TAKE REFUGE: The Natural Beauty of North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

This blog is part of an ongoing series on our National Wildlife Refuge System and the vital role that refuges play in protecting species and providing crucial habitat for wildlife. Check in regularly to hear from our field teams, policy experts and staff on Capitol Hill about new developments and continuing threats to these wild places and what you can do to help.

To experience the beauty of a wild expanse of forests, plains, mountains or marsh is a treat that has gotten harder and harder to find. In this age of rapid development, public lands like national forests and wildlife refuges are sanctuaries for nature-loving humans and wildlife alike. As America’s flourishing human population and ever-expanding suburban sprawl continue to rumble across our natural areas, our native wildlife becomes marooned on shrinking islands of natural habitat – making the need for refuges greater every year.

If you’ve never visited the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina, you’re missing out. The refuge is a hidden gem of the East Coast – more than 150,000 acres of land teeming with wildlife. It is home to whitetail deer, bobcats, raccoons, fox, otters, endless varieties of migratory birds, more butterflies than you’ve ever laid eyes on, black bears, and, of course, the elusive, beautiful, and critically endangered red wolf.

Alligator River was established in 1984 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to create a refuge for a unique wetland forest called a pocosin, typified by its unique vegetation and peat soils. Pocosins are endemic to the Southeastern Atlantic coastline, and the majority of these wildlife-rich forests are found along the coast of North Carolina. Alligator River’s protected lands harbor critically important habitat for native North Carolina species, while also serving a dual purpose of providing the public opportunities to explore wildlife in their natural habitats. © Heather Clarkson

In 1987, the first pairs of red wolves were released on the Alligator River refuge, pioneering a recovery effort not yet seen in the United States. For more than two decades following these releases, red wolves have inhabited the refuge. At one point, there were more than 150 wild red wolves across northeastern North Carolina. These wolves thrived, once again allowed to roam free in their natural habitat, and the anchor of federally protected Alligator River refuge lands provided the wolves with the space and safety they needed to expand throughout the five-county recovery area. Tragically, red wolves are in crisis right now: there are fewer than 45 red wolves remaining in the wild, and Defenders of Wildlife is fighting to save them. Alligator National Wildlife Refuge is at the heart of their recovery.

Red wolves are not the only species that depend on the security of the refuge. Alligator River boasts the densest population of black bears in the country. Just forty years ago, black bears in the North Carolina coastal plain had been decimated to only a few bears, but the population has since rebounded nearly tenfold since the protection of this incredibly important coastal habitat. The refuge is also home to the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and American alligators, two other native southern species that found themselves victims of extreme habitat degradation and over-hunting.

Public lands across the nation, like Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, have long been the targets of political attacks for a number of reasons. Many special interest groups wish to use these protected lands for their abundant natural resources, like minerals and timber, while others simply resent the presence of the government agencies that maintain these lands. However, without these protected areas, many species would be eking out a precarious existence amongst the ever-looming threat of development and habitat fragmentation. © Heather Clarkson

Defenders of Wildlife plays a leading role in helping shape smart conservation policies for managing national wildlife refuges, national forests and other public lands because these areas, owned by all Americans, represent some of the last best places for wildlife to thrive. The public can play a crucial part in protecting these habitats, as well, by supporting public lands like Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. This can be as simple as planning your next outdoor adventure at a national forest or wildlife refuge, or casting your vote for a candidate who understands the importance of public lands for wildlife habitat. Refuges like Alligator River are part of our nation’s great conservation legacy, meant to be shared for generations to come.