Author: Ann Bloxom Smith, Friends of Black Bayou Lake NWR (LA)
Back in July 2020, we began our letter to the regional director like this: “We have recently learned that our Park Ranger/Naturalist will soon be leaving Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge for another position…. We will miss her but wish her well in her new position, for which she is uniquely qualified. This does, however, raise concerns for us concerning the position she leaves behind. In these unsettled times regarding funding, health, and politics, we are anxious that ‘our’ position be filled in a timely manner. We understand that other refuges have funding and personnel needs, but we believe that this Black Bayou position is a top performer.”
Now, in January of 2023, we are still without a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) ranger (or any other staffer) at our refuge. Don’t get me wrong—our manager and other staff are great—dedicated and skilled at their jobs—but they are stretched ridiculously thinly over multiple refuges. The result is sadness and frustration that we can no longer offer the services that we used to offer our community—the community that from the beginning has supported this refuge with its money, volunteers, and goodwill. But we do what we can, and we’ve learned some valuable lessons about our community.
Community is the operative word. The Friends of Black Bayou (FoBB) are still plugging along, keeping the visitor center open (though now just on weekends rather than the previous seven days a week). The FoBB board has now begun to have in-person monthly meetings instead of only Zoom meetings, and plans are to resume regular public program meetings as well. We still support our USFWS partners financially and with volunteer labor. We are incredibly lucky to have a resident volunteer who has taken on responsibilities far beyond what any volunteer would normally be expected to do, keeping our Conservation Learning Center open for several hours every day and taking care of our live-animals.
Community support of our refuge is apparent in other ways. Groups such as both of our local Chambers of Commerce (Monroe and West Monroe) have contacted politicians on our behalf, and the local Museums/Attractions Association has done the same. So far, the letters and direct conversations haven’t resulted in the hiring of a new refuge ranger, but we haven’t completely lost hope. Here’s why–during the past year:
- We celebrated our 25th anniversary, with the help of numerous community, university, and scout groups, at our annual Fall Celebration.
- For his Eagle Scout project, a local Boy Scout organized his troop to clean out invasive species from the pond adjacent to the Visitor Center.
- Local medical school students had a WAR (Wilderness Adventure Race) at the refuge, teaching teams of students how to handle wilderness medicine scenarios.
- FoBB participated in BLEND on the river—serving peach smoothies at this Arts Council festival and getting new members signed up.
- We held our 15th annual refuge photo contest—always a favorite among adults and children.
- We funded an annual luncheon to thank the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) employees, who have helped immeasurably while the USFWS is so short-staffed.
- The LDWF held its popular Hunting and Fishing Day at the refuge, and plans are in the works for the community’s Earth Day celebration to be held there this spring.
- We’ve continued our monthly First Saturday Kids events, introducing children to animals such as turtles and snakes, enjoying nature-oriented arts and crafts, and hiking on the refuge.
Listing all this makes me feel a bit better about what we’ve been able to accomplish even without a Refuge Ranger onsite, but I sometimes worry because our volunteer efforts will never be optimized without an USFWS staffer coordinating them, much less providing the environmental education so needed by our area children. But that’s the situation here and at many refuges around the country. Like you other Friends, we’ll keep on working and supporting one another however we can.