What We Do
As one of the last remaining undeveloped, contiguous tracts of wildlife habitat in the region, Big Branch Marsh provides many opportunities for public use. From fishing in the bayous to waterfowl hunting in the marshes to birding and wildlife photography - experiencing the refuge’s natural beauty connects us with our priceless natural heritage and replenishes the spirit.
The refuge conserves a significant portion of the diversity of natural habitats that support wildlife within the rapidly urbanizing Lake Pontchartrain Basin. Healthy populations of plants, fish and wildlife are sustained through land stewardship and habitat restoration. The refuge serves as a center for the development and application of innovative techniques and practices in wildlife and habitat management, biology, fire management and habitat restoration. The refuge provides and supports opportunities for studies and research by universities and other agencies.
Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge maintains, nurtures, and promotes the tradition of community involvement and ownership that led to its formation, and benefits from the advocacy of refuge supporters and partners. It is recognized as a focal point for environmental education and wildlife-dependent recreation, which fosters and creates a strong conservation ethic. Cultural resources are protected and, where appropriate, interpreted for the public.
Management and Conservation
Our staff use a variety of resource management techniques to maintain, recover or enhance plants and wildlife and the habitats they rely on. Prescribed burning, mowing, using biological control to reduce, and marsh grass and tree planting are a few ways we help native plants and wildlife to thrive on the refuge. We also conduct ground and aerial wildlife surveys and vegetation surveys to monitor plant and wildlife populations and habitat use.
The use of fire is a proven and well-tested management tool that can improve habitat quality for wildlife. Prescribed fire mimics formerly naturally occurring disturbance by fire within the marsh and pine forest habitats. Burning at the Refuge helps to maintain plant and wildlife diversity and abundance and is conducted in accordance with a Fire Management Plan.
Invasive species Management
Invasive species degrade, change or displace native habitats and compete with our native plants and wildlife. Monitoring and control of invasive species using best management practices is an integral part of refuge management. Non-native species we control include feral hogs, nutria, salvinia, water hyacinth, and Chinese tallow.
Nest Boxes and Cavity Inserts
While visiting the refuge you may notice wood duck nesting boxes along the bayous and cavity inserts (artificial nesting cavities) for the endangered red-cockaded Woodpecker in the pine savannah habitat. Trees that have artificial or natural woodpecker cavities are marked with a white circle around their trunk.
During Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, marshes on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain suffered extensive damage from storm surge. The storm inundated barrier marshes with salt water and created avenues for erosion. Since then, U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff in collaboration with the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force identified areas on the Northshore that are key to protecting coastal communities from storms. Using sediment pumped from Lake Pontchartrain, marsh creation projects create bottomland hardwood forest, and low salinity brackish marsh in what are now open water ponds. Volunteers assist with marsh grass and tree planting projects. Restoration of these habitats improve shoreline stability for residents of St. Tammany Parish while supporting recreation, wildlife, and estuarine fisheries.
As one of the last remaining undeveloped, contiguous tracts of wildlife habitat in the region, the refuge provides many opportunities for public use. From waterfowl hunting in the marshes, to fishing the bayous, to birding and wildlife photography, to watching the sunset over Lake Pontchartrain – there is something for everyone.
The Bayou Lacombe Visitor Center, at the Southeast Louisiana refuge headquarters in Lacombe, features interactive exhibits highlighting the wildlife and habitat of eight, regional national wildlife refuges. The Visitor Center is located on the 90-acre site of a historic botanical garden which offers two miles of trails and walkways.
Our Projects and Research
We plant trees and marsh grasses to help native plants and wildlife thrive on the refuge. We also conduct vegetation and ground and aerial wildlife surveys to monitor plant and wildlife populations and habitat use.
The red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) inhabits longleaf pine habitat, which has been reduced to three percent of its original expanse. Loss of habitat led to a rapid decline in these birds, resulting in the bird being listed as endangered in 1970.
The refuge's pine savannah habitat is home for several breeding pairs of red-cockaded woodpeckers. We use prescribed fire to maintain their preferred environment of a pine savannah with a grassy understory. We also install and monitor artificial tree cavities for this species.
Pine Flatwood Habitat
Pine flatwood habitats historically burned periodically ignited naturally by lightning strikes. Southern pines — and many other pine habitats — are adapted to frequent low-intensity fires which inhibit the growth of shrubs and woody plants, while recycling nutrients and promoting the growth of grasses. Look for this habitat along the Boy Scout Road trail. The open areas of pine trees with a grassy understory are maintained through our prescribed fire program. We use prescribed fire as a management tool at the refuge, burning specific units of the refuge every few years to maintain this pine savannah habitat and support the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
The marshes between Lake Pontchartrain (which is actually an estuary) and the refuge's pine lands are brackish — they have less salt than the Gulf of Mexico but are not fresh water. A healthy marsh helps protect and build land because plant roots hold soil in place and slow erosion. If marsh vegetation dies the land is easily washed away. Hurricane Katrina tore away much of the refuge's marshes. Efforts to restore this habitat at the refuge includes volunteer marsh grass planting projects and large scale marsh building projects using sediment dredged from Lake Pontchartrain.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a law enforcement presence on National Wildlife Refuge lands for wildlife and public safety. Our refuge law enforcement officers protect fish, wildlife, plants and other natural, cultural and historic resources by fostering understanding and instilling in the visiting public an appreciation of refuge resources, laws, and regulations.