In 1858, elegant bird feathers were literally worth their weight in gold. As a result of the expanding market for bird feathers for the fashion industry in the mid-1800s, plume hunters streamed down Florida’s east coast in search of rookeries to supply their trade. On reaching Pelican Island, in the Indian River near Sebastian Inlet off the Atlantic Coast, market hunters found a gold mine of egrets, herons and spoonbills. Brown pelicans, the island’s namesake, could also be found in great numbers and were on the edge of extinction as a result of vandals who perceived them to be a threat to fisheries.
Paul Kroegel became the birds’ unlikely champion. A German immigrant who settled on the west bank of the Indian River Lagoon with his father in 1881, Kroegel had an excellent vantage point for observing the brown pelicans and other colonial nesting birds drawn to the Pelican Island mangroves. Kroegel took an interest in protecting the island’s birds, sailing out daily with his double-barreled shotgun to stand guard against hunters and vandals.
After noted ornithologist Frank Chapman discovered that Pelican Island was the last rookery for brown pelicans on the east coast of Florida, the American Ornithologists’ Union and Florida Audubon Society were galvanized to action. In 1901 these groups led a successful campaign to pass state legislation protecting non-game birds. The Florida Audubon Society hired four wardens to enforce the new law, but it was a dangerous job. Two of those wardens were murdered in the line of duty.
On March 14, 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation — a forerunner to the National Wildlife Refuge System. This was the first time lands had ever been set aside on behalf of wildlife in the United States. Unfortunately, Congress refused to appropriate any funding to manage Pelican Island, and the National Audubon Society stepped up and paid the $1 a month salary of the Refuge System’s first game warden, Paul Kroegel.
The protection of this three-acre mangrove island was a pivotal moment for the American conservation movement, which laid the groundwork for what would become known as the National Wildlife Refuge System.
During his presidency, President Roosevelt and Congress established over 50 national wildlife refuges in 17 states and three territories. Due to increased public support, Congress continued to respond by establishing the Wichita Mountains Forest and Game Preserve in l905, the National Bison Range in l908, and the National Elk Refuge in l9l2- the first unit to be referred to as a “refuge.”
Another historical achievement occurred in 1916, when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was enacted to protect migratory bird species in collaboration with the United States and Great Britain (for Canada). Refuges created specifically for the management of waterfowl then followed, including the establishment of the Upper Mississippi River and Fish Refuge in l924 and the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in 1928.
In l92l, a bill was introduced in Congress that would establish a “Refuge System,” a Migratory Bird Refuge Commission, and a $1 Federal hunting stamp. Despite being rejected four times during the next eight years, the National Wildlife Refuge System became law under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act in 1929. This Act provided the authority under which the National Wildlife Refuge System grew in the years that followed.
In l934, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed a committee of the nation’s finest wildlife experts consisting of Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, Thomas Beck and Aldo Leopold to study and advise him on waterfowl needs. This dynamic trio alerted the nation, as no other group had done before, to the decline of waterfowl populations as a result of drought, over-harvesting and habitat destruction. The trio campaigned vigorously for appropriate funding to combat these problems.
The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 became the one of the most important laws for the system after the Migratory Bird Conservation Act. The Act established guidelines for administration and management of all areas in the Refuge System including “wildlife refuges, areas for the protection and conservation of fish and wildlife that are threatened with extinction, wildlife ranges, game ranges, wildlife management areas, and waterfowl production areas.”
The National Wildlife Refuge System established a new mission statement in 1997 with the passage of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, which provided new guidance for the management of the Refuge System. From that point on, the Refuge System was to be managed as a national system of lands and waters devoted to conserving wildlife and maintaining biological integrity of ecosystems and the management priorities of recreational activities on refuges.
Now, there are more than 560 national wildlife refuges across the country, with at least one in every U.S. state and territory. They are home to more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 species of reptiles and amphibians, 1,000 species of fish and countless invertebrates and plants. They provide havens for some 380 endangered species, from the elusive Florida panther to the iconic polar bear.
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge has stood as a testament to our nation’s commitment to the conservation of natural lands. And the history of the Refuge System remains an important testament of the consistent commitment to protecting wildlife and landscapes. We sincerely want to express our thanks and gratitude for those of us who have come before us to grow, expand and experience all that the National Wildlife Refuge System has to offer. We have come so far since 1903, so, one hundred and fourteen years of history, on the fourteenth of March is something worth celebrating.
Celebrate 114 Years of National Wildlife Refuges by making a donation today to help the Refuge Association protect America’s wildlife and the public lands they depend on for all and future generations of Americans!