The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, composed of the San Luis, Merced, and San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuges and the Grasslands Wildlife Management Area, consists of nearly 45,000 acres of wetlands, grasslands, and riparian habitats, as well as over 90,000 acres of conservation easements for the protection and benefit of wildlife in the northern San Joaquin Valley of California1.

 San Luis National Wildlife Complex Map

The first thing you will notice as you walk through the entrance (shown above) toward the visitor center is the beautiful, life sized sculpture of the Tule Elk. This refuge played a key role in the recovery of the Tule Elk, which can be seen on the refuge daily.

Tule Elk Bull

The visitor center and headquarters for the complex includes an exhibit hall with interactive educational exhibits on wildlife and habitats, tule elk viewing, and a multipurpose room to hold conservation meetings and conduct environmental education programs for schools and the general public. Click on photos for full sized images.

Visitor Center Exhibit

These are the kinds of educational opportunities that we believe our National Wildlife Refuges should strive to deliver to all Americans as well as foreign visitors who visit our refuges all across the country on a daily basis.

Visitor Center Exhibit

Exhibits like these can not only teach people of all ages how we are connected to nature, they can spark a lifelong desire for conservation in a young person that will stay with them throughout their lifetime.

Visitor Center Exhibit

As a matter of fact, interpretation and environmental educational are two of the most important recommendations of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) program “Conserving the Future: Wildlife Refuges and the Next Generation.”

Visitor Center Exhibit

When people discover how important the National Wildlife Refuge System is to conserving our wild places they are much more likely to support our refuges and become champions for wildlife and habitat conservation.

Visitor Center Pintail Exhibit

The San Luis NWR provides a Waterfowl Auto Tour Route of 8.5 miles and a Tule Elk Auto Tour Route of 5 miles. The Waterfowl route guides visitors through seasonal wetlands providing the opportunity to see large concentrations of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other waterbirds1. I began my journey on the waterfowl auto tour route.

These photos will bring to light the reason I always recommend you contact the visitor center of any refuge before planning your trip to find out what the current conditions are and what wildlife you may expect to see. I had no choice this trip. I was in the area and wanted to check out this refuge complex even though I knew it was too early to see most of the waterfowl.

Dry Wetlands

The alkali sink, also known as desert scrub, is a habitat with highly alkaline soil and low rainfall. It is a habitat that is being lost throughout its range due to new home construction, expansion of agriculture and the spread of alien grasses2.

Alkali Sink

This habitat is home to several animals including lizards, coyotes, kangaroo rats…

Alkali Sign

and the San Joaquin Kit Fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica), one of the most endangered animals in California.

San Joaquin Kit Fox

Photo By Peterson, B. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This little fox is not the only endangered species found on this refuge. The California Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma californiense) and the Long-horned Fairy Shrimp (Branchinecta longiantenna) are also found here.

Seasonal Marsh Sign

Seasonal marshes are the prevalent wetland type throughout the Complex. These seasonal wetlands contain water from early-autumn through spring. Dominant vegetation includes swamp timothy, smartweed, millet, dock, and sedges – all of which provide a valuable food source for wildlife. These seasonal wetlands attract large numbers of ducks, geese, shorebirds, and other waterbirds1.

The Sousa Marsh trail includes an elevated observation platform overlooking one of the largest wetlands on the Refuge.

Sousa Marsh Viewing Platform

You’ll have to imagine what this view from the platform would look like with water as far as you could see.

Sousa Marsh View

Heading back to the visitor center to find out where the Tule Elk have been recently seen, I stop to take in the majesty of the coastal mountains to the West.

California Coastal Mountians

I did spot a Great Blue Heron with its prey along one of the canals on the way back as well.

Great Blue Heron

The next installment of this series of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex will cover the Tule Elk auto tour route, and then on to Merced NWR!

The San Luis NWR Complex Headquarters and Visitor Center is located at 7376 S. Wolfsen Road, Los Banos, CA 93635. Refuge auto tour routes, nature trails, and fishing access are open daily from one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset. The Visitor Center is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except federal holidays. Phone 209/826-3508. A refuge bird checklist can be found here.

References: 1San Luis NWR Complex, 2The Alkali Sink Plant Community

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