What Was the First National Wildlife Refuge?

Brown Pelican off the Florida coast. usfwsnortheast/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The National Wildlife Refuge Service is the world's largest collection of protected areas dedicated to wildlife preservation, more than 150 million acres of strategically located wildlife habitat protecting thousands of species. There are wildlife refuges in all 50 states and U.S. territories, and most major U.S. cities are no more than an hour's drive from at least one wildlife refuge. But how did this system of wildlife preservation begin? What was America's first national wildlife refuge?

President Theodore Roosevelt created the first U.S. national wildlife refuge on March 14, 1903, when he set aside Pelican Island as a sanctuary and breeding ground for native birds.

Location of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge is located in the Indian River Lagoon, on the Atlantic coast of central Florida. The nearest town is Sebastian, which lies just west of the refuge. Originally, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge included only 3-acre Pelican Island and another 2.5 acres of surrounding water. Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge was expanded twice, in 1968 and again in 1970, and today comprises 5,413 acres of mangrove islands, other submerged land, and waterways.

Pelican Island is an historic bird rookery that provides nesting habitat for at least 16 species of colonial water birds as well as the endangered wood stork. More than 30 species of water birds use the island during the winter migratory season, and more than 130 bird species are found throughout the entire Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge also provides critical habitat for several threatened and endangered species, including manatees, loggerhead and green sea turtles, and southeastern beach mice.

Early History of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge

During the 19th century, plume hunters, egg gatherers and common vandals exterminated all the egrets, herons and spoonbills on Pelican Island, and nearly destroyed the population of brown pelicans for which the island is named. By the late 1800s, the market for bird feathers to supply the fashion industry and adorn ladies' hats was so lucrative that plume feathers were worth more than gold, and birds with fine plumage were being slaughtered wholesale.

The Guardian of Pelican Island

Paul Kroegel, a German immigrant and boat builder, established a homestead on the west bank of the Indian River Lagoon. From his home, Kroegel could see thousands of brown pelicans and other water birds roosting and nesting on Pelican Island. There were no state or federal laws at that time to protect the birds, but Kroegel started sailing to Pelican Island, gun in hand, to stand guard against plume hunters and other intruders.

Many naturalists became interested in Pelican Island, which was the last rookery for brown pelicans on the east coast of Florida. They also took a growing interest in the work Kroegel was doing to protect the birds. One of the most influential naturalists who visited Pelican Island and sought out Kroegel was Frank Chapman, curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a member of the American Ornithologists' Union. After his visit, Chapman vowed to find some way to protect the birds of Pelican Island.

In 1901, the American Ornithologists' Union and the Florida Audubon Society led a successful campaign for a Florida state law that would protect non-game birds. Kroegel was one of four wardens hired by the Florida Audubon Society to protect water birds from plume hunters. It was dangerous work. Two of those first four wardens were murdered in the line of duty.

Securing Federal Protection for the Birds of Pelican Island

Frank Chapman and another bird advocate named William Dutcher were acquainted with Theodore Roosevelt, who had taken office as President of the United States in 1901. The two men visited Roosevelt at his family home in Sagamore Hill, New York, and appealed to him as a conservationist to use the power of his office to protect the birds of Pelican Island.

It didn't take much to convince Roosevelt to sign an executive order naming Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation. During his presidency, Roosevelt would create a network of 55 wildlife refuges nationwide.

Paul Kroegel was hired as the first national wildlife refuge manager, becoming the official guardian of his beloved Pelican Island and its native and migratory bird populations. At first, Kroegel was paid only $1 per month by the Florida Audubon Society, because Congress had failed to budget any money for the wildlife refuge the president had created. Kroegel continued to watch over Pelican Island for the next 23 years, retiring from federal service in 1926.

The U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System

The national wildlife refuge system that President Roosevelt established by creating Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and many other wildlife areas has become the world's largest and most diverse collection of lands dedicated to wildlife preservation.

Today, the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System includes 562 national wildlife refuges, thousands of waterfowl protection areas and four marine national monuments throughout the United States and in U.S. territories. Collectively, these wildlife areas total more than 150 million acres of managed and protected lands. The addition of three marine national monuments in early 2009—all three located in the Pacific Ocean—increased the size of the National Wildlife Refuge System by 50 percent.

In 2016, public land advocates nationwide were shocked when armed gunmen took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. This action at least had the benefit of bringing to the public's attention the importance of these lands, not only for wildlife but also for people.