March 14, 1903: President Roosevelt creates America’s first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island

Christy Karras

At a mere three acres, Pelican Island near Sebastian, Fla., is not the biggest wildlife refuge in the country. But it was the first, and it helped start the U.S. on a path that would eventually lead to more than 550 areas across the country protected as wildlife habitat.

Like many other refuges, Pelican Island was set aside to protect birds. And it’s not just about pelicans. Egrets, storks, ibises, herons and other birds populate the low-lying island in the Indian River Lagoon. You might also see sea turtles, dolphins, and manatees. Although visitors aren’t allowed on the island itself, you can get fairly close by kayaking around it. Or explore the visitor center by strolling a ¼-mile boardwalk, climbing an 18-foot observation tower or walking two 2.5-mile trails around salt marshes.

The refuge has an fascinating history. A German immigrant named Paul Kroegel set up a homestead next to the Indian River Lagoon in 1881. From his house, he loved watching the birds flitting amid its mangrove forests. With America’s demand for fashionable feathers decimating avian populations, Kroegel took it upon himself to guard Pelican Island from hunters. Eventually, the Florida Audubon Society hired him and three others to look after it. One sign of how valuable the birds were: two of Kroegel’s fellow caretakers were murdered.

When scientists discovered the island’s unique status as a safe home for birds, they asked President Theodore Roosevelt to help preserve it into the future. A conservationist, Roosevelt signed an executive order making Pelican Island the country’s first area set aside for wildlife (Roosevelt’s order did allow one of his favorite hobbies, big-game hunting). Kroegel became the nation’s first refuge manager.

Pelican Island national Wildlife Refuge was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963. With the area under increased pressure from development, thousands of additional wetland acres around the wildlife refuge have been preserved over the past few decades.