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This Month in History: Examining the Matlacha Pass National Wildlife Refuge

January 29, 2014
By TIM KNOX , Pine Island Eagle

On Sept. 26, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt designated three small islands in the Matlacha Pass estuary as a "preserve and breeding ground for native birds." Matlacha Pass is the body of water between Pine Island and Cape Coral.

Today the Matlacha Pass National Wildlife Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as one of four satellite refuges of J.N. "Ding" Darling NWR located on Sanibel Island. The other satellite refuges are the Pine Island NWR, Caloosahatchee NWR and the Island Bay NWR. These four refuges cover a total area of approximately 1,201 acres.

Over the years the Fish & Wildlife Service has expanded the Matlacha Pass refuge to comprise 31 islands* that extend across an area of 538.25 acres*. The refuge is bordered on the north by Big Smokehouse Key and on the south by Fishermen's Key. The refuge also includes the Terrapin Creek Tract that lies east of Punta Rassa. The entire refuge lies south of the Matlacha Bridge. Fisherman Key, the large island you can see from Punta Rassa or the Sanibel Causeway, once had people living on it.

Matlacha Pass NWR's wetlands and uplands are maintained in their natural state to provide undisturbed habitat for birds, fish and other animals. Uplands are areas of land lying above the level where water flows. The principle vegetation cover for the islands is mangrove trees, which make up approximately 88 percent of the islands. The upland hardwood forests of buttonwood trees account for approximately 10 percent of the refuge. The balance consists of low sand and shell ridges containing cabbage palms. The vegetation of many of the islands is almost exclusively red mangrove. While on other islands the wetlands are predominately black mangroves often mixed with white mangroves.

There are many threatened or endangered animal species that reside in the Matlacha Pass refuge. They include the American bald eagle, wood stork, West Indian manatee, American crocodile, Eastern indigo snake and many species of sea turtles. Other rare birds, such as the osprey, utilize the refuge for feeding and nesting.

Public assess is not allowed on any islands of the Matlacha Pass NWR. This is so the roosting and nesting habitat for the vast array of wildlife is not disturbed. Access to the waters surrounding these islands is only allowed by boat, although navigation is challenging because of hazardous oyster bars, fragile seagrass beds and the shallow waters. Fish & Wildlife officers frequently patrol the waters of the refuge for the protection of the wildlife species and Calusa shell mounds on some of the islands.

A special Thanks to Ray Lever for alerting me to this little bit of Pine Island history.

* The Matlacha Pass National Wildlife Refuge website states 23 islands and 512 acres. The site was last updated on Dec. 4, 2008. My information of 31 islands and 538.25 acres is from a paper from the Fish & Wildlife Service titled Pine Island, Matlacha Pass, Island Bay and Caloosahatchee National Wildlife Refuges-Comprehensive Conservation Plan. The date of this paper is October 2010.


For more history of Pine Island, visit the Museum of the Islands, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday, 1-4 p.m.

The museum is conveniently located next to the Pine Island Library at 5728 Sesame Drive off Stringfellow Road. Call 239-283-1525.

Tim Knox is museum historian at the Museum of the Islands.



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