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Breton National Wildlife Refuge


Photo of a group of brown pelicans and other birds near the beach at Breton NWR
Credit USFWS

Breton National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1904, is the second oldest National Wildlife Refuge. President Theodore Roosevelt heard about the destruction of birds and their eggs on Chandeleur and Breton Islands and soon afterward created Breton Island Reservation to serve as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. Roosevelt visited the islands in June of 1915, and this is the only refuge Roosevelt ever visited. The name was changed to Breton NWR on October 4, 1938.

Historically, Breton NWR has been the site of a Lighthouse Station (destroyed by Hurricane Katrina), a quarantine station, a small fishing village and even an oil production facility.  Currently the only infrastructure remaining on Breton NWR is a remnant of the oil production facility on Breton Island. Many anglers and birdwatchers have visited the island to enjoy its bounty, and the beauty of Breton and its wildlife has even been captured in artworks by the noted Gulf Coast artist Walter Inglis Anderson, who visited the islands on solo trips from Mississippi.

Directions to the Refuge: The refuge is located in the Gulf of Mexico and is accessible only by boat. Most visitors depart from either the Mississippi Gulf Coast or Venice, LA.

Endangered and Threatened Species on the Refuge: The Chandeleur Islands are designated as Critical Habitat for the endangered piping plover (Charadrius melodus), which is a common visitor to the refuge during fall, winter and spring. The Western Gulf Coast population of brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) was delisted in 2009. The brown pelican is a year-round resident of southeast Louisiana, and Breton NWR serves as important breeding grounds for these birds each year. To learn more about the brown pelican and our programs to support them, go to our Pelican Web.

Other Wildlife Species: Breton NWR provides habitat for colonies of nesting wading birds and seabirds, as well as wintering shorebirds and waterfowl. Twenty-three species of seabirds and shorebirds frequently use the refuge, and 13 species nest on the various islands. The most abundant nesters are brown pelicans, laughing gulls (Larus atricilla), and royal (Sterna maxima), Caspian (Sterna caspia), and sandwich terns (Sterna sandvicensis). Waterfowl winter near the refuge islands and use the adjacent shallows, marshes, and sounds for feeding and for protection during inclement weather. Redheads (Aythya americana) and lesser scaup (Aythya affinis) account for the majority of waterfowl on the refuge. Other wildlife species found on the refuge may include nutria (Myocastor coypus), raccoons (Procyon lotor) and several species of sea turtles. The refuge has partnered with Cornell University and Google to provide a Google gadget link below to bird sightings on the refuge.

Photo of Teddy Roosevelt sitting on the beach at Breton NWR in June, 1915

Habitat Description: The dominant vegetation on Breton NWR is black mangrove, groundsel bush, and wax myrtle. Shallow bay waters around the islands support beds of manatee grass (Cymodeocea filiformis), shoalweed (Halodule wrightii), turtlegrass (Thalassia testudinum), and widgeongrass (Ruppia maritima).

Management Goals: Established in 1904, Breton NWR is the second oldest refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The objectives of the refuge are to (1) provide sanctuary for nesting and wintering seabirds, (2) protect and preserve the wilderness character of the islands, and (3) provide sandy beach habitat for a variety of wildlife species.

Chandeleur Lighthouse circa the 1960 's
USFWS Archive

Breton NWR includes Breton Island and all of the Chandeleur Islands in St. Bernard and Plaquemine Parish, Louisiana. The barrier islands that make up Breton NWR are remnants of the Mississippi River's former St. Bernard and Lower Plaquemines Delta, which was active about 2,000 years ago. These barrier islands are dynamic; their sizes and shapes constantly are altered by tropical storms, wind, and tidal action. The area above mean high tide is approximately 6,000 acres. Elevations on Breton NWR range from sea level to 19 feet above mean sea level. Early literature on Breton and the Chandeleur Islands mentions trees and a generally higher elevation than exists today. In 1915, several families and a school were located on Breton Island. Prior to the hurricane of that year, the island was evacuated. The hurricane destroyed the settlement, and it was never rebuilt.

Pursuant to the Wilderness Act, all of the Federally-owned lands in Breton NWR (except for North Breton Island) were designated the Breton Wilderness on January 3, 1975 (Public Law 93-632). North Breton was excluded because an oil facility, was located on that island. The Breton Wilderness is listed as a Class I Prevention of Significant Deterioration Area under the Clean Air Act. For the past few years, the only visible improvement within the Breton Wilderness was the Chandeleur lighthouse on the north end of the islands. The lighthouse was constructed before the turn of the century. The lighthouse was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

A Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for Delta and Breton NWR's may be downloaded from the FWS Southeast Region web site here. Note: the full document is 4 megabytes in size and will take some time to download.

Opportunities for Public Use: Public use centers around fishing and wildlife viewing. Camping on the islands is no longer permitted due to the large amount of land lost to Hurricane Katrina and possible impacts to nesting birds on the remaining habitat. To avoid visitor disturbance to nesting seabird colonies, each colony is posted as a closed area during the nesting season; approximately five percent of the islands is used by nesting birds. Visitor use is confined mainly to the spring, summer and early fall months, with approximately 2,500 visits per year. See the documents below for additional information, maps and brochures.

Photo of three brown pelican chicks
Credit USFWS

Hurricanes and Oil Spills: The 2005 storm season was very bad for the brown pelicans of Breton NWR. In June, tropical storm Arlene moved through the Gulf of Mexico. The storm washed over the islands at a time when many juvenile pelicans were unable to escape and many eggs were still in the nests. Furthermore, an oil spill washed directly into the nesting areas and many young pelicans were covered with oil. Some of the pelicans were rescued, rehabilitated and returned to the refuge but many more did not survive.  Later in 2005, Breton NWR also took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina, losing 70% of its land base. Large areas of beach and marsh were destroyed and much of the vegetation that stabilizes the islands and provides habitat for the pelicans and other animals was uprooted or damaged.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with our partners to respond to the many problems created by storm damages to the islands. It would take many years for the islands to recover naturally (if ever) so we will do what we can to rebuild and re-vegetate the islands. We are also monitoring the brown pelicans and other birds that return to nest on the islands and nearby, less desirable habitat to document population trends.

In 2010, Breton NWR was directly impacted by the oil released from the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  While direct impacts to birds and other wildlife on Breton NWR occurred, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment is conducting ongoing studies to determine the extent of damages to habitat and long-term impacts to fish and wildlife populations.

There is some good news to report regarding breeding birds at Breton NWR. The number of colonial nesting seabirds nesting on the island has generally increased since Hurricane Katrina. In 2011, over 8,500 brown pelican nests and over 120,000 tern nests were documented on the refuge, which represents the largest number of pelican nests recorded since Katrina and the largest number of tern nests in over a decade.  

Documents, maps, aerial photos and brochures related to the refuge can be found here.

Document Name
Click to Open or Download
Refuge Brochure
Basic information and photos
Download refuge general brochure here
Refuge Fact Sheet
Interesting facts about the refuge
Download refuge fact sheet here


Contact information for all the refuges can be found on the Contact Us page.

The mission of these refuges and the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of American people.

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Last Updated on October 17, 2013