When I last wrote this column, America was shutting down in response to the COVID-19 virus. One month later, we’ve learned the importance of resources, or the lack thereof, and how our families and communities are affected by responsive efforts. As birders we’re disappointed by the cancellation of spring birding festivals but thankful that the resources of the National Wildlife Refuge System are in place to serve the thousands of migratory birds passing through Washington.
The National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS), at more than 1 million acres of wetlands, located on 356 refuges and 3,000 waterfowl production areas throughout all 50 states, is a huge resource for migratory birds. The NWRS was established for the purpose of conserving migratory birds, and where appropriate restoration of native species dependent upon lands within the refuge system. As a result, most activities allowed on NWRS lands must be consistent with these purposes and some refuge lands are off-limits or have limited access to the general public. Of these 356 refuges, more than 200 were established specifically to provide breeding or wintering habitat for migratory birds. Every US state has at least one refuge and Washington State is home to 21 refuges. Although each refuge has its unique characteristics, they all share a common and interconnecting theme – the conservation of migratory birds. Some of the jewels of the NWRS system are located right here in Western Washington.
One of the world’s longest sand spits is found at Dungeness NWR. The spit protects the nutrient-rich tideflats for spring and fall migrants and the bay for wintering waterfowl. The small, fragile wilderness islands of San Juan NWR host about 80% of the breeding pairs of Black Oystercatchers in the Salish Sea region. Approx. 800 offshore rocks, reefs, and islands located within and adjoining Flattery Rocks NWR provide critical nesting habitat for most of Washington’s seabirds, including Tufted Puffins, and more than 1 million seabirds utilize the refuge during spring and fall migration. Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR is home to over 200 species of birds that depend upon the restored estuary for resting and feeding during migration or breeding and raising their young. Grays Harbor NWR encompasses about 1,500 acres of intertidal mudflats, salt marsh, and uplands. From late April to early May hundreds of thousands of shorebirds, including most of the world’s population of Western Sandpipers, rest and feed here on their journey to Alaska and Arctic summer breeding grounds.
In the decades since the National Wildlife Refuge System was formed, these resources are even more precious today in the face of increased demand and pressure for resource extraction – think oil drilling in the biological heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The NWRS lands belong to all of us – even if they are off-limits or restrict public access - and as birders and individuals concerned about conservation, we must ensure these resources are available for generations to come. For more information about these and other refuges, the birds that depend upon them, and public access or restrictions, please visit www.fws.gov/refuges/index.html.