Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation

Providing Habitat and Protecting Land: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Merritt Island Photo

Photo by Avery Joens

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge History

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is located along Florida’s Space Coast in Brevard County. The refuge began back in 1962 with the development of the nation’s space program. When NASA obtained the land contiguous to Cape Canaveral to establish the John F. Kennedy Space Center much of the land went undeveloped and was deemed unnecessary for NASA to utilize. One year later in 1963, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to form the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in the remaining undeveloped areas.

Photo by Alex Freeze

Wildlife on the Refuge

The refuge was established in part to provide protection for migratory birds. Made up of 140,000 acres of land and waters, the refuge consists of a wide variety of habitats such as coastal dunes, saltwater marshes, managed impoundments, scrub, pine flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks. These various habitats offer a home for more than 1,500 species of plants and animals as well as 15 federally listed species.

Stanley Howarter is a wildlife biologist at the refuge who focuses a lot of his work on water management. Howarter shared that the 45-mile-long stretch of coastline on the refuge that is completely undeveloped is “absolutely perfect for nesting sea turtles during the summer and basically composes the entire population of southeastern beach mice.” During the winter months, birdwatchers will flock to the refuge to spot a wide variety of wintering waterfowl. Birdwatchers can also find Florida scrub jays in the coastal scrub habitat on the refuge,

“We have the second largest population of Florida scrub jays here, and it’s a fire-maintained upland habitat that is increasingly becoming rarer in Florida because it’s the prime area that people want to develop,”

Howarter said. Because the refuge is surrounded by the most biologically diverse estuary in North America the Indian River Lagoon as well as the Mosquito Lagoon, a tremendous number of manatees can be found in the waters around the refuge.

Conservation and Land Management

Photo by Avery Joens

Since NASA needs the refuge as a buffer area there’s not much if any development happening in the space center and on the refuge. This means the conservation efforts on the refuge have more to do with maintaining the fire regime and controlling exotic plants than anything else. These tools are frequently required to maintain and improve habitats for wildlife on the refuge. A major threat facing the landscape in Florida due to encroachment is that land managers aren’t able to burn in the way the landscape would naturally burn, “One of the most difficult things to do as a land manager is to mimic the natural fire behavior on the landscape,” Howarter said.

Another important element of land management on the refuge is the control of exotic plants. Land managers can manage these invasive species through a combination of the cautious use of herbicide, biocontrol, and prescribed fire “That’s something we can physically do to maintain the landscape to the way it’s supposed to be,” Howarter said. One may wonder how the refuge’s close proximity to the space center impacts the environment and wildlife. According to Howarter, if the space center wasn’t there, the beaches and landscape wouldn’t be in the condition they are today, “it’s a minor impact compared to the development that would be here without the space center,” Howarter said. Yet, Howarter still says the impacts from car traffic on the island pose the greatest threat to wildlife on the refuge. He says one of the best things Floridians can do to help protect our land and wildlife is to be careful when driving.

Water Management

Photo by Avery Joens

Back in 1962 when NASA purchased the land, they were able to do so for relatively cheap due to the tremendous amounts of mosquitos on the island. Because of the infestation of mosquitos, the only people who frequented the island were fishermen and those growing oranges. NASA needed a way to get rid of the mosquitos and had Brevard County mosquito control come in and impound the salt marshes. In doing so, this prevented the breeding of mosquitos, and it turned all the refuge’s salt marshes into fresh marshes with managed water levels. Howarter shared that this took place during a time when many freshwater marshes in the state were being lost, “that was a tremendous benefit to wading birds, shore birds, and wintering waterfowl,” said Howarter. The water management upkeep ultimately helped lead to the partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, the land managers use seasonal water level manipulation to manage many of the refuge’s 51 salt marsh impoundments. These manipulations help both mosquito control as well as benefit some of the bird species on the refuge.

Connectivity and the Corridor

The land that makes up the refuge falls within the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Howarter stressed the importance of having connectivity to other protected lands, he said, “We benefit from that connection, and the surrounding land agencies benefit from being connected to us too.” The connectivity allows more land for species that require a larger habitat range along with the opportunity for long-term population viability and genetic exchange.

Visit the Refuge

If you would like to learn more about Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge or for information about visiting, go to https://www.fws.gov/refuge/merritt-island.

Avery Joens Storytelling Intern
Avery Joens is a senior in college at the University of Central Florida studying journalism. Her passion for storytelling and environmental reporting is what led her to the Florida Wildlife Corridor. She recently won a Florida Association of Broadcast Journalists award for environmental reporting on a story she did about the Indian River Lagoon. Avery is a Florida native whose love for her state grew through spending time at the beaches, springs, and FL Keys.
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