St. Vincent NWR

We often speak of the units of the National Wildlife Refuge System as islands of protected habitat in a sea of development, but in the case of Florida's St. Vincent NWR (Region 4), the refuge is literally an island. The property consists of the entirety of St. Vincent Island (12,300 acres), a triangular barrier island (part of a chain protecting Appalachicola Bay), along with the much smaller Pig Island and a small mainland parcel.

Europeans first made contact with Native Americans on the island in 1528. Franciscan missionaries in the 17th century gave the island the name we use today. In the century and a half leading up to its acquisition by USFWS in 1968, the property changed hands fourteen times. Its owners built roads, ranched it for cattle, logged its forests, and stocked it with exotic wildlife for big game hunters. The land's price escalated with each real estate transaction: what George Hatch paid $3,000 for in 1868, the Nature Conservancy paid $2.2 million for in 1968. Using MBCF funds to repay the Conservancy, USFWS made the island part of Refuge System that same year. All told, 98.9% of the acreage was purchased with Duck Stamp dollars.

At least 10 different habitat types can be distinguished on the island, among them tidal marsh, freshwater lakes, scrub oak, dunes dominated by live oak, and four different slash pine communities. This Gulf of Mexico island is an important stopover point for Neotropical migrant birds; surveys have identified 277 species. The nine miles of Gulf beaches can be particularly good for viewing shorebirds (during late spring and early fall), gulls, terns, and fish-eating raptors (e.g., Bald Eagles and Ospreys). Waterfowl are most easily seen from mid- November through late December. Wood Storks are known to use the island year-round, although breeding activity has not been documented. St. Vincent Island hosts four of Florida's five sea turtle species. A captive breeding program for red wolf is ongoing; the refuge may prove suitable for reintroduction of eastern indigo snake, North America's largest nonvenomous snake.The October 2012 Comprehensive Conservation Plan has identified the eradication of feral hogs as an important management goal.

Interested in paying this special place a visit? You'll need to hire a boat, as there are no roads linking this island to the mainland. Check in with the Supporters of St. Vincent NWR for more information before you go. Or you can take a tour by video with refuge manager Shelley Staies, in a piece from 2009 by WFSU (public media through Florida State University). 

This National Wildlife Refuge profile originally appeared in the 20 April 2015 issue of Wingtips.

The image of a Wood Stork by Carole Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.