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Pelican Island: The first National Wildlife Refuge

Wading birds beginning to return for the winter
Posted: 7:19 PM, Nov 28, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-29 08:40:14-05

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY, Fla. — This is a story about snowbirds, the ones that fly, but not on a plane.

“This time of year we’re going to see our winter visitors," says volunteer Doug Sutherland as we begin a ride around Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Pelican Island sits in the Indian River Lagoon north of Vero Beach. You can see it, but you can’t set foot on it.

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“This is where the national wildlife refuge system was originated and established," said Bill Miller, the Project Leader with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Back in the late 1800s, the height of women’s fashion involved feathers. Frank Chapman, an ornithologist, working with Museum of Natural History in New York was visiting this area and was upset over what he saw.

“He saw that beautiful birds were being slaughtered for their feathers, and he went back to Teddy Roosevelt and we’ve got to do something about this," said Refuge Volunteer John Boucher.

President Theodore Roosevelt made Pelican Island the first National Wildlife Refuge in 1903. Paul Kroegel was the first warden.

But it wasn’t until the 100th anniversary in 2003, that the Refuge really opened up.

Acres of surrounding mangroves had been protected from development in the 1960s, and eventually new trails and overlooks were completed.

“You have up to 16 wading birds that will nest at any given time on the refuge," said Miller.

Only 10 percent of the refuge is dry land. Initially, Pelican Island was 5 1/2 acres but erosion had cut that by half. Shoreline restoration projects the past two decades have helped the island grow again.

“If we can see wading birds coming back, see enhancements and continue to grow island back to original footprint and see benefit to wildlife, not only are we producing good things for the lagoon but it’s telling us a story about the lagoon," said Miller.

There are 567 refuges in the U.S. now encompassing 850 million acres. It all started with this small piece on the Treasure Coast.

The refuge offers free tours each Wednesday starting in December running through March. Space is limited.