National Wildlife Refuge System

Happy Birthday Merritt Island Refuge

Alligators are among hundreds of wildlife species at Merritt Island Refuge, FL.
Credit: USFWS

November 8, 2013 - In 1962, NASA acquired 140,000 acres of land, water, and marshes adjacent to Cape Canaveral in Florida to establish the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  NASA built a launch complex and other space-related facilities, but development of most of the area was not necessary.  In1963, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement to establish Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.  

The 50th Anniversary “Space for Wildlife Festival” on November 9 is the largest festival the refuge has ever held. The day includes wildlife exhibitors, demonstrations and family activities.  From now through January 2014, the Brevard Watercolor Society presents watercolor paintings of wildlife and landscapes from the refuge, as well as artist renditions of historic photos of homes in the area before NASA arrived.

Boxcars and Turtles
Merritt Island Refuge provides habitat for more than 1,500 species of plants and wildlife and is an example of how nature and technology co-exist.  Sometimes that has required creativity. The strong lights from space shuttle launch pads at one point discouraged sea turtles from coming ashore to lay their eggs and then disoriented hatchlings seeking the moonlit sea. Natural dunes provided a buffer until they were eroded by hurricanes in 2004 and again in 2007. In what came to be called Operation Dark Dune, 25 rail cars were moved to a rail line parallel to the beach, providing a light barrier between turtle nesting grounds and shuttle launch pads.  

That launch pad no longer exists and the rail line was washed out by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but the turtles are thriving.  Merritt Island Refuge recorded a record number of green sea turtle nests this year and close to record numbers of loggerhead nests.

Heidi Thamer will display student wildlife art at her Downtown Gallery in Titusville, FL, near Merritt Island Refuge.
Credit: Merritt Island Wildlife Association

Enjoying Merritt Island Refuge
The northern half of the refuge, about 20 miles of the 35 mile long refuge, is open to the public for the enjoyment of certain wildlife oriented activities. There are several hiking trails with interpretive signs, as well as a six-mile one way Black Point Wildlife Drive through salt and freshwater marshes.  Manatee Observation Deck, and an accessible boardwalk and observation tower offer views of a freshwater pond and hammock habitats.

Fishing season is year round. Bank fishing for saltwater species is available along dike roads. Portions of Banana River are open to non-motorized boats only to protect manatees. Merritt Island Refuge is also open for waterfowl hunting.

The Merritt Island Wildlife Association is the Friends organization supporting the refuge. To celebrate the 50th anniversary, the Association partnered with Space Coast Audubon to sponsor an art contest for Brevard County school students. The entries and winners are on display at galleries in downtown Titusville, Florida.


Last updated: November 8, 2013