Pelican Island acquired its fame at the turn of the century from the wildlife photographers and naturalists who visited the area. Many of these people were disturbed by the slaughter of countless pelicans, herons, egrets, and other birds by plume hunters. A local resident, Paul Kroegel, who cared about the pelicans on the island became the staunch protector and enlisted the support of noted ornithologists, such as Frank Chapman, who helped establish the Audubon Societies.

At the urging of Mr. Kroegel, the Florida Audubon Society, and the American Ornithologists' Union, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an Executive Order on March 14, 1903 that permanently set aside the three-acre island as a wildlife sanctuary; and made Pelican Island the first National Wildlife Refuge. Since then, the National Wildlife Refuge system has grown to become the world's largest network of lands managed for wildlife with over 500 refuges totaling over 93 million acres.

"Pelican Island, located in Florida's (USA) Indian River, was the first unit of the USA's National Wildlife Refuge System. Reserving this area was not an instantaneous brainstorm of President Theodore Roosevelt, as astute as he was. Actions by persons to protect birds over a century ago ultimately contributed to T.R.'s bold commitment to an American wildlife and habitat conservation system."

Excerpted from "History of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge", Encyclopedia of Earth website. Click here to read the rest of this in-depth, extensive article on Pelican Island's history.

Hats off to Audubon

excerpted from Audubon magazine, December 2004

"In the late 1800s a group of Boston society women gathered over teas to save birds from being slaughtered for the hat trade. In the process they kick-started the conservation movement - and Audubon. An environmental scholar takes a look at these pioneers, whose legacy has been all but lost to history."

"In 1886 Frank Chapman hiked from his uptown Manhattan office to the heart of the women's fashion district on 14th street, to tally the stuffed birds on the hats of passing women. Chapman, who would later found the first version of this magazine (Audubon), was a talented birder. He identified the wings, heads, tails, or entire bodies of 3 bluebirds, 2 red-headed woodpeckers, 9 Baltimore orioles, 5 blue jays, 21 common terns, a saw-whet owl, and a prairie hen. In two afternoon trips he counted 174 birds and 40 species in all." 

                                                Photo: Library of Congress

                                                Photo: Library of Congress

Joe Michael 1918-2007 - A true conservation hero

by Paul Tritaik, former Pelican Island Refuge Manager

We at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and Pelican Island Preservation Society are saddened to hear of the passing of Joe Michael at his home the morning of 17 Oct (2007). He was born in 1918 in a log cabin in the Community of Buttermilk, near Clayton, GA His father had rented the cabin for the Michael family of 6 to "get out of the Florida mosquitoes", for the summer.

We in particular are thankful for his protecting Pelican Island and birthing our Audubon chapter. Joe was instrumental in the early 1960's in protecting Pelican Island when the State tried to sell the wetlands around the island to Miami developers. In 1959, Joe learned of the expansion of bulkhead lines near Pelican Island. Joe convinced the State to lease 1600 acres south of Pelican Island (and adjacent to his properties) to the Florida Audubon for 10 years. In June of 1962, Joe and his sister, Jeanette Lier, learned that of even more extensions of the bulkhead line into the Indian River lagoon near Pelican Island. Joe and Jeanette rallied local opposition and convinced the County to reject the proposal. The very next month, Joe established the Indian River Area Preservation League with the main goal of protecting Pelican Island.

Joe convinced the State to conduct an aquatic resource survey and a bird survey for the purpose of establishing the biological importance of the area, so it could allow for expanding the refuge. Joe requested the Fish and Wildlife Service to study the area and recommend boundaries for expansion. In 1963, the FWS recommended expanding the boundary to 4,740 acres. Joe worked closely with Tom Coxon of the Florida Audubon Society and Art Marshall of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to broaden the support across the state and nation. Joe and Robert Amos recruited hundreds of local citizens to the effort, receiving the support of 19 local civic organizations and four statewide environmental organizations. The State refused to lease the 4,740 acres because it included bottomlands they wanted to retain and about 300 acres of wetlands they wanted to sell to developers. Those 300 acres are known today as Pete’s and Bird’s Impoundments.

