Short History of the Refuge System

The Early Years (1864 - 1920)

By Executive Order of March l4, l903, President Theodore Roosevelt established Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, along Florida's central Atlantic coast, as the first unit of the present National Wildlife Refuge System. It is misleading, however, to conclude that this was the genesis of wildlife sanctuaries in the United States.

There is no clear documentation of just when the concept of protecting wildlife through habitat preservation was born, but as long ago as the mid-l800's, diaries of early western explorers, pictorial records and reports from journalists and speakers familiar with the West brought a public realization that the unrestricted slaughter of wildlife for food, fashion and commerce was systematically destroying an irreplaceable national heritage.

The first Federal action aimed in part at protecting wildlife resources on a designated area appears to be an Act of Congress on June 30, 1864, that transferred the Yosemite Valley from the public domain to the State of California. One of the terms of the transfer was that State authorities "shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within the said reservation and against their capture and destruction for purposes of merchandise or profit."

Yosemite Valley was later returned to the Federal government. In l872, Yellowstone National Park was established, primarily to protect the area's hot springs and geysers, but again, the "wanton destruction" of wildlife was forbidden. Establishment as a national park did not, however, produce the desired wildlife protection effect until passage of the Yellowstone Park Protection Act of l894.

The earliest effort to set aside an area of Federally-owned land specifically for wildlife occurred in l868 when President Ulysses S. Grant took action to protect the Pribilof Islands in Alaska as a reserve for the northern fur seal. In l869, the Congress formally enacted legislation for this purpose. These remote islands in the Bering Sea were the site of the world's largest rookery of this commercially valuable animal, and the Federal government was prompted in its action primarily due to interest in obtaining revenue from the management of the fur resource. Fundamentally, this action marked a formal recognition of the need to protect and manage wildlife resources for their renewable values.

Under provisions of the Forest Reservation Creation Act of March 3, l88l, President Benjamin Harrison created by an Executive Order the Afognak Island Forest and Fish Culture Reserve in Alaska, "including its adjacent bays and rocks and territorial waters, including among others the sea lion and sea otter islands." The action showed, in its executive history, that wildlife concerns were a paramount element in the proposal. However, possibly because of the emphasis on forest and fish resource protection, the value of this area as a wildlife refuge often escapes deserved recognition. This order also established the first reservation for fish.

As a result of an increasing awareness of the importance of fish and wildlife resources, in 1871 the Federal Office of Commissioner of Fisheries and in 1886 the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy (Department of Agriculture) were established to gain better information about the Nation's fish and wildlife resources. From studies performed by these agencies it became evident that the resources were in jeopardy and conservation, sportsmen's and scientific organizations began to lobby the Congress.

One such organization was the Boone and Crockett Club, founded in l887 by a group of leading explorers, writers, scientists and political leaders, including Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt's activities during the l880's and l890's placed him in the mainstream of events concerning the plight of fish and wildlife and other natural resources from coast to coast. He was acquainted with resource management needs and with the many individuals, organizations and agencies that were in the forefront of efforts to stem the losses. Thus, when he became President in l90l, he was singularly well-suited to the task of natural resource protection.

By the turn of the century the nation had witnessed the near extinction of the bison, increasing devastation of wading bird populations by plume hunters in Florida, and severe reductions in the populations of other once abundant forms of wildlife such as the passenger pigeon. Public support increased for more vigorous actions on the part of the government to reverse this downward slide.

In Florida, in an effort to control plume hunting, the American Ornithologists Union and the National Association of Audubon Societies (now the National Audubon Society) persuaded the State Legislature to pass a model non-game bird protection law in 1901. These organizations then employed wardens to protect rookeries, in effect establishing colonial bird sanctuaries.

Such public concern, combined with the conservation-minded President Roosevelt, resulted in the initial Federal land specifically set aside for a non-marketable form of wildlife (the brown pelican) when 3-acre Pelican Island was proclaimed a Federal Bird Reservation in l903. Thus, it is said to be the first bona fide "refuge." The first warden employed by the government at Pelican Island, Paul Kroegel, was an Audubon warden whose salary was $1 a month.

Following the modest trend begun with Pelican Island, many other islands and parcels of land and water were quickly dedicated for the protection of various species of colonial nesting birds that were being destroyed for their plumes and other feathers. Such refuge areas included Breton, Louisiana (1904), Passage Key, Florida (1905), Shell Keys, Louisiana (l907), and Key West, Florida (1908).

The need for sound management of these reservations or refuges had become apparent as the knowledge of preservation and conservation requirements grew. In 1905, the Bureau of Biological Survey was established in the Department of Agriculture, replacing the old Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, with responsibility for new reservations and "set-aside" areas.

During this period of time, on the Pacific coast sea bird populations were declining due to their extensive exploitation for eggs, feathers and guano. In response to this growing bird resource threat, Federal reserve status was granted to Quillayute Needles, Washington in 1907 and to Farallon Islands, California and areas of the Hawaiian Islands in l909. Establishment of Lower Klamath, California in l908 then marked the beginning of the practice of creating wildlife refuges on Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs. Seventeen such western "overlay" refuges were established on one day alone in l909 by Executive Order l032 of February 25. By the end of his administration in l909, Roosevelt had issued a total of 5l Executive Orders that established wildlife reservations in l7 states and three territories.

Congress also had continued to respond to the public mood recognized by Roosevelt in establishing the Wichita Mountains Forest and Game Preserve in l905, the National Bison Range in l908, and the National Elk Refuge in l9l2. The latter was the first unit of the present system to be referred to as a "refuge." The Izaak Walton League had initiated establishment of the National Elk Refuge by purchasing lands which they then donated to the government as a nucleus for the refuge. At the time it was said that elk were so plentiful that they were killed for their prized teeth alone, which brought as much as $l,500 a pair. Then in l9l3, some 2.7 million acres were set aside in one action by President William Howard Taft when the vast Aleutian Island chain was added to the system.

The Federal government first exerted authority over migratory birds by legislation, the Migratory Bird Act, enacted in l9l3 to protect migratory bird species. An interesting historical footnote is that this landmark legislation was attached as a rider to an agricultural appropriation bill and signed unknowingly by outgoing President Taft. Subsequently, the Migratory Bird Treaty was concluded between the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) in 19l6. This treaty, implemented by Congress in l9l8, created an even larger role for the Federal government in managing migratory birds.