U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: JOANNA TAYLOR
Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge officials expect thousands of visitors to converge on Sebastian, Florida and the area around Pelican Island on March 14, 2003 to celebrate the Centennial of the National Wildlife Refuge System and this nation’s first National Wildlife Refuge.
"Pelican Island is not only our first National Wildlife Refuge, it is also a National Historic Landmark, a National Wilderness Area and a Wetland of International Importance", says Paul Tritaik, refuge manager. "In fact the City of Sebastian proudly proclaims itself to be ‘Home of Pelican Island.’"
Tritaik knows Pelican Island. He has been the refuge manager for 10 years and has worked with the local community on a one to one basis for all those years.
"This community and in fact all of central Florida is ready for the celebration," said Tritaik. "We are inviting everyone to not only have an opportunity to salute our oldest refuge but to learn more about the entire refuge system."
The story of Pelican Island, and the refuge system that followed, is the story of the success of conservation.
It all began with a Sebastian resident, his boat and gun and a small island in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. In 1858, witnesses first documented the impact that feather hunters were having on egrets, herons and other wading birds at Pelican Island. As many as 60 roseate spoonbills were gunned down per day, a bird not commonly found in those numbers even today. The feather trade led to the decimation of almost all of the colonies of wading throughout Florida.
The feathers were sold to the fashion industry, at twice the price per weight of gold, and used to decorate women’s hats. By the end of the 19th century, Florida was one of the primary hunting grounds for feathers. Pelican Island, long known to ornithologists and bird watchers, became a favorite spot for plume hunters and egg collectors as well. As a result, Pelican Island became the last pelican rookery on Florida’s east coast.
A German immigrant named Paul Kroegel, who lived on the Indian River Lagoon overlooking Pelican Island, took a special interest in trying to protect the last remaining pelicans and unwittingly became involved in the "feather wars"; the face-off between plume hunters and conservationists. Kroegel rallied influential naturalists who visited Pelican Island to crusade for its protection with the American Ornithologist’s Union and the Florida Audubon Society to enact laws to protect these nongame birds. In 1900, the first federal law, the Lacey Act, was passed to protect birds and other wildlife from illegal interstate commerce. The next year, the Florida Audubon Society helped pass Florida’s first nongame bird law. Kroegel was subsequently commissioned as one of the first Audubon wardens and preceded to protect the birds on Pelican Island with legal authority and a 10-gauge shotgun.
By 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt needed little convincing that Pelican Island should be reserved and set apart as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. Hence, on March 14, 1903, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order creating Pelican Island as the country’s first national wildlife refuge, and by doing so, established what is known today as the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Roosevelt went on to establish an additional 54 national wildlife refuges during his two terms and set historic conservation values for America. These values have grown into a system, which today, consists of 540 refuges on more than 95 million acres of American’s most important wildlife habitat.
"The Centennial year is a great opportunity to get outside and enjoy outdoor recreation on one of our national wildlife refuges," said Steve Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the National Wildlife Refuge System. "If you’re not familiar with the refuge system, we hope you’ll take this opportunity to explore these wonderful places."
"We can’t put out an individual invitation to everyone," said Tritaik, "but everyone is invited to join the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the local community in Sebastian and Indian River County, Florida for the national Centennial Celebration at Pelican Island. We will honor the determination and leadership of early conservationists and celebrate our nation’s greatest system of lands for wildlife, the National Wildlife Refuge System. Along the way I think we’ll have some fun. The local community is putting a lot of effort into this plan and I think the visitors will be impressed."
For further information, visit Pelican Island web site at http://pelicanisland.fws.gov; write Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, 1339 20th Street, Vero Beach, FL 32960, or call 772/562-3909, ext 258.
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