates cities, builds highways, and drains marshes, it takes away, little by little, the land that is suitable for wildlife. And as their space for living dwindles, the wildlife populations themselves decline. Refuges resist this trend by saving some areas from encroachment, and by preserving in them, or restoring where necessary, the conditions that wild things need in order to live.
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