Not only would those impoundments have been filled for a housing development, but the shallow lagoon bottoms surrounding Pelican Island would have likely been dredged to provide the fill. Joe spearheaded the opposition in Tallahassee and convinced the State to cancel the sale. This was a landmark decision, because for the first time in Florida, state-owned bottomlands were protected for conservation purposes. Joe later worked with the State to eventually lease those 4,740 acres to the refuge. That land is now protected and open to the public via Pete's and Bird's Impoundment trails and, of course, the Centennial Trail boardwalk and observation tower.

In 1965, Joe established the Town of Orchid, partly as another way of protecting Pelican Island. Because the town boundaries extended into the refuge, bulkhead line approvals and other local matters could be considered by a more conservation-minded town council. Upon successfully protecting Pelican Island, the Indian River Area Preservation League disbanded in 1966 and donated their remaining treasury to the newly formed Pelican Island Audubon Society to continue the work of protecting Pelican Island and the Indian River Lagoon.

Joe’s conservation commitment extended into everything he did. As a member of the Indian River Mosquito Control Board, Joe convinced the District to leave one mangrove wetland, near his home, completely unaltered by ditching or impounding. Joe also convinced the District to breach two impoundments near his grove, so they would function more naturally. Those impoundments are called the Deerfield Impoundments, and are also part of the refuge. Joe also wanted to see the Pelican Island Refuge expand on the barrier island and worked with PIPS and the Refuge to acquire his property. He sold his old grove along Jungle Trail to The Conservation Fund for eventual inclusion into the Refuge, because he shared the vision we had of restoring those old groves to natural communities for the benefit of wildlife.

Both Joe and his wife Anne have made major contributions to PIPS and other organizations in the county in ways most people do not know about. As a result of people like Anne and Joe, land is still being set aside to protect our wonderful Indian River County, a place we all love so much. It must have really been an exciting place to see when Anne and Joe first discovered it so many years ago. All new folks here also get to see a little bit of its ancient charm. We gain inspiration from pioneers like Joe and his legacy lives on in our activism.

In honor of Joe Michael, PIPS helped to fund a bird observation facility on Pete’s Impoundment Trail (renamed the Joe Michael Trail at the dedication ceremony for "Joe's Overlook", on May 22, 2010), one of the areas he fought so hard to protect. The site for the facility, chosen by the birds themselves, provides a 100-foot boardwalk extension into the salt marsh and culminates at an observation platform to view birds from a closer distance. Thanks to Joe’s dedication and conservation efforts, birds and other wildlife are teeming in this refuge impoundment, for which we are truly grateful.

Wilderness in the National Wildlife Refuge System

"Wilderness areas in the Refuge System vary dramatically, from the subtropics to the subarctic, from desert to rainforest, from small islands to large pristine landscapes. The smallest unit of wilderness in the Refuge System is Pelican Island NWR in Florida, at five-and-a-half acres. The largest, the Mollie Beattie wilderness area in the Arctic NWR, spans 8 million acres ...."

"Although national wildlife refuges provide strong protections for America's wildlife, they are still susceptible to certain development threats, such as test wells or pipelines. Wilderness designation ensures an area's complete protection. Further, may rare and endangered species require relatively undisturbed habitats that can only be provided by wilderness areas."

For more information about wilderness areas in the National Wildlife Refuge System, click here.

National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS)

  • The NWPS has 650 units totaling close to 106 million acres in 44 states across America.
  • Approximately 5 percent of America's land is designated wilderness.
  • Approximately 12 million people annually visit wilderness areas.
  • The NWPS is an interagency system of lands administered by the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or Fish and Wildlife Service. When an area is designated as wilderness, it continues to be managed by the department or agency that had jurisdiction over the land prior to its designation.

National Wildlife Refuge System

  • Approximately 100 million acres in 545 units in all 50 states and several U.S. territories.
  • Contains 21 million acres of wilderness, or about a fifth of the land in the Wilderness System, on 65 refuges.

The Wilderness Act of 1964

September 3, 1964 - President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, the first law of its kind in the world. Congress passed the bill by overwhelming margins.

The Act calls for the protection of wild areas of at least 5,000 acres "devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use," and prohibits the use of motorized or mechanized equipment, logging and, after a 20-year grace period, mining.

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

1968 - Wilderness designation at Great Swamp NWR established the first wilderness area in the Refuge System and the Department of the Interior ....

1970 - Pelican Island, the world's first national wildlife refuge, established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt as a sanctuary for nesting birds, was designated as wilderness.

1980 - More than 18 million acres of wilderness was designated under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, mostly in Alaska refuges.