LOS FRESNOS, Texas (ValleyCentral) — Former Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (LANWR) staff and members of the birding community are lamenting the discontinuation of the bus and tram tours, that they feel were vital in helping connect the community with the refuge as well as educate them about the area.
The LANWR is the largest tract of public land available to ecotourists and local residents in the Rio Grande Valley. The land boasts unique habitats preferred to rare, endangered animals such as the Texas Ocelot and acts as a resting place for migratory birds.
Bird watching enthusiasts from all over the world flock to the LANWR to see endangered native birds like the aplomado falcon as well as more common ones like the vibrant green jay. If they’re lucky, they may even get to see something even less common, like the stray American flamingo that has been hanging out at the refuge since early October.
The tropical bird is likely a resident of the Yucatan in Mexico and found its way to the LANWR after Hurricane Nicolas. Excited birders have already made an eight-mile round trip onto the refuge to see it.
The terrain at LANWR may be suitable for an ocelot, but it can be too much for a human. A Valley resident who wished to not be identified in this report says he ran out of water and dehydrated while out looking for the flamingo.
“Completely worth it,” he said about getting to see the foreign bird. As a former intern at LANWR and avid birder, he says he is grateful that he is able to walk or bike the refuge as he pleases, but he worries that people who cannot do that are now missing out on a valuable public resource.
In the past, the refuge has offered bus and tram tours for visitors, many of whom were winter Texas and locals from the community. The buses were accommodated wheelchairs and made the refuge accessible for those who were mobility challenged.
Through a statement, LANWR told ValleyCentral that their bus and tram tours have been discontinued and they “no longer [own] the transportation equipment necessary to facilitate group tours.”
The refuge said they were no longer able to keep with the aging fleet of buses and a tour tram and “COVID-19 further limit [their] ability to provide staff-led education and outreach opportunities to groups of visitors on the refuge.”
While the LANWR staff can no longer assist in taking people into the refuge, they remind us that it is still open to the public. Information on planning a visit can be found on their website.
“Without the tours and the busses, it’s not easy for people to get through there,” he said while pointing at a refuge map. “Just to get to this point, where most of the rare birds are, that’s an 8-mile round trip. What about the people who can’t make that on their own? It’s not easy.”
Former LANWR Park Ranger, Marion Mason, says it is not just the accessibility that is being lost with the discontinuation of the bus and tram tours, she feels the educational component that was vital in connecting people to the land is also gone.
“I’m defiantly concerned about it,” said Mason. “Without that educational component that those tours provided, the future of the refuge is on shaky ground.”
Mason says one of the best days of her 8.5 years at the refuge was when a woman from the Valley thanked her after a bus tour.
“She thanked me for letting her know how important her home was because she had no idea that it had such significance in terms of being an important habitat for so many types of wildlife.”
The former intern agrees. He feels without the bus and tram tours guided by rangers and staff, the community will not be able to fully appreciate the ecosystem at the refuge.
“If you don’t know what you’re seeing, you won’t fully appreciate what’s going on. It’s different when you’re going with a ranger and they can tell you, ‘hey, those green jays that you’re seeing, you can only find them in south Texas,’” he said. “The human connection is really important, that’s how you get people to fall in love with these places.”
Due to the pandemic, refuge fees are currently being waived. The refuge told ValleyCentral that rangers will resume walking tours around the visitors center once public health conditions are “deemed safe.”