Sabine National Wildlife Refuge Overview
Sabine NWR is considered one of southwest Louisiana's most popular attractions. Most of the 200,000 people who visit the refuge each year walk the 1.5-mile Wetland Walkway, where they can get close-up views of the birds and other marsh animals. The walkway has an observation tower, offering panoramic views of miles of the level marsh terrain.
Both the walkway and the refuge visitor center are located on LA-27, the highway that passes through 10 miles of the eastern edge of the refuge. These two locations, where public use is concentrated, are designed to give visitors an understanding and appreciation for the entire 125,000 acres of protected marsh land.
Fully accessible for wheelchairs, the Wetland Walkway is truly one of the finest in the refuge system. Wading birds, marsh birds, waterfowl, songbirds, swamp rabbits, muskrats, nutria, water snakes, and alligators can be closely observed in almost any season. The plentiful swamp rabbits, taking little notice of humans, are always entertaining and responsible for the consumption of untold amounts of print film and video tape.
Alligators Always Get Attention
"Gators" seem to be the most exciting finds by many walkway visitors. Males begin to bellow in late spring, courtship takes place during late May and early June, and nest building follows. More than 1,000 alligators are believed to nest each year in Sabine NWR.
Adults are almost always seen lazily floating in the open water, and miniature juveniles may sometimes be seen around the nest, where they stay until grown to about 3 feet in length. Some lucky visitors have videotaped hatching alligators in August, and others have observed an adult alligator eating a nutria. It is not unusual for large adults to be sunning on the trail itself, sending some visitors back in the direction from which they came.
Alligators will eat dogs and other small pets, and visitors are warned to keep them on a tight leash or leave them in their vehicles. Despite all the precautionary messages on the walkway signs and in the guide, a refuge manager remembers one visitor who was, nevertheless, caught in the marsh pulling out one of the "do not feed alligator" signs! The American alligator was on the endangered species list until 1982, when it was delisted after a dramatic population comeback.
Birds Are Seen in Every Season
Thousands of ducks including blue-winged teal, American widgeon, and gadwall peak in February along with as many as 50,000 common moorhens. White pelicans spend the winter as do some 10,000 or more snow geese.
For digestion, geese must have grit, and the refuge maintains a grit site where 300 tons of sand and bits of gravel are spread each year before wintering flocks arrive. Visitors may view geese from a handicapped-accessible observation tower along the Blue Goose Trail, just north of the refuge visitor center.
Refuge staff and other ornithologists have sighted 250 bird species on the refuge. During February, March, and April, visitors are sure to see migrating warblers as well as other migrants that stay to nest, including barn and tree swallows, kingbirds, kingfishers, orchard orioles, and yellow-billed cuckoos.
White-fronted and white ibis also nest on the refuge as do purple gallinules, roseate spoonbills, great egrets, and great blue herons. Congregations of migrating shorebirds also visit the refuge in spring and fall.
Trapping Controls Muskrat Population
Rooting of wild hogs is a threat to levee stability as is the burrowing of muskrats and nutria. In an "eat out" area of 480 acres, more than 2,300 muskrat beds were counted. In that same area during 1992, trappers removed 1,571 muskrats in an effort to reduce the population.
Fishing is a Major Consumptive Activity
Waterfowl hunting is allowed on portions of the refuge, but fishing is the most popular consumptive activity, attracting as many as 13,000 fishers a year. Non-commercial crabbing and shrimping are permitted in refuge canals, which are open to boaters from March 15 to October 15. In late August and early September, cast netters can catch 5 gallons of brown and white shrimp in one hour.
Alligator Population Also Controlled by Trapping
Two of the 1,000 alligators trapped on the refuge during a 1992 trapping season were over 12 feet in length and weighed more than 500 pounds. Trappers are selected by lottery and receive a set number of tags, each of which entitles the trapper to one alligator. A portion of the receipts from the alligators sold at auction, about $54,000 in 1992, is deposited in the National Wildlife Refuge Fund, which finances payments to local governments in lieu of the property taxes that refuges are exempted from paying.
