President Teddy Roosevelt established the world’s first wildlife refuge on a mangrove island in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon on 14 March 1903. The 5,400+ acres of land and water at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge kicked off what would become the National Wildlife Refuge System.
From 1870-1920, a period known as the “Feather Wars,” fashion designers were decorating women’s hats with bird feathers from the exotic birds of the Everglades and South Florida. The trend “stretched around the globe.”
Florida locals as well as wildlife photographers and naturalists who visited Pelican Island were concerned about the resultant widespread slaughter of birds such as pelicans, herons and egrets.
In 1901, the American Ornithologist’s Union and the Florida Audubon Society successfully advocated for a state law to protect non-game birds. The Florida Audubon Society hired four wardens “to protect water birds from market hunters. Two of those wardens were murdered in the line of duty.”
In March 2003, the Smithsonian called Teddy Roosevelt the author of “the world’s most successful experiment in conservation.” In an “exchange [that] may be apocryphal,” they wrote:
When he heard that Palm Beach yachtsmen were shooting brown pelicans for sport as the ponderous birds flew to their nests on a small island not far from Melbourne, Florida, President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly asked an aide, “Is there any law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island a federal bird reservation?”
“No,” the aide replied. “The island is federal property.”
“Very well, then, I so declare it.”
On 14 March 1903, President Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing Pelican Island as a federal bird reservation, “the federal government set aside land for the sake of wildlife.”
The National Wildlife Refuge System is the only network of federal lands specifically dedicated for wildlife conservation. In 2018, the U.S. Department of the Interior wrote that it totaled 95 million acres that supported 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetlands management districts.
More than 30 species of nesting bird that includes 15 different threatened and endangered species. In addition to birds, the manatee, which is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, lives on the island.
President Roosevelt would establish an additional 54 national wildlife refuges during his two terms as President.