By the end of the 19th century, wildlife in America was in trouble. Essential habitats were being lost to farming and development; while large mammals such as bison, elk, and antelope and a number of species of birds had been hunted to the brink of extinction.

The story of why and how Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Atlantic Coast was created – is the story of how our country’s refuge system began. Birds such as egrets, herons, and colorful songbirds were being shot by the millions for their plumage -- to decorate women’s hats and military uniforms.

Things came to a head when Paul Kroegel, who loved the pelicans on an island in the Indian River Lagoon, had had enough. Too many birds were being killed by hunters for the market and by tourists for sport. Kroegel invited scientists to Pelican Island to see the situation for themselves. Thanks to their efforts back in Washington, DC, in 1903 Theodore Roosevelt established Pelican Island as the first federally protected area for native birds.

Once nearly extinct, buffalo do still roam, thanks to the American Bison Society and William Hornaday, of the New York Zoological Society at the Bronx Zoo. In 1907 Hornaday arranged to have 15 bison from the Bronx sent by railway car and wagon train to Oklahoma. The goal was to re-establish a breeding herd of bison in the wild. Their descendants can be seen today at Wichita Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.

Dedicated staff at Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana saved the endangered Gulf Coast alligator, which until the 1960’s could be hunted anytime, anywhere. These men did their regular work during the day, and at night patrolled the refuge waterways for poachers. As a former manager points out, it wasn’t until the early 1970’s, and the Endangered Species Act, that alligators were fully protected, though poaching of gators is still a problem today.

An interesting part of refuge system story is the role that photographers have played - from the early 1900‘s on- in creating public awareness of the need for action if many species were not to go the way of the passenger pigeon. The photographs of seabirds taken by William Finley on the Oregon Coast galvanized Theodore Roosevelt into action once again, declaring Three Arch Rocks as the first National Wildlife Refuge in the western states.

Another presidential action that contributed to the growth of the refuge systems was the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps [CCC] by Franklin Roosevelt as a New Deal program. The CCC “was a new deal not just for America, but for wildlife”. The “boys” worked on 44 refuges, many of them to protect migratory waterfowl.