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Paul Kroegel and America's First Wildlife Refuge

In 1858, elegant bird feathers were literally worth their weight in gold. As a result of the expanding market for bird feathers for the fashion industry in the mid-1800s, plume hunters streamed down Florida's east coast in search of rookeries to supply their trade. On reaching Pelican Island, in the Indian River near Sebastian Inlet, market hunters found a proverbial gold mine of egrets, herons and spoonbills. Brown pelicans, the island's namesake, could also be found in great numbers and were on the edge of extinction as a result of vandals who perceived them to be a threat to fisheries.

Paul Kroegel became the birds' unlikely champion. A German immigrant who settled on the west bank of the Indian River Lagoon with his father in 1881, Kroegel had an excellent vantage point for observing the brown pelicans and other colonial nesting birds drawn to the Pelican Island mangroves. Kroegel took an interest in protecting the island's birds, sailing out daily with his double-barreled shotgun to stand guard against hunters and vandals.

After noted ornithologist Frank Chapman discovered that Pelican Island was the last rookery for brown pelicans on the east coast of Florida, the American Ornithologists' Union and Florida Audubon Society were galvanized to action. In 1901 these groups led a successful campaign to pass state legislation protecting non-game birds. The Florida Audubon Society hired four wardens to enforce the new law, but it was a dangerous job. Two of those wardens were murdered in the line of duty.

On March 14, 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation — a forerunner to the National Wildlife Refuge System. This was the first time lands had ever been set aside on behalf of wildlife in the United States. Thereafter, Paul Kroegel was paid $1 a month by the Florida Audubon Society to serve as the first refuge manager.