In the late 1800s, thousands of brown pelicans and other water birds would roost and nest on the five-acre Pelican Island near Sebastian, on Florida’s east coast. But at a time when plume feathers adorning women’s hats were worth more than gold, plume hunters, egg collectors and other vandals eventually discovered the island’s natural resources and all but exterminated the egrets, herons and spoonbills.

Nearby resident Paul Kroegel witnessed the island’s destruction and decided to grab his gun and stand guard over the island. He and other ornithologists and naturalists also advocated for laws that would protect the island, and on March 14, 1903, President Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing Pelican Island as a federal bird reservation - the forerunner to the National Wildlife Refuge System. This was the first time that the federal government set aside land for the sake of wildlife.

Fast forward more than a century and the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, which contains Pelican Island and more than 5,400 surrounding acres, continues to be an important sanctuary for wildlife. The refuge’s seagrass beds, oyster bars, mangrove islands, salt marsh and maritime hammocks, support more than 130 bird species, as well as threatened and endangered species such as sea turtles and manatees. Pelican Island itself has been designated a National Historic Landmark, a National Wilderness Area and a Wetland of International Importance.

Celebrating a Milestone

For its 100th birthday, this flagship refuge needed a special present. Over a period of several years leading up to the 2003 centennial celebration of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and the entire National Wildlife Refuge System, The Conservation Fund worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect more than 256 acres that buffer Pelican Island from encroaching residential development and save the island’s viewshed for the public.

The properties were acquired with a combination of funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an anonymous private donation and funding from Indian River County’s land conservation program.

Why This Project Matters

It is not a stretch to say that Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge is the most important wildlife refuge in the country. It birthed a landmark wildlife conservation movement that continues to grow and succeed to this day. Our work here honors the legacy of the National Wildlife Refuge System and its immeasurable impacts. And while the refuge will always battle threats resulting from an ever-expanding world, our work ensures Pelican Island will be around for another hundred years.

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Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge