About the Refuge

Brown Pelicans sitting in brush and on beach

Breton National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1904, is the second oldest refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Refuge is comprised of a series of barrier islands including Breton Island and the Chandeleur Islands in the Gulf of Mexico.

An Early Refuge

In the early 1900's President Theodore Roosevelt learned of the over harvest of waterbirds and the destruction of birds and their eggs on Chandeleur and Breton Islands.  He created Breton Island Reservation to serve as a refuge and breeding ground for these birds and other wildlife species. Roosevelt visited the islands in June of 1915, this is the only refuge the "Conservation President" ever visited. The reserve name was changed to Breton National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in 1938.


The objectives of the Refuge are to provide sanctuary for nesting and wintering seabirds, to protect and preserve the wilderness character of the islands, and provide sandy beach habitat for a variety of wildlife species. 

Breton NWR provides breeding habitat for colonies of nesting wading birds and seabirds, as well as wintering habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl. Twenty-three species of seabirds and shorebirds frequently use the Refuge, and thirteen species nest on the islands. The most abundant nesters are Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, and Royal, Caspian, and Sandwich Terns. The Refuge provides important wintering habitat for the threatened Piping Plover. Over ten thousand Brown Pelicans have been recorded nesting on the Refuge. Waterfowl winter near the refuge islands and benefit from adjacent shallows, marshes, and sounds for feeding and shelter.  

The islands of Breton NWR (except for North Breton Island) were designated as the Breton Wilderness, part of the National Wilderness System, in 1975. North Breton Island was excluded because an oil facility (now gone) was located on that island.   

A Unique and Dynamic Environment

The barrier islands of the Gulf coast create a natural buffer zone between the Gulf and mainland, protecting cities like New Orleans from wind and storm surge. The islands of the Refuge are dynamic, their sizes and shapes constantly sculpted and shifted by currents, storms, and tides. 

At one time the islands were much larger, and prior to a 1915 hurricane Breton Island had a fishing village with a school and several homes. Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005 washed over the islands and took away much of the island's topography. Today only wildlife inhabits the ever shrinking islands as sea-level rise, subsidence, storms, wind, and waves reconfigure the coastal landmass.