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Pelican Island at 110 Years

by AMNH on


On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order setting aside Pelican Island, Florida, as the very first national wildlife refuge.

archival photograph of birds flying up from Pelican Island, Florida
An early image of Pelican Island, the first national wildlife refuge, which was created 110 years ago, on March 14, 1903
Library of Congress

Today, it remains an essential breeding ground for migratory waterfowl—and one of 561 wildlife refuges overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Daniel M. Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, recently discussed what Pelican Island is like today.

How has Pelican Island changed over the past century?

Because of large-vessel traffic along the Intercoastal Waterway, Pelican Island itself has eroded over the decades from 5 acres [in the early 20th century] to 3.2 acres today. But prior to its centennial 10 years ago, we started stabilizing the island‘s shoreline with oyster shells, and as a result it has seen modest growth. And in another sense it is bigger than ever. The refuge now includes much of the adjacent barrier island, some 5,000 acres, and it is directly connected to the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, the most productive sea turtle nesting beach in North America.

Pelican Island NWR, in the Intercoastal Waterway.
George Gentry

Can the public visit Pelican Island?

The public cannot actually go on the island but you can kayak around it, and you can see it from an overlook we built [10 years ago], the Centennial Trail Boardwalk. It is a wonderful place to visit. Just go to the website, and contact the refuge office in Vero Beach for information on renting kayaks and to get maps of the boardwalk and other trails. There are handicapped-accessible trails.

Pelican at Pelican Island
John and Karen Hollingsworth

You are also using oyster replenishment, which has helped stabilize Pelican Island, in other places, including Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina?

Yes. The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is threatened by sea level rise. We are trying to restore the hydrology, regenerate the oysters, provide a stable system for a more orderly transition so the wildlife can survive. Alligator River has millions of migratory birds. The only wild population of the endangered red wolf in the world lives there, also the threatened red-cockaded woodpecker. We know that place is going to change, and we have to look 50, 100 years in the future. We have to make a long-term commitment.

When Theodore Roosevelt set aside Pelican Island, he was responding to massive poaching that threatened many bird species. What is the most critical issue facing the National Wildlife Refuge System today?

I’d say it is the loss and degradation of habitat. Climate change is one of the things driving loss of habitat, but so are people, more and more people occupying more of the available space on the planet. By and large, the wildlife refuges are well protected, but we need to renew this commitment to habitat protection. The refuges used to be surrounded by lands largely in their natural state. They could have been cattle ranches, hunting preserves, but now they are surrounded by suburban development and intensive agriculture. So we have to work not just to protect the refuges but the surrounding habitat. We are competing against forces that are enormous but there’s this great Roosevelt quote: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

A double rainbow over Pelican Island and water
George Gentry

So Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy will endure?

I think it will. The American people have a passion for wildlife and will continue to have a passion for wildlife, so there’s reason to be optimistic. If we see it as an obligation and are committed to managing these resources, we will succeed.