For more than a century, the United States has worked to protect the wilderness around us with parks, preserves and sanctuaries. While natural spaces of all shapes and sizes can benefit wildlife, only one government-designated wilderness program was established in order to build a network of wildlife habitat: the national wildlife refuge system.
The first national wildlife refuge was established in 1903. Today, there are more than 560 wildlife refuges in the nation, whose 150 million acres of land and water are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and marked with the emblem of a flying blue goose. Fifteen wildlife refuges are located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, protecting forests, fields, ponds, marshes, swamps and shorelines in Maryland and Virginia. Federally owned land—which includes wildlife refuges—accounts for about 26 percent of the 8.37 million protected acres in the region, and is integral to our work to safeguard wildlife habitat from development. Learn about five wildlife refuges in the watershed below.
1. Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (Rock Hall, Md.). Established in December of 1962, this 2,285-acre island refuge is located where the Chester River meets the Chesapeake Bay. The island was among the first parts of Maryland to be settled by European colonists: between 1658 and 1680, two men acquired the entire island tract by tract. Today, the island’s forests, grasslands, ponds and tidal marshes offer critical feeding and resting grounds to hundreds of species of migratory birds. Ducks, swans and geese are particularly abundant in late fall and early winter, and refuge staff have documented peaks of more than 50,000 waterfowl at one time on or near the refuge. The refuge provides visitors with opportunities to walk and bike, view wildlife, boat, fish, crab and hunt for turkey and white-tailed deer.
2. Patuxent Research Refuge (Laurel, Md.). Established in December of 1936, this refuge has expanded from its original 2,670 acres to encompass more than 12,800 acres between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It is the only wildlife refuge established to support wildlife research. The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center is operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, whose staff specialize in research related to wildlife and natural resources science, from the status and trends of bird populations to the effects of chemical contaminants on wildlife. One of its most famous programs involves the captive breeding of whooping cranes: biological technicians raise more than 30 chicks each year, releasing most to a non-migratory flock in Louisiana and training the rest to migrate from Wisconsin to Florida. While the grounds that house the research center are not open to the public, the refuge’s North Tract and impressive National Wildlife Visitor Center provide visitors with opportunities to walk, view wildlife, fish and hunt.
3. Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge (Cape Charles, Va.). Established in 1984 to promote migratory and endangered species management, this 1,123-acre refuge located at the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula was once a military fort. During World War II, Fort John Custis protected naval bases in Virginia Beach and Norfolk. In 1950, the U.S. Air Force took ownership of the fort, renamed it the Cape Charles Air Force Station and occupied the area until 1981. Today, the refuge is valued as one of the most important stopover sites for migrating birds and butterflies in the nation. Each fall, songbirds, raptors and monarch butterflies gather at the refuge to feed and rest before resuming their migrations south. More than 400 bird species have been seen in and around the refuge, and on peak days, 100,000 monarch butterflies have been seen on refuge roosts. The refuge’s wood- and shrublands, fields, ponds and marshes are also valuable to insects (including the endangered northeastern beach tiger beetle), mammals and other critters. The refuge provides visitors with opportunities to walk, view wildlife, boat and hunt for white-tailed deer.
4. Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge (Lorton, Va.). Established in February of 1969, this 2,227-acre refuge sits on a boot-shaped peninsula between the Potomac and Occoquan rivers. While an airport and residential community were planned for the land in the early 1960s, local resident Elizabeth van Laer Speer Hartwell launched a campaign to halt the development and protect the bald eagles that called the Potomac River home. As a result, this refuge—located just 18 miles south of Washington, D.C.—became the first that was established for the explicit protection of the bald eagle and one of four named after women. It encompasses almost six miles of shoreline, 2,000 acres of mature hardwood forest and 207 acres of tidal freshwater marsh that is home to a large breeding colony of great blue herons. The refuge provides visitors with opportunities to walk, view wildlife and hunt for white-tailed deer.
5. Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Warsaw, Va.). Established in 1996, this refuge is the newest of four that compose the Eastern Virginia Rivers National Wildlife Refuge Complex. While it currently consists of 8,720 acres of forests, grassland, marshland and swamps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to protect 20,000 acres of habitat along the Rappahannock and its tributaries over time. The refuge is home to breeding bald eagles and migrating birds, and provides visitors with opportunities to walk, view wildlife, boat, fish and hunt for white-tailed deer.