The establishment of wildlife refuges in North America was in response to the awareness of the degradation of lands and wildlife existing in the continent.† Heavy exploitation of resources, the Civil War, and unchecked industrialization in the 19th Century, were the major culprits of this process.† The passenger pigeon was decimated to extinction and the massive herds of Great Plains buffalo were brought to near extinction (Trefethen 1975).† Private organizations, such as the National Audubon Society, Boone and Crockett Club, and Isaac Walton League, took pro-active steps to preserve wildlife and wildlands through legislation and by the establishment of privately funded refuges (Reed and Drabelle 1984).

Lake Merritt, in Oakland, California, was the first government owned wildlife refuge in the United States (Reed and Drabelle 1984).† Established by the state of California in 1870, this refuge still exists in the heart of downtown Oakland as a migratory waterfowl rest stop on the Pacific Flyway.† The second property set aside for the purpose of preserving federal land and its wildlife was Yellowstone National Park in 1872 (Gabrielson 1943).† However, the park did not receive full protection until 1886, when a troop from the First Calvary, led by Captain Moses Harris, was sent to protect the park from continued resource exploitation (Trefethen 1975).

Although not their primary purpose, the National Parks functionally served as the first federal wildlife refuges.† The first federal wildlife sanctuary (Afognak Island, Alaska) was established by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, as a national salmon-spawning reservation (Reed and Drabelle 1984).

During the later 1800's, the forerunners to the US Fish and Wildlife Service began to emerge.† The Bureau of Fisheries was established in 1871, and in 1886 the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, later known as the Division of Biological Survey, was formed (Reed and Drabelle 1984).† The Fish Commission was established in California in 1870 to restore the stateís fish communities and in 1878, California instituted the first state Fish and Game commission in the United States, although its effectiveness was limited to influencing legislation.

President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) raised the standard of conservation through wise land use and in 1903, he established the Pelican Island Refuge in Florida, the first of 53 refuges President Roosevelt would establish on federally owned lands, during his two terms (Reed and Drabelle 1984).† The second state refuge in the nation was established by Indiana in 1903, 33 years after Lake Merritt.† State refuges were established in Pennsylvania in 1905, Alabama in 1907, Massachusetts in 1908, Idaho in 1909, Louisiana in 1911, and by 1925, wildlife refuges had been created in 24 states (Gabrielson 1943).

In 1909, federal funds were first used to buy and fence 13,000 acres on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana for the first bison preserve.† The first federal funds for a general wildlife refuge were appropriated in 1924, for bottom lands of the upper Mississippi River (Gabrielson 1943).

Despite the impressive acquisition effort, most of these government refuges were not managed.† With no federal government funding for management or enforcement, many refuges provided little benefit to wildlife.† Private funding from organizations such as the American Ornithologistsí Union and the Audubon Society paid for the early enforcement on some federal refuges (Reed and Drabelle 1984).† Maine was the first state to hire game wardens in 1852, and North Dakota was the first state to raise funds through the sale of hunting licences for wildlife protection in 1895; this action separated wildlife protection from political influence (Trefethen 1975).† California began selling hunting licenses in 1907, and fishing licenses in 1913.

Increased funding for federal refuges did not come about until the 1930ís when the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 allowed the use of federal funds for land acquisition.† The Duck Stamp Act of 1934, provided the funding for acquisition, improvement, and management of waterfowl refuges (Reed and Drabelle 1984).† During the 1930ís, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration provided the labor and the Duck Stamp Act provided the supplies for development and improvement of refuges (Gabrielson 1943).

By 1956, 272 national wildlife refuges had been established and the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956 allowed refuges to be established for all types of wildlife.† The total acreage of national wildlife refuges doubled over the next twenty years (Reed and Drabelle 1984).† In 1966, the national wildlife refuge system was formally established by the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act.† National refuge acreage again doubled in 1980, with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.† Currently, the National Refuge System covers about 90 million acres, of which 77 million are in Alaska (Woodbury 998).† The California Department of Fish and Game maintains 200 wildlife areas and ecological reserves, covering almost 700,000 acres (California Department of Fish and Game 1996).