Pelican Island is the nation’s first National Wildlife Refuge, designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, and the first incidence of land set aside for the purpose of wildlife conservation in the United States. It’s located on the Atlantic coast in central Florida, near Vero Beach. It comprises more than 5,400 acres of land and inland waterway, and is administered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. It was further designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963. The roughly 5.5 acre Pelican Island Wilderness, designated by Congress in 1970, is one of only a handful of wildernesses in the country that is closed to the public.
Multiple habitats and ecosystems are contained within the refuge, from salt marsh to mangrove forest to coastal strand. Pelican Island itself has actually decreased by almost 50% due to erosion primarily caused by boating activity on the Intracoastal Waterway. Efforts are underway to restore the island to its original size of just over 5 acres due to its importance as a rookery for the brown pelican. Home to a wide variety of flora, it even includes a butterfly garden where more than 30 species have been identified. A haven for wildlife in the middle of urban and suburban coastal Florida, it is home to not just numerous species of waterfowl such as the snowy egret and great blue heron, but also river otter, marsh rabbit, manatee, and bobcat. Pelican Island NWR is a stop on the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail and is an Audubon Society Important Bird Area.
Despite being primarily intended to protect and preserve wildlife, a variety of recreational activities are available, including: hiking, fishing, day use, and of course, wildlife- and bird-watching. Both self-guided tours using QR codes with a smartphone and guided wildlife tours with refuge staff are available. I visited in May 2017 with Panda, hiking a bit of the Bird’s Impoundment Trail, and walking the accessible Centennial Trail to the observation tower that directly overlooks Pelican Island.
The refuge is open daily from 730am to sunset, and entry is free. Check the refuge website for the most current information regarding events, and also closures and alerts.
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