Concerned over the unregulated shooting of egrets and other showy birds for the plume trade, President Theodore Roosevelt asked one of his advisors in 1903 if he could declare Pelican Island in Florida’s St. Johns River a bird sanctuary. With his advisor’s blessing, T.R. established the first piece of today’s National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) system.

Totaling more than 150 million acres and 553 refuges, with at least one refuge in every state, the National Wildlife Refuge system is used by more than 40 million people annually to hike, bird watch, photograph, hunt and fish. Many are surprised to learn that hunting is allowed, since it runs contrary to the concept of a refuge in the minds of some.

Yet hunting is allowed in more than 300 of these refuges, which range from huge units like Alaska’s 19.2 million acre Arctic NWR to Virginia’s Plum Tree Island NWR, which provides waterfowl hunters access to its 200 acre Cow Island.

The best and most widely known hunting opportunities on National Wildlife Refuges are for waterfowl, but many also offer opportunities to hunt big game, small game, upland birds and turkeys. Increasingly, refuges are offering special hunts for disabled hunters.

Photo Courtesy of Steven R. Emmons for the Union Sportsmen's AllianceRather than isolated islands of wildlife amid an ocean of development, most National Wildlife Refuges serve a more complex and useful purpose. Acting as a nucleus for nearby properties, their wildlife and wild land resources often grow well beyond their borders.  Together, the refuges and surrounding lands provide additional protective cover, breeding grounds and food sources for a wide array of wildlife species. The results are increased wildlife populations, healthier environments and additional recreational opportunities for area residents, especially hunters.

A good example of this phenomenon is California’s Sacramento Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which consists of five refuges and three wildlife management areas. While many don’t associate California with hunting, the Golden State is home to some of the best waterfowl hunting in the U.S., and there’s no more dedicated waterfowl hunting community in the country than the one that centers on the Sacramento Valley’s refuges.

One of the most popular destinations is the 11,000 acre Sacramento NWR unit with a number of established hunting blinds and “free roaming” areas available though a combination of access programs including reservations, lottery draw or on a first-come first-served basis. The hunting programs are managed by the California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife. Additional information is available at

California’s waterfowl hunting seasons usually start in late October and continue through the end of January. Snow geese and the much sought after speckled bellies are two popular species along with pintails and mallards. For hunters who decide not to participate or take their chances in the public access route, there are a number of local guides with leases around the refuges that provide hunting packages and daily rates. The same holds true for many refuges around the country. Learn more at

Wherever you live, there’s a NWR nearby and, even if the waterfowl season is over, there’s likely a late season muzzleloader hunt for deer or a small game season still open. If you need a place to hunt or are looking for new opportunities, consider a National Wildlife Refuge. After all, it’s your land, so get out there and enjoy it.

Ken Barrett is the Senior Staff Writer for the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA),  a union-dedicated outdoor organization whose members hunt, fish, shoot and volunteer their skills for conservation.

Photos: Steven R. Emmons

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One thought on “Our National Wildlife Refuges: Prime Waterfowl Hunting on Public Land

  1. I was in fact very surprised to read that you can hunt on bird refuges. Still, how exactly does that work? Are there certain parts of refuges that are designated for hunting. I imagine it would be a dire sight for an unsuspecting bird-watcher to see a bird go down seemingly out of the blue…

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