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Refuge data for projections of avian assemblage change at U.S. National Wildlife Refuges

Cite this dataset

Wu, Joanna et al. (2022). Refuge data for projections of avian assemblage change at U.S. National Wildlife Refuges [Dataset]. Dryad.


The National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) provides one of the United States’ greatest protected area networks for wildlife conservation. As climate changes beyond historical ranges of variability, refuge managers are confronted with assessing the utility of refuges, including how to best manage refuges both individually and as a system to help species cope with rapid change. Using published species distribution models, we projected species-specific changes in environmental suitability for 590 native North American bird species under a 2°C future (~2050s under RCP8.5) at 525 refuges. We classified projected changes in suitability (i.e. improving, stable, or worsening suitability) and whether they crossed a model-derived persistence threshold at a refuge (i.e. potential colonization or potential extirpation). Overall, we found that a quarter of species (23% in summer, 26% in winter) could be different (i.e. turn over) across the refuge system despite protections. Seasonal communities are not equally affected, so managers should consider different strategies designed to benefit both breeding and non-breeding communities. We forecast a slight net species loss in summer, from a mean of 109.0 ± 0.8 to 102.0 ± 0.7 species/refuge. In winter, we forecast a net gain in species, from a mean of 97.1 ± 2.2 to 118.5 ± 1.8 species/refuge. This includes an average of 12 species/refuge that may overwinter rather than migrate south. Refuges at northern latitudes will see relatively more turnover in species, while southern and coastal refuges will see fewer changes. Despite these species changes, dominant habitat association groups (e.g., waterbirds, forest birds) will generally stay the same across most of the NRWS. Some species may be lost from the entire NWRS and can benefit in the near term from targeted management. Regions of high turnover, extirpation, and colonization (i.e., at northern latitudes) can be prioritized for strategic additions of new refuges.


This dataset contains:

1. The GIS boundaries of the 525 U.S. National Wildlife Refuges (refuges) analyzed. Refuges are constrained to the lower 48 states due to availability of climate data.

2. A table of the full names of the 525 refuges and whether each refuge was buffered prior to analysis. For 107 refuges that were 0.01–4.9 km2 (median 1.4 km2) in size or that encompassed marine areas where we did not have projections (e.g., Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge), we first buffered the refuge by 2.5 km, an ecologically reasonable area for vagile birds to be using, before summarizing projections (see data repository for refuge buffer status).

Usage notes

1-km resolution species distribution models used in this analysis were previously published and can be downloaded here: All other scripts can be found here:


John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Award: G-1511-150388

United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Award: 140F0318P0263