Louisiana is called “the Sportsman’s Paradise.” Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge is one reason why.

The refuge attracts about 100,000 visitors a year, three-quarters of whom come to hunt. They hunt white-tailed deer, ducks, squirrels and more.

Those hunters and other recreational visitors have a substantial positive impact on the economy of Madison Parish, the nearby city of Tallulah and other northeast Louisiana communities. Conservation and land management practices at the refuge benefit those communities ecologically, too.

A 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, Banking on Nature, estimated that 78,000 annual visitors to the refuge spent $2.6 million locally and had a total economic impact of $3.6 million. “I actually think that it’s probably higher now,” says Kelly Purkey, Tensas River Refuge manager from 2008 until this spring, when she moved to Balcones Canyonlands Refuge in Texas.

“Those numbers have gone up because we’ve made a conscious effort to do management that has helped the deer herd. Also, I think it’s been marketed well [via social media] that you can come up here and on public land you can kill a trophy wall hanger,” says Purkey. There are no guarantees a hunter will take a deer, but “we have the genetics, and because of the very fertile soil from the Mississippi River, we just naturally grow really nice deer. Like right now the state record bow and crossbow kills are both from the refuge.”

Hunting is a way of life in Louisiana, and the refuge embraces it.

Refuge hunts include: guided youth and wheelchair; deer-archery; deer-youth; deer-modern firearms; deer-primitive weapon; turkey; squirrel and rabbit; raccoon; woodcock and snipe; ducks and coots; and incidental species.

“It’s just such a rich environment, biologically and ecologically speaking. There’s just such a plethora of things you can hunt. We have good numbers of them, too, and cool places to go and find them,” says Purkey. “I can’t even begin to tell you how many people have told me how they just love this place. That’s what we’re here for.”

Purkey estimates that 40 percent of hunters are local, 40 percent regional and the rest from farther afield.

“We only have two hotels here in Tallulah, and during hunting season they are usually booked,” says the Madison Parish Tourism Commission’s Tina Johnson. “Private individuals rent out camps [cottages], too.” Hunters pack an off-refuge campground.

The Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley once had 25 million acres of bottomland hardwood forest. Now it has about 5 million. Tensas River Refuge, at almost 80,000 acres, is “this island of trees in this sea of agriculture,” says Purkey. Its habitat supports numerous species of concern, including Louisiana black bears, Swainson’s warblers and bats. The iconic and critically endangered ivory-billed woodpecker once lived there.

Ecologically, Tensas River Refuge benefits local communities in important ways.

Refuge habitat alleviates flooding in towns and on farmland. “It’s got all of this land that will hold the water – and we need it, and we like it. It’s part of the natural process,” says Purkey. Because refuge habitat slows runoff, it also reduces erosion and improves water quality (silt settles out). The refuge helps prevent catastrophic fire by disking forest fire breaks. It provides fishing, wildlife photography and other recreation for non-hunters, too.

The refuge’s most recent ecological success was its role in the Louisiana black bear’s removal from the endangered species list. Tensas River Refuge might permit bear hunting someday, but for now managing habitat for deer, duck and squirrel hunting is keeping business coffers and waterways in northeast Louisiana healthier than they otherwise would be.