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Community helps save Laguna Atascosa's Wildlife.

While piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) search for flies along the shore of the Laguna Madre on the south Texas coast, a pair of aplomado falcons (Falco femoralis) rests atop a nearby yucca and scan the grasslands for prey. A quartermile away lies a recumbent ocelot (Leoparduspardalis) hidden beneath a dense canopy of thorny brush, relaxing after an active night of hunting. Despite such disparate lifestyles and habitat needs, these endangered species all reside at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. The 65,000-acre (26,000-hectare) refuge is not only home to nine endangered or threatened species, it is also an important wintering waterfowl area, a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site, and--at 410 species--boasts a greater variety of bird life than any occurs on other National Wildlife Refuge.

The diversity of wildlife at Laguna Atascosa is related to its unique network of habitats: intertwining coastal prairies and Tamaulipan thornscrub interspersed with brackish and freshwater wetlands. These habitats stretch along a pristine shoreline adjoining the Laguna Madre, a hypersaline lagoon between the refuge and South Padre Island. Each of these habitat types has its own association of species.

The aplomado falcon prefers the coastal prairie. Once a common component of the grasslands of the southwestern United States, it declined dramatically during the early 1900s and was extirpated in the United States by the 1950s. The Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as endangered in 1986. The Peregrine Fund, Inc. (PF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving birds of prey, has taken the lead in recovering this species. The PF has a captive breeding population of aplomado falcons at its World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. The captive birds provide a source of chicks for reintroduction into the wild. The PF has released 812 young falcons into South Texas since 1985. Many of these released birds are now nesting and rearing young in the wild. In 2002, 27 nests were located in south Texas.

Laguna Atascosa has provided financial and logistical support, vehicle and equipment use, and housing for PF field staff since the inception of the reintroduction efforts. The PF initially focused its efforts at the refuge, but it quickly ran into a "good" problem. The release sites at Laguna Atascosa were becoming occupied by breeding pairs, requiring the PF to look for additional release sites elsewhere. Since most aplomado falcon habitat in Texas is privately owned, it was important to partner with landowners. In 1997, the PF and the Service developed a plan for the reintroduction of aplomado falcons known as a Safe Harbor Agreement for private landowners. This agreement provides protection for landowners from potential land-use restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act and has allowed access to more than one million acres (404,000 ha) of privately owned habitat for reintroduction efforts. In addition to private lands, the PF started releasing aplomado falcons at nearby Matagorda Island and Aransas NWRs, and they are now nesting on these refuges, too.

In contrast to the open spaces that appeal to aplomado falcons, ocelots are denizens of the concealing tangle of vegetation found in thornscrub communities. Laguna Atascosa is one of the last
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Author:Laack, Linda
Publication:Endangered Species Update
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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