Covering Louisiana

Mar 29, 2014 4:44 PM by Adam Duvernay

Roving ranger revels in La. wildlife refuge

BOSSIER CITY, La. (AP) - Before the morning sun burns off the fog from the Red River lowlands, Pat Stinson already is patrolling his fields near Bayou Pierre.

Those large swaths of flooded land are alive with birds he can identify by flight, shape or sound. The ducks haven't all flown home yet, and the snipe are hunting invertebrates hidden in the muddy flats.

The wildlife ranger bounces as his truck mounts the levee. He spits tobacco in a cup, pulls his sunglasses over his eyes and takes a long survey of the river bottoms.

"Game management is a balance that's been studied for years and years," Stinson said. "I just wanted a job where I work outside, and I got it."

He is the head ranger at Red River National Wildlife Refuge. His days and the days of his employees and volunteers are spent gently nudging thousands of acres of river land to behave as naturally as is possible despite of hundreds of years of human development.

Red River National Wildlife Refuge is a young sanctuary at just 14 years old, but the scope of its mission dates to the early 1800s and the first settlements along Red River. Deforestation and farming scraped much of the landscape bare, and it's still recovering.

Although Stinson is stationed in the Bossier City refuge center off Arthur Ray Teague Parkway, a recent Wednesday found him far from that office. Unlike most Louisiana wildlife preserves, the refuge is broken into seven tracts stretching from Arkansas to Colfax.

When Stinson arrived as refuge manager just five years ago, there were only about 1,000 ducks at the piece of the refuge near Bayou Pierre. Now their efforts to expand stopover habitat for them has brought in between 5,000 and 10,000 each year.

The winter is receding and the ducks are going with it. One of Stinson's jobs is to ensure they come back in greater numbers each year. That work is more complex than it appears, but necessarily gentle.

Wading into less than 18 inches of water, he jerks a plug from a drainage pipe and begins emptying a flooded field, once a rice paddy and now federal property. It'll be bone dry by summer - a good home for the seed-bearing plants ducks harvest to fuel their northward migrations.

"We're trying to mimic natural progressions," Stinson said. "The days of this happening on a large scale by itself are over. It's just not going to happen."

The water gushes from one side of the levee to another, and there still are a handful of other plugs to pull. Between one field and the next, Stinson is counting the birds as they flee the rumble of his approaching truck, less physical work but no less important.

Stinson grew up hunting and fishing Northwest Louisiana. He earned a bachelor's degree in forestry from Louisiana Tech University and master's degree in wildlife from LSU. Stinson studied the Louisiana black bear and has served in refuges and parks throughout the country.

Now he's home again with the skill and wisdom to care for the waterways he's always loved. It's the same for other employees and volunteers, like local physician Charles Lyons, working the river bottoms.

"Pat knows the outdoors from that good old boy perspective as well as being an educated guy," Lyons said. "The hunters are the best friends of the ecosystem. A true hunter has a great appreciation for the environment that has to be made healthy so the resources don't go away. It's a very interesting balance."

Volunteer Jeffery Trahan knows the art of balance and careful inspection. A self-taught expert on butterflies, he's spent the past four years walking the refuge tracts and keeping the wetlands of his home state healthy.

"These places provide refuge for the birds and animals that weren't here before," Trahan said. "This is Sportsman's Paradise. If you want the animals here, they need a place to go. I don't mind volunteering to assure that kind of thing."

The federal government continues buying up tracts of farmland along the river and converting them into sanctuaries for native and migratory birds. Lyons, an author of "A Birder's Guide to Louisiana," also walks those fields and catalogs its wildlife.

"I wish I could quit my job and do this every day time. These guys are in a tight spot financially, and they have to do what they can with what they have. That's why they need volunteers, but there's not that many of us either."

As it is, Lyons visits the discontinuous pieces of the refuge each week to count its bird and animals. Providing that kind of data to refuge managers keeps them up to date on the successes and failings of their efforts.

"All the technology they use and teach now is great," Lyons said. "But when you're doing stuff like we're doing, you've got to have boots on the ground."

And they'll doubtlessly be muddy boots. It's all subtle work - counting birds, watching trees grow, slowly adjusting water levels and defending against invasive species - but endless.

"What we do would still happen naturally, but on an extremely smaller scale," Stinson said. "It's a year-round effort. Spraying for cattails and Chinese tallow trees, pumping water in and out. It's one of those things that's more of an art even when there's a lot of science behind it."

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