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SAN LUIS NWR: Connecting Visitors to the Landscape through Tule Elk, Pollinators…and Extra Credit
California-Nevada Offices , March 18, 2017
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Volunteers enjoy a spring morning outdoors by planting native pollinator plants at the San Luis NWR visitor center.  The pollinator garden was funded through a Connecting People with Nature grant.
Volunteers enjoy a spring morning outdoors by planting native pollinator plants at the San Luis NWR visitor center. The pollinator garden was funded through a Connecting People with Nature grant. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Merced College student Jordan Kanemoto readies a hole for a vinegar weed plant.  Kanemoto participated in both planting days at the refuge in March.
Merced College student Jordan Kanemoto readies a hole for a vinegar weed plant. Kanemoto participated in both planting days at the refuge in March. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Refuge wildlife biologist Fumika Takahashi (left) oversees as volunteers work inside the San Luis NWR tule elk enclosure.
Refuge wildlife biologist Fumika Takahashi (left) oversees as volunteers work inside the San Luis NWR tule elk enclosure. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Volunteer Daniel De La Cruz works on planting California rose inside the elk enclosure at the San Luis NWR.  De La Cruz commented that he found the experience
Volunteer Daniel De La Cruz works on planting California rose inside the elk enclosure at the San Luis NWR. De La Cruz commented that he found the experience "peaceful and relaxing." - Photo Credit: USFWS
Tule elk bulls relax at the San Luis NWR.  The refuge’s 780-acre enclosure is currently home to approximately 75 elk.  The refuge held a volunteer event inside the enclosure in March to increase riparian habitat for the elk.
Tule elk bulls relax at the San Luis NWR. The refuge’s 780-acre enclosure is currently home to approximately 75 elk. The refuge held a volunteer event inside the enclosure in March to increase riparian habitat for the elk. - Photo Credit: Brad Lewis

By Jack Sparks

What do tule elk, pollinators, and college extra credit have in common? All three served as inspiration in March for San Joaquin Valley residents to connect to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Los Banos. The Refuge Complex, which includes the San Luis NWR, Merced NWR, San Joaquin River NWR, and Grasslands Wildlife Management Area, traditionally hosts a number of volunteer work days each year with a focus on habitat enhancement through native vegetation planting. The refuge recently hosted two weekend work days, each with different objectives for improving the refuge landscape for wildlife: while one day focused on enhancing riparian habitat for tule elk, the other established a garden for pollinators at the visitor center. Both events were successful in attracting, educating, and engaging groups at the refuge, many of whom were first time visitors.

 

The San Luis NWR features a tule elk auto tour route that is open daily, but the planting day on March 11 provided participants the rare opportunity to travel inside the elks’ enclosure, currently home to some 75 tule elk. Visitors have compared special tours inside the 780-acre enclosure to entering the gates of Jurassic Park. Recruiting a workforce for volunteer events usually comes easy for the refuge. A number of local college and high school instructors promote and encourage the annual work days as educational opportunities for their students, often with the enticement of extra credit. The Service benefits greatly from the enthusiastic and hardy workers motivated to put in a solid morning’s work at the refuge. Thirty volunteers consisting mostly of college students—who eagerly confirmed that the reward of extra credit was dependent on their participation—arrived ready to use shovel and trowel. Participants received an introductory overview about the refuge, tule elk, and the specific habitat enhancement project, which was the final phase of a two-year project funded through a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation grant to augment riparian habitat inside the elk enclosure. As the plantings mature, they will provide additional food and cover for elk. The beneficiaries of the project—the elk—made an appearance and were visible close-by near a tree-lined oxbow, likely curious themselves about the crowd of people inside their enclosure. After a few hours of hard labor, the project concluded with over 300 new native trees and shrubs successfully planted inside the enclosure.

The following weekend’s planting event focused on wildlife much smaller than elk physically, but no less significant – native pollinators. Since opening its headquarters and visitor center five years ago, the refuge has targeted establishing a pollinator garden outside to create an educational and visual experience as visitors approach. Many pollinator species are in global decline, and a garden serves double-duty as an educational awareness tool as well as pocket of habitat. Receiving a Pacific Southwest Region Connecting People with Nature grant last year made the project possible. A new batch of volunteers arrived in the morning and listened as Park Ranger Madeline Yancey provided the group a presentation about the importance of native pollinators and the pollinator plants selected for the visitor center’s garden, which included milkweed, wild buckwheat, California fuchsia, salvia, and purple yarrow among others. Yancey painted the mental image of hummingbirds, monarch butterflies, and native bees and wasps fluttering and buzzing throughout the area collecting pollen and nectar for food. It wasn’t long before the crew had the 250 plants successfully planted. Native plants’ adaptations to the local climate, drought tolerance, and ability to attract pollinators piqued the interest of several participants who consulted Yancey for suggestions on how to incorporate native plants in the landscaping around their homes.

Volunteer events on refuges provide important—and relatively easy—avenues for the community to be participants in nature, rather than spectators. Important on-the-ground resource work for wildlife is accomplished; however, it is equally valuable that these events provide opportunities for local residents to get involved and develop personal connections with nature, wildlife refuges, and Service staff. Public understanding and support of the National Wildlife Refuge System and the conservation work that occurs is essential for the Service to be successful. The events in March at San Luis made new friends for the refuge and left a positive mark on the landscape for many years to come.

Jack Sparks is the outdoor recreation planner for the San Luis NWR Complex in Los Banos, California and a member of the Pacific Southwest Region Connecting People with Nature team.


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