First National Wildlife Refuge: Florida’s Indian River Was Ground Zero of America’s Bloody Conservation History
My son, his grandpa, and I cast live shrimp into the Indian River, hoping a snook or sea trout might take the bait under the Florida sunset.
Brown pelicans, simultaneously clumsy and impossibly graceful, coasted past with wingtips skimming the surface. Egrets and ibises searching the mangroves were so perfectly white they recalled me of the snow still covering the mountains back home in Montana.
Maybe you thought it always looked this peaceful. But you were wrong. In fact, the Indian River Lagoon is the bloody birthplace of an amazing American conservation success story. A story that is still hard-fought today.
Here is the back story: Back in 1900, feathers in hats were all the rage in women’s fashion. Market hunters wiped out egret and pelican rookeries in Florida to Satisfy the demand. Conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt feared those magnificent species might soon follow the passenger pigeon, which was careening toward extinction.
Theodore Roosevelt had a tool at ready: The Antiquities Act. That law gives the President right to protect special, federally managed natural resources as national monuments (the law does not apply to private or state land). Roosevelt used the law to protect Pelican Island, a 5-acre rookery in the Indian River Lagoon.
Although small, Pelican Island was something totally new: A national wildlife refuge. Since there was no US Fish & Wildlife Service yet, the Audubon Society hired game wardens to patrol the islands against poachers. It was risky duty: Two wardens were killed in the early years.
But those killings triggered a national backlash against the feather-hat fad and sealed public support for national wildlife refuges.
After century, the network of national wildlife refuges are spreading whole nation, protecting critical habitat for a wide variety of migratory waterfowl and many other species. Sportsmen funded that network by buying federal Duck Stamps, established in 1934. Today, there are more than 560 wildlife refuges, protecting 150 million acres of habitat in the US, managed under the Department of the Interior. Most of them are open to hunting and fishing and they all trace their history to Pelican Island.
But like those old-school market hunters, there are few enemies of conservation still lurking in the swamp. Anti-public land radicals, like Nevada’s Bundy family took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon during 2016 and claimed the refuge was illegitimate (like Pelican Island, Malheur was founded by Theodore Roosevelt and later supplemented by the Duck Stamp).
Meanwhile, Congressman like the powerful head of the House Natural Resource Committee, Rob Bishop, Riverten,Utah, are trying to skin the Antiquities Act. They are also trying to persuade President Trump to reduce the boundaries of the Bear’s Ears National Monument in Utah, which President Obama conserved under the law.
These politicians will need the Trump Administration’s help to undermine or overthrow the Antiquities Act and the National Wildlife Refuge System to get their way. Both Trump and Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke have spoken glowingly about Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation work. let’s see if their actions reflect that legacy or undermine it or not.