A greater sandhill crane feeds in the wetlands at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. More than 200 pairs of sandhills nest on the refuge each year.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would have been celebrating one of the crowning conservation achievements of America.
America’s 561 wildlife refuges (adding up to 150 million plus acres) are home to thousands of species of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. Nearly 21 million acres of these incredible landscapes benefit from permanent protection from degradation and destruction in the National Wilderness Preservation System.
But it appears that partisan gridlock has pulled the plug on National Wildlife Refuge Week festivities, unless Congress is able to agree on a spending package that will allow the government to reopen this week.
Since you won't be able to visit any federally managed refuges in person during the shutdown, check out our photo line-up below for some of our favorite critters whose habitats are protected by the National Wildlife Refuge System.
While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was unable to be reached for comment due to the shutdown, several wildlife refuges have already announced that National Wildlife Refuge Week events will be cancelled due to staff and volunteer furloughs and closed facilities.
America's wildlife refuges have been particularly hard hit, even before the shutdown, due to budget cuts that have failed to account for refuges' funding needs. The National Wildlife Refuge System is integral not only to the wellbeing of threatened species, but to local communities, and outdoor and agricultural industries. The fates of refuges will be felt far beyond their boundaries.
Recent funding cuts have pushed refuges dangerously close to a tipping point, beyond which it may be difficult to even carry out basic functions related to their missions. If sequestration cuts are allowed to continue in FY 2014, it is estimated that the Refuge System's appropriation will drop to only $389 million—a cut of $114 million, or 23 percent, compared with FY 2010.
The nation's Refuge System will need at least $499 million for operations and maintenance from Congress in FY 2014 to account for budgets that have not kept pace with rising costs. While this funding level still represents a major cut from in real dollars from just a few years ago, it is a move that will allow America's wildlife refuges to keep moving forward.
Saving habitats helps save species
National wildlife refuges manage and care for a full spectrum of habitat types, including: wetlands, prairies, coastal and marine areas, and temperate, tundra and boreal forests.
One of the greatest threats that species face is the widespread destruction of these natural habitats. In regions where vulnerable or endangered species are present, habitat degradation can quickly lead to extinction.
Protecting America’s unique ecosystems is one of the most important things we can do to help ensure the survival of threatened and endangered species.
Without permanent protection through the National Wilderness Preservation System, many of these habitats are in danger of disappearing. This additional and indelible protection would shield America’s remaining ecosystems from the effects of:
- Urban intrusion and development
- Habitat fragmentation
- Degradation of water quantity and quality
- Climate change
- Invasive species
- Increasing demands for recreation
- Increasing demands for energy development
These pristine places provide not only vital habitat for wildlife but also places for people to enjoy America’s great outdoors, and an economic boost for local communities. In 2006, 47 million people visit refuges each year, contributing $2.1 billion to local economies and supporting tens of thousands of local jobs.
The Wilderness Society, along with a diverse coalition of partners that includes sportsmen’s groups and environmentalists, is pushing Congress to increase funding to maintain and operate America’s treasured national wildlife refuges. These areas are simply too important—both ecologically and economically—to let slide into disrepair.
Many refuges would have hosted public celebrations this month, with events ranging from open houses, to behind-the-scenes nature tours with refuge staff to opportunities to get up-close and personal with animals.
Since you won't be able to visit any federally managed refuges in person during the shutdown, check out some of our favorite critters whose habitats and wild populations are protected by the National Wildlife Refuge System:
1. Skulks of San Joaquin kit foxes
The San Joaquin kit fox is the smallest fox in North America, with an average body length of 20 inches and weight of about 5 pounds. It is a member of the Canidae family, which includes dogs, wolves and foxes. San Joaquin kit foxes are lightly built, with long legs and large ears. Their coat ranges from tan to buffy gray in the summer to silvery gray in the winter. Their belly is whitish and their tail is black-tipped.
Where to see them: Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, CA; Kern National Wildlife Refuge, CA; Merced National Wildlife Refuge, CA
Photo: Property #1, flickr
2. Romps of American river otters
The North American river otter, also known as the northern river otter or the common otter, is a semiaquatic mammal endemic to the North American continent found in and along its waterways and coasts. The range of the North American river otter has been significantly reduced by habitat loss, beginning with the European colonization of North America. In some regions, though, their population is controlled to allow the trapping and harvesting of otters for their pelts. River otters are very susceptible to environmental pollution, which is a likely factor in the continued decline of their numbers. A number of reintroduction projects have been initiated to help stabilize the reduction in the overall population.
