Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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History of Pelican Island

Table of Contents

 

Early History

About ten thousand years ago, the Indian River Lagoon formed along the east central coast of Florida.

The Native "Ais" Indians occupied the area that is now the refuge for thousands of years. The arrival of American settlers increased in the mid-1800's, as a result of improved steamboat and rail transportation.

Settlement also brought greater attention to the thriving bird rookeries in and around the lagoon. By the late 19th Century, an expanding market for bird feathers for the fashion industry resulted in the slaughter of beautiful herons, egrets, spoonbills and pelicans, at one point, plume feathers were worth more than gold. In 1858, Dr. Henry Bryant witnessed the slaughter of sixty spoonbills a day on Pelican Island. But the last of Pelican Island's birds was about to be saved by the arrival of a concerned German immigrant.

An Immigrant and a President: How Pelican Island became America's first wildlife refuge

Paul Kroegel, a German immigrant, arrived in Sebastian, Florida in 1881, and homesteaded with his father on an ancient shell midden on the west bank of the Indian River Lagoon. From his home Kroegel would look out to Pelican Island, a five-acre mangrove island where thousands of brown pelicans and other water birds would roost and nest. He took an interest in protecting the island’s birds. Without state or federal laws to protect the birds, Kroegel would sail out to Pelican Island with his gun and stand guard.

Kroegel was visited by many influential naturalists who stayed at the nearby Oak Lodge from the 1880s to the early 1900s. One of those naturalists was a well-known ornithologist, Frank Chapman, who was curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a member of the American Ornithologist’s Union. Chapman discovered that Pelican Island was the last rookery from brown pelicans on the East Coast of Florida, and pledged his support to protect the birds.

In 1901, the American Ornithologist’s Union and the Florida Audubon Society led a successful campaign to pass legislation in Florida calling for the protection of non-game birds. Kroegel was one of four wardens hired by the Florida Audubon Society to protect water birds from market hunters. Two of those wardens were murdered in the line of duty.

Chapman and his fellow bird protection advocate, William Dutcher, knew that protecting the birds of Pelican Island required additional protection. Chapman and Dutcher were acquainted with President Theodore Roosevelt, who had assumed the Presidency in 1901. They visited Roosevelt at his home in Sagamore Hill, New York, and appealed to his strong conservation ethic. (Read about Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation legacy at theodoreroosevelt.org.)

On March 14, 1903, without fanfare, President Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation. He would establish a network of 55 bird reservation and national game preserved for wildlife - the forerunner to the national wildlife refuge system. But Pelican Island was the first time that the federal government set aside land for the sake of wildlife.

Paul Kroegel was hired as the first national wildlife refuge manager. He was paid $1 a month by the Florida Audubon Society, as Congress had not set aside funds for this executively created refuge.

Early Management Challenges

While the threat from plume hunters diminished during the first decade of the 20th century, another threat to Pelican Island's inhabitants emerged. Market fishermen, convinced that their livelihood was being harmed, mistakenly argued that pelicans were eating too much fish and competing with them for a dwindling fishery. This controversy reached a climax in the spring of 1918, when over 400 defenseless pelican chicks were clubbed to death on Pelican Island. The Florida Audubon Society was subsequently able to prove that the bulk of the pelican's diet consisted of commercially unimportant baitfish, thereby defeating an attempt to weaken newly enacted bird protection laws.

With his gun, boat and badge, Paul Kroegel stood watch over America’s first national wildlife refuge. But in 1923, the birds abandoned the island after a hurricane. Because of the birds absence, Kroegel was retired from federal service in 1926. Soon after, the pelicans and other water birds returned, but the island remained without a resident warden until the mid 1960s.

Protecting the Birds from Encroaching Development

In the 1960s, Pelican Island was once again threatened- this time by attempts to sell surrounding wetlands and islands to developers. Local citizens again led the fight to protect Pelican Island by stopping the sale of these important wetlands. The Indian River Area Preservation League, formed by local citrus growers, commercial fishermen, and sportsmen, joined with the Florida Audubon Society to convince the State of Florida to include 422 acres of mangrove islands as part of the refuge.

In 1963, Pelican Island was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior because of its status as the first federal area set aside specifically to protect wildlife.

In 1968, the State of Florida agreed to expand the lease with the refuge to include 4,760 acres of mangrove islands and submerged lands. In 1970, Pelican Island became the smallest wilderness area (six acres) in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Pelican Island received another honor in 1993 when it was recognized as a Wetland of International Importance. The refuge has since acquired over 500 acres through purchases, management agreements, and conservation easements along its eastern boundary to provide a buffer against encroaching development, and provide a link to the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge.

