A Century of Conservation

Article excerpt

Throughout 2003, the National Wildlife Refuge System celebrates 100 years of extraordinary growth and achievement. A century has passed since President Theodore Roosevelt established the first refuge at Pelican Island, Florida, sparking the American wildlife conservation movement. For those of us who work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there could hardly be a more significant or gratifying anniversary.

The National Wildlife Refuge System has been called America's best-kept secret. During this centennial year, we will change that and, by spreading the word, help it become recognized for what it truly is, one of America's greatest national treasures and a resounding success in wildlife conservation.

Of all the incredible things that our wildlife refuges are and do, one of the proudest is our far-reaching and historic efforts in protecting and recovering endangered and threatened species. It's easy to forget that the Endangered Species Act, which is widely regarded as the world's most powerful wildlife conservation law, gives the Fish and Wildlife Service a responsibility of almost overwhelming scope, urgency and complexity: restoring our nation's imperiled animal and plant species to a secure status and conserving the ecosystems upon which all of them, and all of us, depend.

The Service and the Refuge System have responded to this challenge by forging a variety of strategic partnerships with zoos and aquaria, private landowners, nonprofit organizations, interested individuals, and state and local governments. The results have been immensely successful and involved a great deal of hard, behind-the-scenes work. These partnerships have helped turn species such as the California condor (Gymnogyps cahfornianus), Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), and black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) from almost certain extinction toward the road to recovery. They have also helped save dozens of important but less "charismatic" species, such as the southwest willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus) and the American burying beetle (Nicropborus americanus).

This centennial celebration gives us an opportunity to reflect on the power of individuals to change society. It also leads us to ask some fundamental questions: Why does America need a system of conservation lands? Why do we need federal laws to protect wildlife? How did all of this come about?

In the late 1800s, Americans began waking to the fact that our wildlife resources were in trouble. Years of unchecked exploitation saw many species we consider common today, like deer and turkey, dwindling. The bison and the passenger pigeon were nearing extinction. In Florida, populations of pelicans, egrets, spoonbills, and other water birds were suffering from pressure by commercial market hunters. Bird plumes, which were used to adorn women's hats and other items in the fashion industry, were worth more than gold. Conservationists, including hunters and anglers, became alarmed by this wholesale commercial slaughter of birds, and faced market hunters in what has become known as "The Feather Wars."

In 1901, conservationists, led by the American Ornithological Society and the Florida Audubon Society, convinced Florida to pass legislation to protect nongame birds. Audubon also hired three wildlife wardens in Florida to stop market hunting. One was Paul Kroegel, a German immigrant and boat builder who had settled in Sebastian, Florida, in 1881. He made his home on a ridge looking out at Pelican Island, the last rookery for brown pelicans on the east coast of Florida and took an interest in protecting the birds. Kroegel is the only warden who survived the Feather Wars. The other two were murdered.

Kroegel became acquainted with Frank Chapman, a member of the American Ornithological Union and the curator at the American Museum of National History in New York, and demonstrated to Chapman the plight of the pelicans and other birds. …