Where to see them: Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, FL; Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, FL; Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge, OK
Photo: Chris Paul, flickr
3. Herds of bison
The American bison, also commonly known as the American buffalo, is a North American species of bison that once roamed the grasslands of North America in massive herds, became nearly extinct by a combination of commercial hunting and slaughter in the 19th century and introduction of bovine diseases from domestic cattle, and has made a recent resurgence largely restricted to a few national parks and wildlife refuges.
Where to see them: National Bison Range, MT; Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, MT
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
4. Colonies of pikas
The pika (also known as the "whistling hare" for its shrill vocalizations) is a small mammal, with short limbs, rounded ears, and no external tail. Pikas are native to cold climates, mostly in North America. Most species live on rocky mountain sides, where there are numerous crevices in which to shelter, although some pika also construct burrows. Pikas do not hibernate, so they generally spend time during the summer collecting and storing food they will eat over the winter. Each rock-dwelling pika stores its own "haypile" of dried vegetation, while burrowing species often share food stores with their burrow mates.
Where to see them: Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, OR
Photo: David Kingham, flickr
5. Parliaments of great horned owls
The Great Horned Owl, also known as the Tiger Owl, is a large owl native to the Americas. It is an adaptable bird with a vast range and is the most widely distributed true owl in the Americas. Its call is normally a low-pitched but loud ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo but it can occasionally be reduced to four syllables instead of five. Most mortality in modern times is human-related. Great Horned Owls will occasionally fly into man-made objects, and may be killed on impact by buildings or cars or electrocuted by contact with power lines.
Where to see them: Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, WA; John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, PA; Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, SC and GA
Photo: Peter Moore, flickr
6. Packs of gray wolves
The gray wolf is a species of canid native to the wilderness and remote areas of North America, Eurasia and North Africa. The gray wolf is the sole ancestor of the dog, which was first domesticated in the Middle East. It is a social animal, traveling in nuclear families consisting of a mated pair, accompanied by the pair's adult offspring. The gray wolf is typically an apex predator throughout its range, with only humans and other large carnivores posing a serious threat to it.
Where to see them: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, AK; Seney National Wildlife Refuge, MI; Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, NM
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
7. Flocks of mountain goats
The mountain goat, also known as the Rocky Mountain goat, is a large-hoofed mammal found only in North America. A subalpine to alpine species (they have been found at elevations of more than 13,000 feet), it is a sure-footed climber commonly seen on cliffs and ice. The mountain goat's feet are well-suited for climbing steep, rocky slopes, sometimes with pitches of 60° or more, with inner pads that provide traction and cloven hooves that can be spread apart as needed. Also, the tips of their feet have dewclaws that are sharp to keep them from slipping.
Where to see them: Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, AK; Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, AK; Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, CO
Photo: Oregon Fish and Wildlife Service
8. Herds of caribou
Caribou (also known as "reindeer"), is a species of deer native to Arctic and Subarctic regions. This includes both resident and migratory populations. While overall widespread and numerous, some of its subspecies are rare and at least one has already gone extinct.
Where to see them: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, AK
Photo: AER Wilmington DC, flickr
9. Sleuths of grizzly bears
The grizzly bear, is any North American subspecies of the brown bear. Except for cubs and females, grizzlies are normally solitary, active animals, but in coastal areas, grizzlies gather around streams, lakes, rivers and ponds during the salmon spawn. Every other year, females produce one to four young (usually two)which are small and weigh only about 1 pound. A female is protective of her offspring and will attack if she thinks she or her cubs are threatened.
Where to see them: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, AK; Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, AK; Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, MT
Photo: Princess Lo, flickr
10. Packs of polar bears
The polar bear is a carnivorous bear whose native range lies largely within the Arctic Circle, encompassing the Arctic Ocean, its surrounding seas and surrounding land masses. Although most polar bears are born on land, they spend most of their time at sea. Their scientific name means "maritime bear", and derives from this fact. Polar bears hunt their preferred food of seals from the edge of sea ice, often living off fat reserves when no sea ice is present. The polar bear is classified as a vulnerable species, with eight of the nineteen polar bear subpopulations in decline. For decades, large scale hunting raised international concern for the future of the species but populations rebounded after controls and quotas began to take effect.
