Cameron wildlife

Birds take flight over the Creole area just days after Hurricane Laura made landfall in 2020 over Southwest Louisiana.

Southwest Louisiana’s three national wildlife refuges are still recovering from the destruction of Hurricanes Laura and Delta. Diane Borden-Billiot, visitors services manager at Sabine, Cameron Prairie and Lacassine national wildlife refuges, said the storm’s wind was devastating to the buildings, recreational areas and fishing piers.

The entire Sabine refuge is closed “due to tremendous facility damage” and the staff is still in the process of charting a path forward. The refuge has identified some funding partners to get back in business, but otherwise, “we don’t really have everything figured out yet,” Borden-Billiot said.

Sabine and Cameron Prairie serve as the main headquarters for the regional National Wildlife Refuge’s staff of 12. “We were working out there until the hurricanes,” she said.

“Now, our offices and visitor center are in pretty extreme disrepair — roof, water damage in a lot of interior ceilings and walls.”

Portions of the refuge are still without electricity as trees, power lines and wires are still in the canals. “One of the main things we’re waiting on is the removal of those by the utility companies. It’s slow because their priority is establishing electricity for people’s homes and businesses.”

Large amounts of debris is one of the major effects the storm has had on the refuge’s habitat. Flood waters “cleaned out a lot of dead, dying grass debris, so it is piled up in different places, mud in places where it wasn’t before,” she said.

“We actually have piles of rock from parking lots that moved them hundreds of feet to a different area…It’s just hard to say exactly where everything came from because it moved so much.”

Unlike Hurricanes Ike or Rita, Laura and Delta did not cause an extensive push of salt water in the fresh water impoundments. “That’s good; so recovery is quicker when you don’t inundate it with salt water that stays there for long periods of time.”

Borden-Billiot said despite the devastation to the man-made structures of the refuges, recovery from Laura and Delta will be “so much better” than previous storms for the wildlife. Lacassine, she said, is already back fully functioning and just completed a successful hunting season.

 “It’s better from that standpoint as far as moving marsh around. But with a lot more wind damage from back-to -back hurricanes and two different flood events, it really uprooted fishing piers and parking lots. The nature part actually will take care of itself mostly.”

The National Audubon Society’s “Creole Christmas Bird Count” revealed that Creole’s bird count was greatly impacted by the storms’ effect on their habitat. Eric Johnson, Audubon Louisiana’s director of bird conservation, found that species diversity and abundance was greatly reduced in the 2020 count as compared with previous years.

Species impacted the most were Blue Jay, Loggerhead Shrike and Northern Mockingbird, Katie B. Barnes, coastal stewardship manager, said.

“Personally, as a counter for this bird count circle in Creole, I noticed the complete the absence of commonly found species at Rutherford Beach, including Eastern Meadowlarks, Great-tailed Grackles and Boat-tailed Grackles. Hurricanes create a complex shift in habitat and wildlife communities and population recovery will take time.”

Positively speaking, tropical systems create an open sand habitat that is favored by migratory nesting species such as the Least Tern, Wilson’s Plover and Common Nighthawk, Barnes added. “We anticipate a busy nesting season for beach-nesting species that thrive on the open beach habitat that hurricanes and tropical storms create.”

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