Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge is located within the Indian River Lagoon, the most biologically diverse estuary in the United States. Situated on Florida’s central eastern coast, the Indian River Lagoon stretches 156 miles and is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by six inlets that run through a barrier island. The lagoon provides habitat for more than 2,200 animal species and 2,100 plant species, including 700 species of fish, 310 species of birds, and 36 endangered species. Due to its location along the Atlantic flyway, the refuge has the most diverse bird population in North America1.

President Theodore Roosevelt, by executive order, set aside Pelican Island as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds on March 14th, 1903. Plume hunters, egg collectors and vandals had exterminated all the egrets, herons and spoonbills from the island in the 1800’s. Paul Kroegel protected the remaining Brown Pelicans and petitioned ornithologists and naturalists to help him.

At the urging of the Florida Audubon Society and the American Ornithologists’ Union, President Roosevelt acted to protect Pelican Island and subsequently many other wildlife areas that were to become the National Wildlife Refuge System, the largest and most diverse assemblage of lands for wildlife in the world2.

Pelican Islan Map

The refuge is situated on central Florida’s Atlantic coast within the Indian River Lagoon and the barrier island between Sebastian Inlet and the Wabasso Causeway, east of the Intracoastal Waterway. The nearest town is Sebastian located on peninsular Florida just west of the refuge. The island itself covers only five and a half acres but the refuge totals 5,413 acres.

Brown Pelican on Sign

Pelican Island proper is a historic and significant bird rookery island, providing nesting habitat for over sixteen different species of colonial water birds. Over thirty species of water birds use the island during the winter migratory season and over 130 species of birds are found throughout the entire refuge.


The Pelican Island rookery provides critical nesting habitat for the endangered wood stork. Other refuge areas provide critical habitat for several other threatened and endangered species, including manatees, loggerhead and green sea turtles and southeastern beach mice.

Pelican Island Sunset

Public Use Opportunities at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge:

  • Boardwalk and observation tower to view Pelican Island, 3/4 mile
  • Two salt marsh impoundment hiking trails, each three miles, including a new wildlife observation deck extending 75 feet into the salt marsh
  • Wildlife observation and photography
  • Boating, kayaking, canoeing
  • Boat and bank fishing
  • Interpretation/Outreach/ Environmental Education

Special outreach events in partnership with the Pelican Island Preservation Society:

  • Commercial guided boat tours and rental available locally
  • The Centennial Trail, designated as a National Recreation Trail
  • Historic Jungle Trail, designated as a state Greenway
  • Refuge is part of the Indian River Lagoon Scenic Byway
  • Refuge is a designated Great Florida Birding Trail site

A promise was made almost one hundred years ago by President Theodore Roosevelt and carried out by all refuge employees since. That promise was to preserve wildlife and habitat for its own sake and for the benefit of the American people. Beginning with Paul Kroegel, a legacy of leadership and dedication was passed on to the likes of “Ding” Darling, Aldo Leopold, J. Clark Salyer II, and Rachel Carson. That legacy was also shared by a host of partners including the National Audobon Society. Frank Chapman, as National Audubon Society co-founeder, was instrumental in the protection of important bird rookeries, such as Pelican Island. Those partnerships and many others continue to this day as do the responsibilities that come with honoring a legacy. By honoring our past, we can dedicate ourselves to wildlife conservation in preparation for the future.

Pelican Island, Honoring a Legacy brochure can be found here, the Pelican Island NWR brochure can be found here, Pelican Island NWR website is here. All photographs courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

References: 1Pelican Island Preservation Society, 2U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service

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