Counting Down to the Centennial

In the early 1990s, as the 90th anniversary of Pelican Island and the National Wildlife Refuge System approached, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recognized that Theodore Roosevelt’s first refuge needed special attention. Since that time, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and numerous partners have made investments to protect and restore the refuge, and to prepare the refuge for the Centennial. On March 14, this natural and historical treasure was made ready to welcome the American public.

Passing the Torch - Pelican Island gets its second refuge manager
Since Paul Kroegel was let go in 1926, there had been no official refuge manager at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. In 1993, a new ‘Paul’ came onto the scene. Paul Tritaik was hired as the second manager of our nation’s first refuge. Like his predecessor Paul Kroegel, Paul was one man with a badge, a gun, and a boat. His task - to restore the island, expand the refuge buffer area, and prepare the refuge for the 100th anniversary - was daunting.

With no staff, Tritaik managed the refuge from his home. It wasn’t until 2000, seven years after he took the helm of the flagship refuge, that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was able to provide funding for additional refuge staff.

Happy 90th Birthday: Pelican Island Comes of Age
1993 also marked the 90th anniversary of Pelican Island’s establishment as America’s first refuge. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service partnered with local citizens and businesses to celebrate this momentous occasion. The 90th anniversary celebration was a huge success not only for Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, but for Indian River County. Major television networks, including CNN and CBS Sunday Morning, covered the event.

The success of 90th anniversary celebration resulted in the annual Pelican Island Wildlife Festival, a celebration of Pelican Island and the wildlife of the Indian River Lagoon. In 2002, this one-day festival was attended by nearly 10,000 people. The festival is important to the local Sebastian economy, and is an important tool to educate citizens and tourists about the incredible diversity of wildlife supported by Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Indian River Lagoon.

The festival is presented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Pelican Island Preservation Society (PIPS). PIPS, which was formed in 1993, has been a critical partner to protect and restore Pelican Island. Today, PIPS is one of nearly 200 organizations across this nation whose primary purpose is to support national wildlife refuges.

Shoreline Stabilization: Saving An American Treasure
In the century since Pelican Island was established as the first national wildlife refuge, the island has changed dramatically. In 1903, the island’s area was 5.5 acres. Around 1943, the island began to shrink, eroding away due to natural as well as human induced wave action. By 2000, the island was less than ½ of its original size.

The threat of forever losing the island that started the American conservation movement sparked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and its partners into action. An innovative plan was devised to install165 feet of an oyster shell wavebreak and plant smooth cordgrass and mangroves along the island shore to encourage sediment accretion, effectively building the island back up over time. Using a new technique and creating minimal disturbance to the island’s birds, a helicopter was be used to airlift in the oyster shell material.

Recognizing the significance of Pelican Island to our nation, the Save America’s Treasures program contributed $115,000 to the shoreline stabilization project. Save America’s Treasures has helped protect and restore other icons of American history and culture, such as the Star-Spangled Banner and Ellis Island. The Florida Inland Navigation District, the St. Johns River Water Management District, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provided matching funds for the project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also been a major partner in this effort.

The project was completed in February, 2001 and has had good short-term results, stopping further erosion and creating some additional area of shoreline. Long-term options for additional stabilization which should permanently protect Pelican Island are currently being investigated.

From Citrus Groves to Mangroves: Restoring Wildlife Habitat
The Indian River Lagoon region of Florida is world renowned for its citrus groves. So it is no surprise that lands added to the refuge over time were were no longer natural habitat, but orange and grapefruit trees. These lands, like so many areas of Florida, have also been invaded by nonnative, invasive species such as Brazilian pepper and Australian pine, rendering them unsuitable for wildlife.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and its partners have taken several steps to begin to restore the habitat within the refuge.

  • Citrus trees and other nonnative plants have been removed, and are being replaced with native vegetation.
  • A freshwater lake has been created to provide a freshwater source for the birds of Pelican Island and other wildlife that depend on the refuge.
  • Tidal wetlands and maritime hammock forest are also being restored.

 

Our many thanks go out to partners who have donated funding and equipment to complete the first phase of the extensive restoration efforts, including

Creating Visitor Facilities for the Public
For its first 100 years, the only way for the public to see their first national wildlife refuge was by boat. But as it begins it’s second century, Pelican Island is now more accessible to the public. On March 14, the Centennial Trail was dedicated and opened to the public. From the boardwalk’s 18 ft observation tower, America will be able to see the place that started the American conservation movement.

The Centennial Trail takes you on a walk through the history of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Boardwalk planks are engraved with the name, state or territory, and establishment year of the 540 national wildlife refuges in the system as of March, 2003. The boardwalk provides the public a welcoming place to learn about Pelican Island, the National Wildlife Refuge System, and the start of the American conservation movement

Many generous partners have helped fund and construct these new facilities.

Last updated: September 18, 2009