The U.S. Wildlife Refuge System in 1997 comprised more than 520 different areas in all the states, covering over 93 million acres (37.7 million hectares). The system is administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Dept. of the Interior. The service was established in 1940 by consolidation of the Bureau of Biological Survey (est. 1885 in the Dept. of Agriculture) and the Bureau of Fisheries (est. 1871 as an independent office). The work of the service includes biological research, the administration and enforcement of relevant federal legislation, and numerous related projects.
Refuges have been established for big game (e.g., bison, bighorn sheep, and elk), small resident game, waterfowl, and colonial nongame birds (e.g., pelicans, terns, and gulls). By far the most numerous are the waterfowl refuges, which variously supply breeding areas, wintering areas, and resting and feeding areas along major flyways during migration. Although the main purpose of the refuge system is to ensure survival of wildlife by providing suitable cover, food, and protection from humans, many refuges permit hunting and fishing in season and other recreational activities such as hiking, boating, and swimming. Some refuges have been designated wilderness areas.
Refuges have been established by private individuals and societies (the Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society are notable for their pioneering conservation work) and by all levels of government. The first state refuge was established by California in 1870; the first federal refuge was Pelican Island in Florida (1903). Other countries throughout the world also maintain parks, refuges, and game preserves. One of the oldest is the vast Kruger National Park (est. 1898) for the preservation of big game in South Africa. In more recent years, nations have established largely or entirely aquatic marine parks, reserves, and other protected areas to help ensure the survival of sea life.