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Wilderness Island Attracts Wildlife — And Party Crowd

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The islands west of Key West have been designated as a national wildlife refuge since 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt created the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. The intent was to protect birds from plume-hunters who were killing them for feathers to adorn ladies' hats.

Today, the islands serve as refuge for many of those birds, along with other endangered and protected species such as sea turtles, roseate terns and the Miami Blue butterfly. Boca Grande, one of those islands, has sandy beaches and a serene atmosphere.

Those same qualities also make it attractive to boaters. And at 12 miles from Key West, it's an easy day trip. That has wildlife managers concerned.

Nancy Finley, who manages the four national wildlife refuges in the Keys, says she understands that boating to Boca Grande is part of the local culture.

"But I think the use itself is starting to change, and it’s going from what it initially was, was a nice quiet solitary place to go to, to more of a recreation area or a party zone," she said.

Credit U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Key West National Wildlife Refuge, including Boca Grande, was created in 1908 to protect birds. Here white and brown pelicans use a flat near the island.

Compatible uses for wilderness areas like Boca Grande include wildlife observation and photography, she said.

"You shouldn’t go someplace like that just for a party. It’s really a special, special place and you want to see people get to understand the resources that are there, the wildlife, the solitude, the quiet, the beauty and things like that," Finley said. "And I think they’re missing out on that by just pulling up and having a few beers and blasting the radio."

Finley will be meeting at the end of the month with leaders from the Florida Powerboat Club, which has held raft-ups at Boca Grande during its annual fall Poker Run to the Keys. Stu Jones, the club's president and founder, said he's gotten the message.

"Let’s be very clear. I will not promote any activity for any boater... that I’m affiliated with to go to Boca Grande," he said. "I'm removing myself completely from Boca Grande going forward."

Jones said he thinks his club is taking heat for doing the same things that lots of local boaters from the Keys do routinely.

"It's unfair. It's unjust. It's profiling," he said. "Apparently John Q. Public is allowed to keep going there. But my organization is not."

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.