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Pelican Island: No longer invisible

Throughout much of its history, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge was almost unknown, a speck in the Indian River Lagoon, nestled against Orchid Island and practically invisible to outsiders.

Today, the preserve encompasses more than 5,400 acres at the northern end of the barrier island – almost 1,000 percent larger than the initial acreage protected by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903.Preparing to mark its 106th anniversary as the first federal wildlife refuge in the United States, the preserve is featured in countless birding guides and tourism brochures. Pelican Island, in short, is no longer invisible.

As the March anniversary nears, Pelican Island is readying for the arrival of a new refuge manager and the construction of a viewing platform that will expand public access to the refuge. But Pelican Island, like the rest of the National Wildlife Refuge System, faces challenges brought on by man, money and nature.

“That one island was the beginning of a huge National Wildlife refuge system,” said Walt Stieglitz, treasurer of the Pelican Island Preservation Society, a volunteer group that advocates on behalf of the sanctuary.

Indeed, Pelican Island was the first of a series of preserves established to conserve lands from the Arctic Circle to the Caribbean. Today, there is at least one wildlife refuge in each of the 50 states, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages and maintains the preserves.

Paul Tritaik, the longtime refuge manager at Pelican Island, departed last May to oversee a federal preserve on Sanibel Island. The Fish & Wildlife Service is reviewing applications for his successor; rangers and volunteers hope to welcome a new refuge manager by late spring.

As a result of cutbacks, just three employees staff Pelican Island and the two other federal refuges included in its group. Rangers rely on volunteer groups to keep the refuge running. In addition to a new refuge manager, Pelican Island is set to bring two new employees on board in the spring – a biologist and a maintenance staffer.

“There are 5,000 acres, there is so much work to do and there are only four employees,” said Bonnie Swanson, president of the Pelican Island Preservation Society and the principal of Vero Beach Elementary School.

Joanna Webb, the popular refuge ranger at Pelican Island, praised the volunteer groups for their efforts: “We wouldn’t get half of the stuff done if it weren’t for the volunteers,” she said.

During its long history, Pelican Island has proven its ability to endure.

Pelican Island Refuge was established in 1903 to protect the brown pelicans and other native birds nesting there. The birds were highly sought for their plume feathers, which were in vogue in the fashion industry at the turn of the century.

The tiny island itself is a bird rookery, providing nesting habitat for more than 16 bird species, according to the Fish & Wildlife Service. More than 30 species of water birds use the island during the winter migratory season, and more than 130 bird species are found throughout the entire refuge.

Paul Kroegel, a German immigrant and conservationist, was named as the first refuge manager at Pelican Island. Webb credited Kroegel for inspiring future generations with his vision.

“If you’re passionate enough, believe enough and care enough, you can do anything,” Webb said of Kroegel. Before he left office in 1909, Roosevelt set aside another 52 preserves to protect wildlife. Environmentalists applaud Pelican Island for leading to the creation of the national refuge system.

In the decades after Roosevelt established Pelican Island, the tiny preserve was accessible only by boat. It was first expanded in 1968 when the state increased its size by 4,760 acres of mangrove islands and submerged lands.

The refuge has since acquired over 500 acres through purchases, management agreements, and conservation easements along its eastern boundary to provide a buffer against encroaching development, and provide a link to the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge.

But by the 1990s, the initial sliver of 5.5 acres of island first protected by Roosevelt had worn down to a nub, washed away by wind and the constant slapping of waves. Barely two acres remained. Rangers and volunteers devised a plan to dump tons of oyster shells from a helicopter, ringing Pelican Island with a barrier to disperse waves.

As the centennial celebration neared, the Fish & Wildlife Service and volunteers worked to open the sanctuary for public use. As a result, Centennial Trail, the centerpiece of the refuge, winds through the sanctuary to an observation platform overlooking Pelican Island itself.

For the March 14, 2003 centennial celebration, the refuge hosted then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Fish & Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams. Representatives from more than 100 other federal wildlife refuges educated visitors about the expansive system of preserves.

“That was the moment,” Webb said, “when people realized, it’s not just about Pelican Island.”

Norton and students from Pelican Island Elementary School in Sebastian planted live oak seedlings in the refuge. In her remarks, she said “refuges are the window into the nation’s soul.”

Norton also praised volunteers for their work in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

“National Wildlife Refuges receive a helping hand each year from almost 40,000 volunteers, who dedicate their talents and their energy to refuges all across the country,” she told the crowd, according to a transcript of her remarks. “I have said before, we couldn’t do the job we do without our volunteers.”

In addition to overseeing Pelican Island, the next refuge manager will also be responsible for two other refuge systems spread across four Florida counties – Brevard, Highlands and Polk, in addition to Indian River.

“There has never been enough staff for one refuge, let alone two,” Stieglitz said. He served in various roles with the Fish & Wildlife Service for 34 years, retiring from the agency in 1994 as its regional director in Alaska.

Together, the three refuges will form a diverse portfolio. A recent federal study determined the group would need a minimum of 14 employees to be managed effectively.

Along with Pelican Island, the new refuge system will include neighboring Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for nesting sea turtles that was established in 1991. Stretched across more than 20 miles of shoreline from Melbourne Beach to Wabasso Beach, the Carr refuge is essential to survival of the sea turtle species that climb ashore to nest there annually.

A typical year draws between 15,000 and 20,000 nesting sea turtles to beaches in the Carr refuge. The refuge contains the most significant area for loggerhead sea turtle nesting in the Western Hemisphere, and the most significant area for green turtle nesting in North America, according to the Fish & Wildlife Service.

Because of its location, the Carr refuge is a patchwork of beachfront condos, houses and conservation land. Stieglitz described it as an “urban refuge.”

The refuge is named for late conservation pioneer Archie Carr Jr., a University of Florida zoology professor who advocated sea turtle protection and study.

The next refuge manager’s portfolio will also include Lakes Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, which was recently transferred from the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge complex to the Pelican Island complex, which also includes the Carr preserve.

Established in 1993, Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge was the first refuge designated for the preservation of endangered and threatened plants. On the refuge’s 1,857 acres are 31 rare plant species – 22 of which are federally listed as endangered or threatened.

At Pelican Island, the Pelican Island Preservation Society is planning to build a boardwalk and viewing platform to both increase public access to the sanctuary and honor the memory of Joe Michael, a citrus grower and environmentalist who died last October at age 89. Michael aided volunteers in their efforts to create a buffer surrounding Pelican Island.

Protecting the refuge is a top priority for Swanson and her team of volunteers. She has no doubt about the role of Pelican Island in the effort to protect conservation lands.

“This is the most historically significant refuge in the whole system because it was the first to be designated,” she said.