Landscapes like those in California’s western Riverside County provide important habitat connections for migratory birds as they make their perilous journey across the hemisphere. The county is also one of the country's fastest-growing regions, making the need to maintain and restore access to healthy, natural environments even more critical. In late July, California Senators Diane Feinstein and Alex Padilla introduced legislation to establish one of the nation's largest urban National Wildlife Refuges in the area.
If passed into law, the new wildlife refuge would protect the habitat of hundreds of bird species, including one of the largest remaining breeding populations of Tricolored Blackbirds, a state-threatened species, in southern California. Many California Species of Special Concern maintain their largest breeding or wintering populations in this region, such as the White-faced Ibis, Ferruginous Hawk, Mountain Plover, and Burrowing Owl. The effort to establish the Western Riverside National Wildlife Refuge marks a bipartisan commitment to protect the most important places for people and birds in Southern California. The recent Senate introduction builds on years-long efforts by Representatives Ken Calvert (CA-42) and Mark Takano (CA-41), who had previously introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives.
Not only would the proposed Refuge's 300,000+ acres provide community access to the benefits of nature, it would also ensure that bird populations continue to find sanctuary in an increasingly urban landscape. As proposed, the new Refuge would encompass multiple Important Bird Areas (IBA), including the San Jacinto Valley, Aguanga Area, Santa Anna River Valley, and Skinner Reservoir IBAs. With more than 20 special-status species residents for much of the year, and supporting thousands of waterbirds from late summer through spring, the San Jacinto Valley is one of the most vital IBAs in California. Audubon is working with land managers across the West to ensure these avian “corridors” remain intact and healthy.
The Western Riverside National Wildlife Refuge is just one example of how the National Wildlife Refuge System can support the important goals of increased equitable access to nature and better protections for declining bird populations. The national system encompasses over 560 refuges that span 95 million acres, with more than 200 of those units dedicated to protecting migratory bird species. The importance of the Refuge System will only increase in the coming decades, serving as strongholds for bird species as the effects of climate change accelerate.
Unfortunately, the Refuge System is chronically underfunded and understaffed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been forced to scale back management between increased visitation, additional acreage, and backlogged maintenance. In addition to increased output, the Refuge System has only seen nominal increases in funding that have forced a reduction in staff size. While Congress has proposed an increase in funds in the fiscal year 2023, the number is far below the Refuge System's needs. Audubon is working with lawmakers, allies, and members to ensure the Refuge System is adequately funded for generations to come.
Despite the system’s shortfalls, wildlife refuges are one of the nation’s best tools to protect birds and other wildlife, mitigate climate change, and increase equitable access to nature. Expanding the system to include new landscapes in the most impactful places will ensure a future where birds and people thrive. Recent developments, like the recent expansion of Lost Trail National Conservation Area in Montana and the introduction of the Western Riverside National Wildlife Refuge Act in California, demonstrate meaningful opportunities for conservation in these critical landscapes.
Birds tell us that we need to act on climate and habitat loss. Investment in and expansion of the National Wildlife Refuge System are actions we can take today to respond to their call.