FLORIDA KEYS — For more than 100 years, the Florida Keys’ richly diverse natural environment has been recognized and protected by foresighted conservation efforts. The Keys’ four national wildlife refuges and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary foster the protection of endangered plants, animals and marine life as well as the continental United States’ only living coral barrier reef.
Administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and jointly managed with the state of Florida, the Florida Keys sanctuary was established in November 1990. Today regarded as a national treasure, it protects 2,900 square nautical miles of waters and submerged lands.
The sanctuary’s boundaries stretch from Biscayne National Park near Miami to the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West — surrounding the entire Florida Keys island chain and the world-renowned reef that parallels it.
Within this area lie spectacular and nationally significant marine resources, historic shipwrecks and other archaeological wonders, extensive seagrass beds, mangrove-fringed islands and more than 6,000 species of marine life. Visit https://floridakeys.noaa.gov/.
Despite its importance in protecting Florida Keys waters and their inhabitants, the sanctuary was far from the earliest environmental preserve established in the island chain.
That honor goes to the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. Lying west of Key West and accessible only by boat, it was designated in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to create a safe haven and breeding ground for migratory species. Today it provides nesting, roosting and foraging habitat for 250-plus species of birds — including roseate terns, ospreys, white-crowned pigeons and frigate birds — and a nesting ground for endangered sea turtles.
The refuge covers over 2,000 acres of land and more than 200,000 acres of co-managed state waters. Visit fws.gov/refuge/Key_West/.
In 1938 the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge was established to provide safe nesting and breeding areas for great white herons, North America’s largest wading bird, migratory birds and other wildlife. Stretching between Key West and Marathon, it features almost 200,000 acres of open water and islands in the Gulf of Mexico — an area often referred to as the backcountry. Visitors’ primary access is by kayak, canoe or shallow-draft motorboat. Visit fws.gov/refuge/great_white_heron/.
Perhaps the best known of the Florida Keys wildlife preserves is the National Key Deer Refuge in the Lower Keys. It was created in 1957 to protect plant and wildlife species — most notably the appealing and endangered Key deer.
The miniature Key deer, about the size of a large dog, were once almost extinct. Today the population of shy, engaging animals is nearing 800. They graze especially in the early morning hours and at dusk. Spotting them isn't always easy, but it's a real treat.
As well as deer, the National Key Deer Refuge shelters species including the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, Bartram’s hairstreak butterfly, American alligator and migratory and resident birds. The refuge encompasses more than 9,200 acres ranging from Bahia Honda Key to the eastern shores of Sugarloaf Key, out to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. A visitor center and nature trails are located on Big Pine Key. Visit fws.gov/refuge/National_Key_Deer_Refuge/.
Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1980 in upper Key Largo, includes habitat and nesting sites favored by the American crocodile and a habitat restoration program for the endangered Key Largo wood rat. The remote 6,700-acre refuge typically is closed to protect its inhabitants, but its native butterfly garden is open to the public. Nature enthusiasts are welcome for organized volunteer activities and guided walks. Visit fws.gov/refuge/crocodile_lake/.
In early 2019, the new Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Nature Center is scheduled to open near mile marker 30.5 on Big Pine Key. The 1,840-square-foot center showcases all four of the Keys’ refuges, and visitors can learn about Key deer and other plants and animals found only in the island chain.
As well as protecting rare birds, marine life, animals and plants, the Keys’ marine sanctuary and wildlife refuges provide visitors an unparalleled view of the island chain’s environmental wonders — and inspiration to connect with and protect them. Exploring these areas is an unforgettable experience for birders, divers and snorkelers, artists, kayakers and canoeing fans, photographers, nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.