The national wildlife refuges of the United States are unmatched by those of any other country in the world in the geographic span they cover, the diversity of habitat they provide and the variety and numbers of wild creatures they harbor.

Most of our endangered species would not survive now but for these protected places. Other species almost certainly would have become endangered but for this protection.

Huge brown bears weighing a half-ton, largest land carnivore in the world, roam Alaskan refuges, fishing where millions of salmon fight their way up rushing streams and rivers. Brilliant painted buntings nest on coastal Georgia and South Carolina islands. Bald eagles congregate by the hundreds in sanctuaries in the lower 48 states as well as Alaska.

Millions of waterfowl darken the sky as in a bygone age when they visit Tule Lake in California’s Klamath Basin. Millions of shorebirds gather in spring in Bowerman Basin at Grays Harbor on the coast of Washington, and on the east coast at Cape May in New Jersey, essential stopovers to rest and store up fat reserves en route to Arctic breeding grounds.

The howl of the red wolf is once again heard in the wild at Alligator River. Florida Panthers have their own refuge where it is hoped their small numbers will increase. Primeval alligators, once endangered, below through the night in Louisiana, Georgia and Florida marshes, one of many endangered species brought back from the edge of extinction at refuges.

More than 475 of these remarkable places exist, at least one in every state. They cover 91 million acres and protect substantially every kind of wild animal native to the continent. It is an extraordinary list–more than 220 species of mammals, more than 600 of birds, 250 reptiles and amphibians, over 200 species of fish and uncounted numbers of plants, from wild orchids to unique palm trees.

Most refuges are open to the public for various wildlife-oriented activities. Prime among these is nature observation, but they range also through photography, hiking, backpacking, fishing. Hunting is included at many, mainly regarded these days as a management tool to keep wildlife populations in balance. To decide deer may proliferate freely, for example, can mean eliminating the woods understory where towhees might nest. But at some refuges hunting remains a central activity, albeit controversial, following state regulations, often on land which became a refuge on condition these traditional activities be allowed to continue. This can interfere with wildlife observation (sometimes it’s best to enquire ahead in fall, especially at southern and western refuges). Some refuges also are closed, partly closed or closed seasonally to protect sensitive wildlife nesting or other vulnerable situations.