Fur Pelts Attracted Previous Owners
Most of Sabine NWR was previously owned by Orange-Cameron Land Company, which used the marsh for trapping and hunting. The company constructed many of the canals and levees that still exist and operated a major fur-pelt processing facility. The depopulation of muskrats eventually ruined the fur business, and the property was sold to the federal government for the establishment of the refuge.
Mineral Rights Are Still Owned by Oil Company
Texaco Company all along owned much of the marsh subsurface mineral rights, which it still retains on the refuge as well the right to reasonable access. In 1992, it operated seven producing wells (one drilled to a depth of 20,000 feet, nearly 4 miles!), 2 tank farms, and other related facilities in accordance with refuge regulations. As a result of refuge marsh disturbances caused by the considerable exploration for gas deposits, Texaco paid the refuge "mitigation" funds that are dedicated to marsh restoration projects.
Salt Water Intrusion is a Major Problem Since Waterway
Regulation of oil and gas exploration on the refuge is an issue, but intrusion of saltwater into former fresh and brackish-water marshes is more daunting. Only three of the nine refuge impoundments are freshwater marsh. Much of the blame for growing salinities lies with the Intracoastal Waterway, the 2,500-mile ship channel between Brownsville, TX, and Trenton, NJ, constructed and maintained by the federal government.
Not only does the portion of this 49-foot-deep ditch north of the refuge intercept and cut off the freshwater drainage from the north, it also provides an inlet for saltwater to reach the inland marshes. Whereas normal salinities in the refuge are 2 parts per thousand or less, intrusions and droughts can and do increase them to 22.5 ppt.
Aware of the ramifications of an unabated increase in saltwater, area plans to control saltwater are being developed. Legislation sponsored by Senator John Breaux (D-LA) provides funding for various control strategies.
With 61 miles of levees and eight major water-control structures, refuge personnel manipulate water levels as best they can to maintain and safeguard the wildlife habitat. The throngs of visitors at Sabine NWR may not know about the saltwater problem, but they do know about the wildlife that attracts them there. They are discovering the natural values of Louisiana marshes and, in that regard, the reasons why they should be protected.
When Cajun Man Speaks, People Listen!
Ooowheee! That is how the Cajun Man, T'Maurice, punctuates his description of the marshes at Sabine NWR. T'Maurice carries on a one-way conversation with his visitors, but everyone loves him and many return to hear him tell the same thing over again!
A star attraction, T'Maurice is a talking, animated display at the visitor center, unveiled in 1987 at the 50th anniversary of the refuge. The Cajun Man was named T'Maurice following a competition for school children. Holding his pipe and going up and down from his stool perched on a pier in a simulated marsh, T'Maurice tells about the Louisiana coastal marsh and its wildlife, and explains in a simple but compelling way why it must be protected and preserved. Children stand in fascination, pointing to the coiled water snake under the pier, and adults turn on their video cameras to record the action. After seeing T'Maurice, people will go home to collect their friends and bring them to see the display.
Unimpressed at first, Paul Yakupzack, manager of neighboring Cameron Prairie NWR, soon changed his mind. "A dummy," says Yakupzack, "can say the same thing over and over again and not get worn out like we tend to do." The 3-minute message from T'Maurice is the voice of a man from the nearby town of Johnson Bayou.
French-speaking people in Louisiana are commonly called Cajuns, a term derived from Acadiana, the southern region of Louisiana where French Acadian farmers migrated after expulsion from Nova Scotia in the 1700s, and from the word Injun, a corruption of the word Indian.
Public Use: Where and When
Visitor's Center: Open year-round.
Weekends: 12-4 p.m. Weekdays: 7 a.m.-4 p.m.
Office: Open year-round.
Weekdays Only: 7 a.m.-4 p.m.
Wetland Walkway: Open year-round from sunrise to sunset.
Highway 27: Open year-round to public use. Roadside public use areas along Highway 27 are open from sunrise to sunset.
Interior Areas: (Refuge impoundments and canals), open from March 15-October 15; all canals, bayous, boat ramps, and impoundment 3 are open from sunrise to sunset.
Duck Hunting Units: Check hunting leaflet for exact location of areas to hunt and special refuge regulations. Access to hunting units permitted from 3 a.m. until noon on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.
