“It is hereby ordered that Pelican Island in Indian River in section nine, township thirty-one south, range thirty-nine east, State of Florida, be, and it is hereby, reserved and set apart for the use of the Department of Agriculture as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.”
March 14, 1903, Executive Order,
President Theodore Roosevelt
These are the 48 words that would become the foundation of the entire National Wildlife Refuge system and proof that one person’s passion can become a national legacy. Paul Kroegel was born January 9, 1864 in Chemnitz, Germany. At age seventeen he moved to Florida and settled with his father in Sebastian. They made their home on an Ais Indian shell mound, known as a midden, on the west bank of the Indian River. The Kroegel homestead overlooked Pelican Island, the last rookery for brown pelicans on the east coast of Florida at the time.
Here, Kroegel took a keen interest in the pelicans and grew to love them. He also saw and became increasingly disturbed by the slaughter of these and other birds by plume hunters for their highly valued feathers. Without state or federal laws to protect the birds, Paul took matters into his own hands. He began to sail out to Pelican Island with gun in hand to stand guard over the birds, protecting them from hunters.
His efforts caught the attention of other conservationists who began lobbying for the birds. By 1901 the lobbying efforts began to pay off when the State of Florida passed legislation to protect non-game birds. In 1902, Paul Kroegel was made game warden for the American Ornithologists’ Union. He did his best to discourage hunters from the island and was aided in his efforts by Dr. Frank Chapman, a prominent Ornithologist and figure in the Audubon Society and the Union. Chapman, who was also fighting plume hunters in other areas, eventually convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to sign the executive order above and, on April 1, 1903 Paul Kroegel was appointed warden at a salary of $1 a month.
The Executive Order established the first National Wildlife Refuge in the United States, and Paul Kroegel became the first National Wildlife Warden. There are now 560 refuges and wetland management districts in the United States comprised of 150 million acres of land and water. There is at least one national wildlife refuge in every state and territory within an hour's drive of most major cities.
The system provides habitat for more than two thousand species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish. More than 380 threated or endangered plants or animals are protected by the wildlife refuges. Millions of migrating birds use the refuges as stopping points along their long journeys between summer and winter homes.
All of this because of one man who cared about some pelicans on a little island right here in our own Indian River Lagoon.
About the Refuge
Today Pelican Island NWR is part of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge Complex and, like all NWRs, is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Pelican Island provides habitat for more than 30 different species of birds and, during the migratory season of November through March, several thousand birds roost on the island nightly.
The 3-acre island rookery itself is not open to the public but can be easily viewed from the 5,400 acres of protected water and land that comprise the entire refuge. The refuge area located off US Highway A1A a few miles north of Wabasso Beach Road (CR 510) is free and open to the public from dawn until dusk daily. Visitors to the refuge can explore three different walking trails.
The Centennial Trail is a three-quarter mile round trip that includes a boardwalk with planks bearing the names, home states and established year of every wildlife refuge in the country. The scenic boardwalk through mangroves leads to a large covered observation tower equipped with high-powered scopes for excellent viewing of the island’s inhabitants. The Joe Michael Memorial Trail and Bird’s Impoundment Trail are each three-mile loops with salt marsh habitats and an observation platform into the marsh.
While there is no visitor's center, there are self-guided trail signs with abundant information as well as QR codes. Guided tours aboard golf cart trams are offered between December and March every Wednesday from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. and binoculars and field guides are provided.
Pelican Island NWR is a magical place full of wonderful plant and wildlife and is a must-see for those who enjoy nature. The Refuge affords visitors and residents the privilege of seeing and being a part of this tiny island that gave birth to the vast national treasure that is our National Wildlife Refuge System.