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SAN LUIS NWR: The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Celebrates 50 Years of Wildlife Conservation in the San Joaquin Valley
California-Nevada Offices , February 3, 2017
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One of the two original entrance signs that greeted visitors to the San Luis NWR in 1968.
One of the two original entrance signs that greeted visitors to the San Luis NWR in 1968. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Local schools began bringing their students on field trips to the new San Luis NWR as soon as public access was made available in 1968.
Local schools began bringing their students on field trips to the new San Luis NWR as soon as public access was made available in 1968. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Refuge staff working on construction of the tule elk enclosure fence, completed in November 1974, made possible with support from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.  The tule elk were introduced to their new home on the refuge one month later in December.
Refuge staff working on construction of the tule elk enclosure fence, completed in November 1974, made possible with support from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The tule elk were introduced to their new home on the refuge one month later in December. - Photo Credit: USFWS
The refuge and surrounding lands provide habitat for as many as one million waterfowl and 300,000 shorebirds during the winter and migration seasons.  Seen here are a white-faced ibis, green-winged teal, and northern shoveler.
The refuge and surrounding lands provide habitat for as many as one million waterfowl and 300,000 shorebirds during the winter and migration seasons. Seen here are a white-faced ibis, green-winged teal, and northern shoveler. - Photo Credit: James Sanderson
In 2011, the Service completed the new Headquarters and Visitor Center building on the refuge.  The building has served as a springboard for refuge visitors from all over the world to explore the wildlife and habitats of the San Joaquin Valley.
In 2011, the Service completed the new Headquarters and Visitor Center building on the refuge. The building has served as a springboard for refuge visitors from all over the world to explore the wildlife and habitats of the San Joaquin Valley. - Photo Credit: USFWS

By Madeline Yancey

 

This February, the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge is celebrating its 50th anniversary with four weekends of events, including birding walks, talks, special tours, and a volunteer pollinator garden planting. These activities are intended to give visitors a glimpse into the history of the refuge and its ongoing wildlife conservation mission. The San Luis NWR provides habitat for as many as one million waterfowl and more than 300,000 shorebirds during the winter and migration seasons; as well as, most of the indigenous wildlife species found in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Established in 1967, authorized by the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the refuge saved a portion of the San Joaquin River floodplain from the human activities that, according to some, have altered California’s Great Central Valley more than any other region of the state.

Bounded on the east by the San Joaquin River and on the west by Salt Slough, the refuge’s original 7,360 acres are perched atop the “San Luis Island.” The San Luis Island is one of many “islands” in the San Joaquin River floodplain – geographic features rising slightly above the once nearly-annual floodwaters of the San Joaquin River. These islands were heavily vegetated with native upland grasses and provided natural refuge for the valley’s terrestrial wildlife to ride out the floodwaters until the winter rains and spring snowmelt receded. Surrounding the islands was a myriad of ponds, shallow marshes, and wooded sloughs.

Establishment of the San Luis NWR protected one of the few remaining natural grassland, wetland, and riparian areas remaining in the San Joaquin Valley. Among the early objectives were to provide migration, wintering, and nesting habitat for migratory birds; to preserve biodiversity indigenous to the San Joaquin Valley, to provide public enjoyment through wildlife-dependent recreation, and to serve as a demonstration area for conservation of wildlife as a community asset.

Prior to the establishment of the refuge the land was privately-owned and accessible only to a select few for hunting and fishing. The first refuge manager indicated that interest among fishermen catapulted as soon as it was publicly announced the refuge would be open to public fishing. Local sportsmen quickly took advantage of the resource and fished Salt Slough – a tributary of the San Joaquin River – for catfish, striped bass, crappie, and sunfish. In February 1968, it is recorded that a sportsman caught a 29-pound channel catfish! In April a 13-pound catfish was caught and three to four-pound cats were common.

Public waterfowl hunting began on the new wildlife refuge in 1968, as well. On December 15, of that year 147 sportsmen harvested 612 ducks and geese, averaging 4.16 birds per hunter – the highest single-day average that year. Waterfowl hunting continues to be an important part of public use on the San Luis NWR and refuge managers strive to provide a rewarding hunting experience for the community. On the best day during the last full waterfowl hunting season in 2015/2016, more than twice as many hunters (313) harvested an average of 4.10 birds per hunter.

Residents of the local communities quickly began to take advantage of the opportunity to connect with nature provided by their new national wildlife refuge. In 1968, nearly 15,000 visitors explored the refuge. Pictures show birdwatchers peering through their binoculars and spotting scopes at the impressive number and diversity of wintering waterfowl, shorebirds, and other birds. Families enjoyed spreading a picnic out on a blanket beneath the willow trees. In 1975 the refuge saw a “dramatic” increase in the number of wildlife observation visitors and that year also had more requests from groups for refuge tours than any year since its establishment. It is likely the return of the tule elk to their historic range in the San Joaquin Valley contributed greatly to the increase in visitors. Made possible by a grant from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, an enclosure was built surrounding nearly 800 acres of what would become habitat for a new herd of tule elk. The original herd consisting of 11 bulls and seven cows, were released into their new home on December 6, 1974, made possible by a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the (then) California Department of Fish and Game. To this day, the tule elk herd is a year-round attraction for refuge visitors.

In February, 1982, wildlife observation visitors outnumbered sportsmen and anglers for the first time. In 2016, the refuge welcomed nearly 80,000 visitors.

Throughout the years, the construction of three auto tour routes, seven nature trails, three observation decks, and the installation of numerous interpretive panels and information kiosks have helped make the refuge more accommodating to visitors eager to observe and learn about its wildlife residents and enjoy spending time outdoors.

The most recent increase in number of visitors to the San Luis NWR has been aided by the opening of its visitor center in 2011. The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum Certified building has served as a springboard for refuge visitors from all over the world to explore the wildlife and habitats; and for the refuge’s expanding environmental education program. Since the opening of the visitor center, refuge staff has hosted thousands of students from kindergarten through university level, as well as their teachers and chaperones engaged in learning while immersed in nature. The San Luis NWR has also become a valuable asset for local area youth. In 2016, the refuge hosted its 11th consecutive Youth Conservation Corp (YCC) team. Nearly 120 local high school students have had the opportunity to work alongside refuge managers, biologists, field staff, and fire personnel as they performed tasks that contributed to the Service’s conservation mission.

Just in time for its 50th anniversary, the San Luis NWR has entered the digital age with its own version of the Discover Nature App (DNA) a new interpretive interactive game for one’s smartphone that encourages visitors of all ages to get outdoors and explore the natural world.

Today, the San Luis NWR preserves 26,877 acres of the unique habitats that once dominated the San Joaquin Valley. These habitats and the diversity of wildlife they attract continue to provide unique and rewarding experiences for refuge visitors, while conserving a piece of the nature of the San Joaquin Valley for future generations. Come and celebrate 50 years of wildlife conservation history with refuge staff as you participate in a weekend event this February! More information can be found on the refuge’s website (www.fws.gov/refuge/san_luis).

 

Madeline Yancey is a visitor services specialist at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Los Banos, California.


Contact Info: Jack Sparks, 209-826-3508, jack_sparks@fws.gov
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