1996 32¢ Brown Pelican
Issue Date: October 2, 1996
City: San Diego, CA
Printed By: Ashton-Potter (USA) Ltd
Printing Method: Lithographed
Relying on the well being of our coastlines, the brown pelican has long been in a precarious position. In fact, in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established the nation’s first wildlife refuge – Pelican Island – to protect brown pelican nesting sites. When the Louisiana population of this species disappeared entirely between 1957 and 1961 and its California population suffered a catastrophic decline, it became obvious that more aggressive steps needed to be taken.
Large-scale use of pesticides, especially DDT, posed the greatest threat. Found in highly concentrated doses in fish – the pelican’s primary food source – DDT was absorbed by the birds, causing them to lay thin-shelled eggs that seldom survived incubation. But a 1972 ban on DDT gave the brown pelican a second chance.
Despite other threats such as oil spills, overfishing, and destruction of breeding grounds, the future looks promising. Since the ban, the population has increased dramatically and colonies have successfully been re-established in Louisiana and Texas, although there is still a need to protect nesting areas. Should efforts to protect the California brown pelican prove equally successful, the bird will most likely be “downlisted” from Endangered to Threatened.
Establishment Of First U.S. Wildlife Refuge
On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation creating Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the first such protective area in America.
Just off the eastern coast of Florida lies a chain of barrier islands lined with mangrove trees. While the islands attract a wide array of shore birds, there was a small five-acre area that seemed to be a favorite for pelicans. By the mid 1800s, people in the area took note of the birds and began to hunt them for their feathers. These feathers were often uses to decorate women’s hats and were sold for very high prices.
In 1881, Paul Kroegel moved to the Indian River Lagoon and was fascinated by the pelicans and other birds. He also grew concerned about their safety after witnessing their extensive hunting. Kroegel believed the island needed protection, but there no such laws in place at the time. So he sailed to island to guard the birds from hunters himself.
Over time naturalists grew concerned about the area too and came to visit Kroegel. Among these was Frank Chapman, curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. When he realized that Pelican Island was one of the last remaining Brown pelican colonies on Florida’s east coast, he knew it had to be protected.
Like-minded individuals with the American Ornithologists’ Union and Florida Audubon Society then launched a campaign to protect the birds, leading to the passage of the Lacey Act, which outlawed the sale of illegally killed animals. These groups also worked to get the Audubon Model Law passed. This law outlawed plume hunting in Florida. Kroegel was then officially hired as a warden to protect the birds while others worked there to inform visitors of the plight of the pelicans.
Chapman knew that more protection was needed, so he and another concerned citizen visited President Theodore Roosevelt at his New York home to plead the case for the pelicans. Roosevelt was swayed by their argument and established Pelican Island, America’s first federal bird reservation, on March 14, 1903. The refuge marked the first time the Federal government designated land specifically for the conservation of wildlife. According the act, “It is hereby ordered that Pelican Island in Indian River… is hereby reserved and set apart for the use of the Department of Agriculture as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.”
The preserve would face its share of troubles in the coming years. At least two wardens were killed in the line of duty, leading to a national conversation about the dangers of hunting for these feathers. The Audubon Society then launched a campaign to convince people not to wear these feathers, so there would be no need to hunt for them. The refuge also faced off against fishermen who claimed that the pelicans were eating commercial fish and shouldn’t be protected. However, it was later discovered the decline was from over-fishing and not birds.
The creation of Pelican Island gave birth to the National Wildlife Refuge System. During his term in office, Roosevelt went on to establish 54 more refuges. Today, there are over 560 National Wildlife Refuges, covering over 150 million acres.
Click here to visit Pelican Island’s official website.