Where the Wild Things Are

President Theodore Roosevelt started what would become the world’s most successful experiment in conservation

Cheryl Carlin

When he heard that Palm Beach yachtsmen were shooting brown pelicans for sport as the ponderous birds flew to their nests on a small island not far from Melbourne, Florida, President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly asked an aide, "Is there any law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island a federal bird reservation?"

"No," the aide replied. "The island is federal property."

"Very well, then, I so declare it."

The exchange may be apocryphal, but Roosevelt did sign an executive order, 100 years ago this month, creating Pelican Island Reservation, the first federal bird preserve and the first piece of the vast patchwork of sanctuaries known as the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The refuge system marks its centennial this month with special events at PelicanIsland and other refuges and, in November, with an exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Totaling nearly 95 million acres, or roughly the size of Montana, the system consists of 540 refuges spread across all 50 states and 12 U.S. territories and possessions. National parks cover 13 percent less acreage but seem to get all the glory because "parks are for people," says Daniel Ashe, the refuge system's chief. "Refuges are for wildlife." They protect the last existing habitats for some of the most endangered animals and plants, including the lightfooted clapper rail, desert pupfish, leatherback sea turtle, American crocodile and green pitcher-plant. The refuge system is "one of this country's greatest conservation success stories," says Eric Jay Dolin, author of The Smithsonian Book of National Wildlife Refuges, published by Smithsonian Institution Press. (The photographs here are from the book.)

By the late 19th century, conservationists had already begun focusing public attention on the consequences of industrial-scale hunting. By then, the nearly countless bison that once thundered across the plains were a memory. Passenger pigeons, once so plentiful that naturalist John James Audubon reported seeing a flock of more than a billion in Kentucky in 1813, no longer filled the sky, driven to extinction by hunters wielding huge nets to meet the demand for pigeon meat.

But nothing galvanized opposition to wholesale slaughter more than the plume trade. Fashionable turn-of-the-century women promenaded in hats resplendent with feathers or even entire stuffed birds. In 1901, the American Ornithologists Union persuaded Florida lawmakers to protect nongame birds, but the state didn't have the manpower to enforce the laws, and the shooting continued. That's when Roosevelt, alerted to the killing by conservationists, created the PelicanIsland refuge, where U.S. warden Paul Kroegel, newly hired for $1 a month, protected the birds from poachers.

It wasn't the first time the federal government sought to spare wildlife by setting aside land. In 1869, two years after the United States bought the Alaskan territory from Russia, Congress created a sanctuary in the Pribilof Islands to preserve fur seal rookeries. And in 1894, lawmakers made it a crime to harm wildlife within YellowstoneNational Park, which had been established 22 years earlier. But historians credit Roosevelt—a Republican who was, famously, an avid big game hunter—with making the first concerted federal effort to protect wildlife. In his two terms as president (1901 to 1909), he created 51 bird refuges in 17 states and three territories as well as five national parks and 150 national forests.

Some critics charged that his actions were undemocratic for bypassing Congress. "If this practice is to continue, there is no telling how many bird preserves we may have or how much of the territory of the Union these federal bird preserves may ultimately cover," Wyoming congressman Franklin W. Mondell harrumphed in 1909. Since then, debate has largely centered on the question of how much human enterprise the refuges can withstand and still protect wildlife. Today, hunting is allowed on more than half of national refuges—an important tool in managing wildlife. After careful review, regulators also permit public and private parties to conduct business on a particular refuge, including livestock grazing, logging, military exercises, farming, oil drilling or gas drilling.

A proposal to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) the largest single refuge, at 19.3 million acres—was the subject of heated debate until the Democrat-controlled Senate killed it in 2002. Now that Republicans are in the majority in both the House and Senate, the Arctic drilling plan is likely to be revived. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that ANWR's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain contains between 4.3 and 11.9 billion barrels of recoverable oil. (Americans use roughly seven billion barrels annually.) Proponents include Alaska's governor Frank Murkowski, a Republican, who has argued that "safe development of ANWR represents a great step forward in our national and economic security." Environmentalists oppose the plan, saying those pristine acres would be put at risk to obtain relatively small amounts of oil that Americans could readily save by conserving energy. Among the opponents is Theodore Roosevelt IV, great-grandson of the president. "If we did [allow drilling]," he recently told CBS News, "future generations will look back on us and say, ‘What was wrong with those people?' "

Whatever the outcome of the next ANWR debate, few would quarrel with the original Theodore Roosevelt's belief that refuges are of "capital importance" in protecting wildlife. "To lose the chance to see frigate-birds soaring in circles above the storm," he wrote in his 1916 memoir, Book-Lover's Holidays in the Open, "or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, or a myriad of terns flashing in the bright light of midday as they hover in a shifting maze above the beach—why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time."

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