A Vital Productive Area
Between the Gulf's beach cheniers (oak ridges) and the coastal prairie lies a basin of wetlands that is one of the most productive and fertile areas of North America. This is where the rivers' freshwater and the Gulf's saline waters mix; where the abundance of all wildlife is dependent on the proportion of vegetation to water, with the amount of vegetation being the important ingredient. This area could be called an estuary, a marsh, a wetland; its name is Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. Here waterfowl, water and shorebirds, furbearers, alligators, fresh and saltwater fishes, and other marine species find a protective haven with abundant food and water. Some species are residents while others are seasonal visitors, but all need marshes for their existence.
Activities to Enjoy
If you enjoy trails or learning about wildlife, walk the Wetland Walkway, located four miles south of the refuge visitor center on the west side of Highway 27. This walkway is 1.5 miles long and is designed for all visitor access. Insect repellent may be needed.
Visitor's Center (Interpretative Exhibits): Interpretative panels and four marsh dioramas depict the various habitats found on the refuge and provide visitors with some insight into a coastal marsh environment.
Or does observing wildlife give you pleasure?
Wildlife Observation: During winter months geese may usually be seen between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. from the Blue Goose Trail adjacent to Highway 27 and north of the visitor center. Many types of wildlife may be seen year-round from Highway 27, but best viewing is from the walkway.
Do you like to use boats?
Boating: Over 150 miles of refuge canals, bayous, and waterways are open to boat travel for your investigation. CAUTION: Open marsh may be entered only by paddling or push-poling—no motors. Visitor access by boat may be restricted during some seasons.
Are you hooked on fishing? Many types are possible on Sabine.
Fishing: Recreational onlyno commercial usage. See fishing leaflet for specific regulations on all water-related activities. Canal usage by visitors may be restricted during some seasons.
Freshwaterthree impoundments totaling 33,000 acres are open to the public. Boat and motor are needed to fish impoundment 3, while impoundments 1A and 1B may be accessed by non-motor boats only (canoes, kayaks, etc.). Bass, crappie, catfish, and bream may be taken. Basic and saltwater licenses are required.
Saltwaterseasonally, flounder, redfish, croaker, and speckled trout (weakfish) may be caught in refuge canals adjacent to Highway 27. Fishing license is required.
Crabbing: Blue crabs may be taken year-round, canal usage restricted during some seasons. Traps or pots are illegal. No license required to state residents.
Shrimping: Castnettingbrown and white shrimp are seasonally available in refuge canals. Castnetting is an excellent recreational exercise and your catch is good for your health. Refuge permit and fishing licenses are required.
If you prefer waterfowl hunting;
Waterfowl hunting: During the teal and regular duck seasons hunting is permitted on 34,000 acres. Consult hunt brochure for areas, times, and specific regulations.
Ask if it is permitted before doing any activity not listed above.
Camping: Camping is not allowed on the refuge because of the limited space available for public use. Local camping area: Sam Houston Jones State Park, north I-10, Westlake, Louisiana, Intracoastal Park-Highway 27, and Holly Beach.
Littering: Help keep these marshes beautiful by taking all your litter home. You are saving wildlife dollars.
Fires: A major danger to man and wildlife; please help preserve the refuge. Do not light fires.
Collecting: Do not gather or carry away plants, flowers, shells, etc., which make up the natural beauty of the marsh. Please leave them for others to enjoy. Permits are issued for special activities.
Firearms: Except for duck hunters during waterfowl season, no weapons are permitted on the refuge.
Harassing Wildlife: The refuge is home to all wildlife; please help us protect it by only looking. Do not feed the alligators.
Pets: If you do bring pets with you, only those on leashes are legal. Do not let pets run freealligators will eat pets.
From I-10, Sulphur exit, south on LA-27 to the visitor center and parking on the left 8 miles south of Hackberry, and 4 miles farther to the Wetland Walkway and parking on the right. Safe stopping on LA-27 is limited. For further information, contact Sabine NWR, 3000 Holly Beach Highway, Hackberry, LA 70645, 337-762-3816.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication