Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1938 to protect and provide habitat for migratory and wintering waterfowl, or ducks, geese and swans.. The refuge encompasses a variety of habitats including beach, dunes, shrub-scrub, freshwater wetlands and woodlands. The primary unit of the wildlife refuge sits a thin strip of barrier island coastline typical of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Other areas of the refuge include islands in Back Bay and upland areas on the west bank of the bay.
Thousands of tundra swans, snow and Canada geese and a large variety of ducks visit the refuge during the fall/winter migration. Refuge waterfowl populations usually peak during December and January. The refuge also provides habitat for other wildlife, including such threatened and endangered species as the loggerhead sea turtle, and recently recovered species like the brown pelican and bald eagle.
In addition to providing habitat for migratory birds and wildlife, Back Bay Refuge provides over eight miles of scenic trails, a Visitor Center, interpretive programming and, with advance scheduling, environmental education opportunities. Popular outdoor recreation activities at the refuge include hiking, biking, freshwater fishing, surf fishing, kayaking/canoeing, wildlife photography and wildlife observation.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's mission is, working with others, to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge was established on June 6, 1938 in the southeastern corner of the City of Virginia Beach (then Princess Anne County), as a 4,589-acre refuge. The original 1938 Executive Order established Back Bay NWR “….as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.” Another of the Refuge’s primary purposes (for lands acquired under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act) is “… use as an inviolate sanctuary, or for any other management purpose, for migratory birds.”
The refuge is part of the Atlantic Flyway, a migratory bird route that follows the East Coast of the United States. A decline in waterfowl populations during the last half of the 19th century and first part of the 20th century were the driving factor for the creation of many national wildlife refuges, including Back Bay Refuge. The refuge continually focuses on this establishment purpose to provide high quality habitat for migratory birds throughout the year.
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) was established on June 6, 1938 in the southeastern corner of the City of Virginia Beach (then Princess Anne County), as a 4,589-acre refuge. The Back Bay area was once known as a wildfowler's paradise, as evidenced by the dozens of hunt clubs that surrounded Back Bay at the turn of the 20th century. As a critical spot in the Atlantic Flyway, this area was identified and protected as a wildlife refuge. During the 20th century the bay saw many changes, including a shift from a brackish system to an oligohaline (less than 5 parts per thousand salinity) one. In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program, worked to create sand dunes in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina by planting grasses and constructing dune fencing. Over the subsequent decades the sand dunes along this stretch of coastline grew, eventually cutting off all ocean washover. Prior to the formation of the sand dunes the ocean frequently washed over this thin, flat strip of barrier island. Once this salt water washover disappeared the Back Bay gradually transitioned to a nearly freshwater ecosystem, which is what we find today. Waterfowl enjoyed plentiful underwater grasses and an important largemouth bass fishery emerged by the mid-1900s.
By the 1970s and 1980s, however, water quality in Back Bay suffered due to a number of human causes, including runoff from farms and new development and the opening of a channel to a lake north of the bay through dredged canals. As water quality declined, concentrations of underwater vegetation also diminished. Without underwater vegetation the largemouth bass fishery collapsed and waterfowl were unable to find the food they needed in the Back Bay. During this time Back Bay NWR worked with partners to create an impoundment complex. This impoundment complex now consists of a series of ten connected water pools. The water levels of these impoundments can be raised and lowered to provide the best habitat for the type of birds using the refuge during a given season. The impoundment complex provided a haven for migratory birds during a time when the natural Back Bay system was not adequate for their needs.
In addition to the impoundment complex, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pursued a land acquisition program, beginning in the 1980s, to protect the watershed and enhance wildlife habitat in the area immediately surrounding the Back Bay. Since 1988 the Refuge has grown to 9,175 acres, protecting critical habitat for wildlife. A local non-profit organization, the Friends of Back Bay, was instrumental in gaining approval for the expansion and obtaining $24 million of funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase land from willing sellers surrounding the Back Bay. The expansion provided a buffer against development, reducing erosion and runoff of fertilizers and chemicals into Back Bay.
Fortunately, the water quality in Back Bay has improved over the last twenty years. A number of changes in the surrounding landscape, including changes to farming practices, improvements to development practices, the refuge acquisition program and a weir at Lake Tecumseh (an annual source of tons of sediment flowing into the bay) have all played a part in the improvement of the bay's ecosystem. Underwater grass beds are returning, as are populations of largemouth bass and other fish. Waterbirds are now able to use both the impoundment complex and the Back Bay for habitat. The health of the bay still may not be pristine but recent improvements are encouraging.