Historically, these wetlands served as an important nursery for a wide variety of fish and shellfish and was important habitat for wildlife and wintering waterfowl. The natural tidal flow between Bahia Grande and the Laguna Madre was cut off by construction projects in the 1930’s and 1950’s. For nearly 70 years, the degraded wetland was a source of blowing dust, a site of massive fish kills, and a complicated natural resource problem. Today, Bahia Grande is considered one of the largest and most successful coastal wetland restoration projects in the United States. In 2000, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge acquired the 21,700 acre Bahia Grande Unit located between the towns of Laguna Vista and Brownsville, Texas. Almost half of the unit is wetlands, including the 6,500 acre Bahia Grande basin for which the tract of land was named. In 2005, a pilot channel was constructed that connected the Brownsville Ship Channel to the Bahia Grande and the waters began flowing into the main basin and refilling the wetland. In 2007, two interior channels were cut that reconnected the larger basin to two smaller interior basins – the Laguna Larga and the Little Laguna Madre -- ensuring natural tidal flow and exchange throughout the whole system. While more work remains, once fully restored, the 10,000 acres of wetlands will enhance habitat for wildlife and fisheries, improve environmental conditions in surrounding communities previously affected by blowing dust, provide opportunities for recreation and environmental education, and contribute to the local economy through increased nature tourism.A partnership of more than 65 groups known as the Bahia Grande Restoration Partnership collaborated to restore the degraded wetland. Partners included local, state, and federal agencies; municipalities; educational institutions from the secondary to university levels, commercial and recreational fishery organizations; corporations and foundations; local, state, and national conservation organizations; and private citizens and landowners. In 2007, the Laguna Atascosa Refuge and the 65 collaborating partners were recognized in the Presidential Wetlands Report and are proud recipients of the National Wetlands Conservation Award and the Coastal America Partnership Awards.With the hydrology restored, the tidally affected lagoon system is once again an important nursery for finfish such as red drum and shellfish such as shrimp and blue crab. The interior islands are attracting breeding waterbirds such as gull-billed terns, skimmers and more recently the first nesting pair of brown pelicans in south Texas since the 1920’s.
The next phase of the restoration will be to widen the inlet channel to allow more water to be exchanged on a daily basis. Currently, the water remains in the basin too long and becomes too salty. This work is expected to occur in 2015 or 2016.
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The refuge’s location and habitat make it a haven for butterflies and moths -- and those who enjoy seeing them! October and November offer the best times to enjoy the refuge’s butterflies, a documented 130 species.