Two Alaska National Wildlife Refuges Celebrate 100th Birthday

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Coastal mudflats near Tern MountainPresident Teddy Roosevelt recognized the national significance of Alaska?s abundant and unique bird life by designating the first National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska 100 years ago today, on February 27, 1909.  Portions of what are now the Alaska Maritime and Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuges were among the first of 53 ?reservations? created by Roosevelt and added to the new National Wildlife Refuge System.

Naturalists, sailing in 1899 on the Alaskan expedition organized by wealthy railroad tycoon Edward Harriman, noted and documented the teeming seabird cities found at each of the five sites that would later be nominated as coastal bird reservations. Expedition scientists were also alarmed by the damage to fish and wildlife from over-harvesting, canneries, and mines in this ?pristine? landscape.  The Harriman Expedition?s widely circulated reports caught the eye of the newly formed National Audubon Society, which sent investigators to Alaska.  The Audubon Society convinced the Roosevelt administration to put these distant lands under the protection of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Yukon Delta was added to the system on the recommendation of Edward Nelson, who spent four years exploring the Delta in the 1870s and 80s, while working as the Chief Signal Officer of the Army on assignment to St. Michaels.  Nelson made several sledge journeys across the vast, unknown Yukon Delta, collecting specimens and ethnographic treasures.  The Yupik people called him the ?man who collects good-for-nothing things.? His enthusiasm for, and intimate knowledge of, the Delta undoubtedly influenced Roosevelt, who considered Nelson ?one of the keenest naturalists we have ever had?.

parakeet auklets.Heather Renner/USFWS Five units of the present day Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (St. Matthew Island, Otter and Walrus Islands in the Pribilofs; Bogoslof Island near Unalaska, Chisik Island near Homer, and St. Lazaria Island near Sitka) were established by Roosevelt as separate bird reservations, later to be called refuges.  Other presidents followed Roosevelt?s lead, creating additional refuges along Alaska?s coast.  The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980 consolidated these coastal refuges into today?s Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. 

The Maritime Refuge is the most expansive refuge in the country, encompassing more than 2,500 islands, rocks, and reefs along most of Alaska?s coastline.  These misty, wind-swept islands provide nesting habit for more than 40 million seabirds, and rookeries and haul-outs for marine mammals.  Rare birds found only in the Bering Sea include whiskered auklets, red-legged kittiwakes, and black guillemots flourish on the refuge, as well as the ever popular puffins.

The Maritime Refuge is a bird watcher?s paradise.  Tour boats take visitors to see unique seabirds on refuge islands near Sitka, Seward, Homer, Unalaska, and the Pribilofs.  The refuge?s Islands & Ocean Visitor?s Center at its headquarters in Homer was designed to help road system visitors understand and appreciate this remote offshore world.

The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, headquartered in Bethel, now includes more lands within its boundaries than any other refuge in the country.  In its original incarnation, the Yukon Delta Bird Reservation protected migratory bird habitats extending west from the mouth of the Kuskokwim River and north to the Yukon River. This vast expanse of sub-arctic meadow and tundra, however, was not permanently protected by Roosevelt?s actions in 1909.  Just 13 years later, President William Harding revoked the designation of the Yukon Delta Bird Reservation, only to have portions of it reinstated seven years later.  Over the years, additional lands, including Nunivak Island, were added to the Refuge and these were consolidated into the present day Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980.

Today the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is known as the premier waterbird breeding site on the continent.  Millions of waterfowl and shorebirds flock there annually to nest, raise their young, and prepare for their migrations. The refuge?s remote uplands provide nesting habitat for the rare bristle-thighed curlew, and its coastal habitats provide sustenance for migrating bar-tailed godwits before they embark on their flight to New Zealand, the longest non-stop migratory bird flight known in the world.  In addition, the refuge supports important populations of salmon, moose, and caribou which, together with waterfowl, provide for the subsistence needs of the region?s vibrant Yup?ik Eskimo culture.

?It was visionary of Roosevelt to establish these refuges,? said Alaskan Regional Director Geoffrey L. Haskett. ?The Yukon Delta Refuge is the largest waterbird nesting refuge in the country, and Alaska Maritime provides habitat for most of North America?s seabirds. These are priceless resources that could have slipped away without this early recognition and the protection the National Wildlife Refuge System offers.?

Celebrations will take place throughout the year in Anchorage, Bethel, Homer, Sitka and Unalaska.  Visit and to learn more about these first refuges.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit