LAGUNA ATASCOSA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Texas (Border Report) — The sounds of metal hoes thwapping the hard soil where seedling trees are being planted interrupt the peaceful bird sounds and tranquility at this national wildlife refuge located on the South Texas border with Mexico.
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is the largest protected area of natural habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and more habitat is being created to protect wildlife, like the endangered ocelots, through a reforestation project with a local nonprofit organization and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“It’s going to help out tremendously with some of our endangered species,” George “Georgie” Garcia, Fish & Wildlife visitor services manager for Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge told Border Report on Tuesday. “We’re restoring the ocelot’s native habitat which is thornscrub. Part of its decline was fragmentation, and habitat loss.”
A total of 250,000 tree and brush seedlings are being planted this week in two tracts of former farmland that are now part of the refuge located in Cameron and Willacy counties on the Gulf Coast.
Those who are involved say they hope that in about five years the new plantings will provide adequate cover and new places for wildlife to live.
It’s “habitat restoration for ocelots specifically. We’re taking this old farm field and planting native species that are ideal for native animals,” said Will Krift, 35, of Ashland, Wisconsin, who works for Conservation Services Inc., a Virginia-based company that is overseeing the planting.
“It’s pretty amazing to be able to work on a project like this to help a native species thrive and survive,” Krift said.
Krift and Shelby Hylton on Monday watered crates full of the seedlings and delivered them to a large field where migrant workers were planting the new trees and shrubs.
About 35 different species of native trees and shrubs are being planted this week at the wildlife refuge.
Shelby Hylton, left, and Will Krift water and care for crates of seedling trees and brush on Monday, April 4, 2022, and ready them for planting at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron County, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
This had been a sorghum field that the refuge acquired and is one of several former fields that are earmarked to turn back to natural brush in order to attract wildlife, said Jim Chapman, vice president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor.
Chapman’s group this year helped to get several grants totaling about $250,000 from four organizations to hire local growers to produce the seedlings. The organizations that donated include:
About 1,000 seedlings are being planted per acre. Some are covered with 30-inch-tall plastic sleeves to prevent animals from grazing and to help the young plants retain moisture.
“The idea is that once these get into the ground and they grow they’re basically going to turn this into a forest,” Chapman told Border Report. “If we come back in five years we’re going to see the start of a forest here.”
Wildlife biologists with U.S. Fish and Wildlife determine what species of plants need to go where and how many. The federal agency has a tree nursery in South Texas where this year it grew nearly 30,000 plants for this project, but Chapman explains that they need so many more and so they asked the nonprofit to help find additional sponsors.
The grants raised by Friends of the Wildlife Corridor help to pay about a dozen local growers who grow the needed plants and then deliver them to the fields.
The tract of land on which they were planting Monday is called the Delaney Tract and is located a few miles east of the small town of Rio Hondo, Texas. Species they were planting included: Texas persimmon; Texas ebony tree, goatbush, and fiddlewood trees that can grow up to 35 feet tall.
“This is a wonderful program,” Chapman said holding a 6-inch-tall Wright acacia seedling tree.
“What wildlife really needs is cover. So if you get cover that is 4 or 5 -feet tall that’s a huge win for wildlife. Of course, eventually, it will get taller than that but this is how it starts,” Chapman said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has operated this planting partnership at the refuge for over a decade as a way to grow habitat on the border. The Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge includes several different tracts of land that hug the Gulf of Mexico and span over 120,000 acres.
The refuge is constantly acquiring land and in the past year expanded by 5,000 acres, which was about 70% of all Texas wildlife refugee growth, Garcia said.
Garcia said ideally they want to turn the land back to what it was hundreds of years ago: thorn and brush for birds and mammals to live.
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge attracts hundreds of bird and butterfly species, as well as dozens of mammals and reptiles and over 450 different types of plants.
Border Report visited a tract of seedlings a few miles away from the Delaney Tract that had been planted a year ago and some of the young trees were already over 5 feet tall and the ground was covered green.
Chapman worries, however, that the weather must cooperate as the seedlings first go in the ground with rain and gentle temperatures.
Temperatures are predicted to hit triple-digits on Wednesday and could go as high as 106 degrees, according to KVEO TV.
“We do need Mother Nature to help us a little here. Some rain in the next two weeks would be a huge help,” he said.