Where to see them: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, AK
Photo: Martin Lopatka, flickr
11. Sedges of great blue herons
The Great Blue Heron is a large wading bird, common near the shores of open water and in wetlands over most of North America. It is the largest North American heron, with a head-to-tail length of 36 to 54 inches and a wingspan of 66 to 79 inches. The primary food for Great Blue Heron is small fish, though it is also known to opportunistically feed on a wide range of shrimp, crabs, aquatic insects, rodents and other small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and small birds. Herons locate their food by sight and usually swallow it whole.
Where to see them: Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, VT; Seney National Wildlife Refuge, MI; Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, VA; Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, GA
Photo: Terry Foote, flickr
12. Colonies of puffins
Puffins are any of three small species of auks in the bird genus Fratercula with a brightly coloured beak during the breeding season. These are pelagic seabirds that feed primarily by diving in the water. They breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands, nesting in crevices among rocks or in burrows in the soil. Their short wings are adapted for swimming with a flying technique under water. Puffins form long-term pair bonds or relationships. The female lays a single egg, and both parents incubate the egg and feed the chick (or "puffling"). Puffins are hunted for eggs, feathers and meat. Atlantic Puffin populations drastically declined due to habitat destruction and exploitation during the 19th century and early 20th century.
Where to see them: Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, ME
Photo: Nigel Appleton, flickr
13. Rookeries of Hawaiian monk seals
The Hawaiian monk seal is a critically endangered species of earless seal that is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaiian monk seal is one of two remaining monk seal species. These monk seals are a conservation reliant endangered species. The small population of about 1,300 individuals is threatened by human encroachment, very low levels of genetic variation, entanglement in fishing nets, marine debris, disease, and past commercial hunting for skins. Its common name comes from short hairs on its head, said to resemble a monk. The majority of the Hawaiian monk seal population can be found around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands but a small and growing population lives around the main Hawaiian Islands. It is illegal to kill, capture or harass a Hawaiian monk seal.
Where to see them: Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, HI; Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, HI
Photo: Rob Wendler, flickr
14. Bands of Santa Cruz long-toed salamanders
The Santa Cruz long-toed salamander is an endangered subspecies of the long-toed salamander, which is found only close to a few isolated ponds in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties in California. It has a black body, broken yellow or orange irregular striping along its spine, and a tail fin well evolved for swimming. Like other mole salamanders, it is found near pools or slow-moving steams; this creature has a very secretive lifestyle, making it difficult to find. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge in 1975, after recognizing the surrounding habitat as critical to the salamander’s survival. Because of the salamander and the habitats’ sensitivity to disturbance, the refuge is closed to the public and both are cooperatively managed to protect and restore salamander habitat. Further disturbance of its limited habitat could lead to this species' extinction.
Where to see them: Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge, CA
Photo: Jake Khuon, flickr
15. Rabbles of monarch butterflies
The Monarch butterfly is a milkweed butterfly, and is perhaps the best known of all North American butterflies. The monarch is famous for its southward late summer and autumn migration from the United States and southern Canada to Mexico and coastal California, and northward return in spring, which occurs over the lifespans of three to four generations of the butterfly. Monarch butterflies are one of the few insects that can cross the Atlantic.
Where to see them: John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, PA; Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, TX; St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, FL
Photo: Dave Govoni, flickr
16. Lounges of Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizards
The Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard is an endangered species in California. It is well adapted to live in desert ecosystems, and has a wedged-shaped nose which enables it to burrow through loose, fine sand. Elongated scales cover the ears to keep out blowing sand, and specialized nostrils allow it to breathe below the sand without inhaling sand particles. This lizard is restricted to habitats with fine, windblown sand deposits in the sandy plains of the Coachella Valley, Riverside County, California. Since the 1970s, estimates of this species' habitat has decreased by about 75% due to human activities.
Where to see them: Coachella Valley National Wildlife Refuge, CA
Photo: Marc Proudfoot, flickr