This vast, flat wetland and tundra complex protects native birds, game and furbearing animals
Alaska's two largest rivers, the Yukon and the Kuskokwim, form the heart of the 19.2 million-acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Almost 70 percent of the refuge is below 100 feet in elevation, a broad, flat delta stitched together by rivers and streams and dotted with countless lakes, sloughs and ponds.
Nelson and Nunivak Islands, off the western coast, are also part of the refuge. The million-plus acre Nunivak Island lies 20 miles off the coast and is of volcanic origin, with several peaks from 1,000 to 1,600 feet. Coastal bluffs range from 100 to 450 feet high while inland are active sand dunes greater than 100 feet in height. The second largest island is Nelson Island, which is separated from the mainland by the Ninglick River to the north, Baird Inlet to the northeast, and the Kolavinarak River to the east.
Refuge lands were first set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. In 1929, Nunivak Island was set aside as a refuge and breeding ground for wild birds, game and furbearing animals. In 1930, the small islands and all lands under the waters surrounding Nunivak Island were added to the refuge. Additional lands were reserved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 when Hazen Bay Migratory Waterfowl Refuge was established. The Kuskokwim National Wildlife Range, established in 1960, was enlarged in 1961, and its name changed to the Clarence Rhode National Wildlife Range.
Refuge vegetation is primarily subarctic tundra, underlain by permafrost, and includes a variety of scrub, peatland, heath meadow, marsh and bog habitats. Tall scrub and forest habitats are found in the eastern interior areas. Alpine tundra occurs in the mountainous areas at higher elevations. Most of these habitats remain essentially untouched by man. Less than five percent of the refuge is forested. Narrow bands of riparian, black spruce-hardwood, mixed black spruce-balsam poplar, and balsam poplar woodlands extend onto the delta along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and their tributaries.
The delta is rich in wildlife and supports one of the largest aggregations of water birds in the world and a spectacle takes place every spring as millions of ducks, geese and other water birds return to the refuge to nest. The refuge's most productive wildlife habitat is the coastal region bordering the Bering Sea. This narrow strip of land is unquestionably the most productive goose nesting habitat in Alaska. Hundreds of miles of rivers and streams also provide spawning and rearing habitat for 44 species of fish including all five Pacific salmon. Both brown and black bears, caribou, moose, wolves and musk oxen inhabit the drier uplands.
Unlike more remote refuges in Alaska, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is among the most populated rural areas in Alaska and within the refuge are 35 villages where 25,000 Yup'ik Eskimos make their home. This population gives the region a rich culture based on a subsistence lifestyle. Subsistence fishing far exceeds sportfishing use throughout the refuge. The main activities for visitors in the refuge are fishing, wildlife viewing and photography, kayaking, rafting and hunting.