San Luis Wildlife Refuge teaches real-world lessons

11/19/2013 9:17 PM

11/19/2013 9:18 PM

The real world is often the best classroom. Much of our learning takes place with books and lecture halls simply because hands-on learning approaches require more time, more resources, and in some cases, the pain and loss that comes from the consequences of a wrong decision or choice.

Nevertheless, well-chosen hands-on lessons play an important part in education. For science, one of the best local real-world classrooms is the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Last week Golden Valley High School’s AP Environmental Science classes visited the refuge to learn about applications of environmental science concepts right here at home in the wildlife habitats of our county. The refuges are one of the best “hidden gems” of our area and it’s easy for anyone to have the same experience that these students did. Access is free, the gates are open 365 days a year, and wildlife can be enjoyed on foot, by vehicle, and from viewing platforms that are completely accessible to anyone, regardless of mobility limitations.

The opportunities for learning at the San Luis Refuge expanded last fall with the opening of the impressive new visitor center. It features hands-on exhibits and classroom space for presentations by refuge staff. Our students were lucky to have an hour-long presentation about local wildlife by Madeline Yancy. Having worked at the refuge for several years, she’s a true expert and I learned a lot of new things from her. The question time at the end allowed students to find out more about things that intrigued them. Madeline’s enthusiasm is infectious and it rubbed off on many students. She joined us on the bus as we drove the perimeter of the tule elk enclosure, seeing much of the herd (currently about 90 magnificent animals). The grand finale was seeing some big bucks just beyond the wire fence.

It’s one thing to see a picture of an elk in a textbook or on a web page. It’s an entirely different experience to see a whole group only a few feet away and to observe their movements, their alertness, their surroundings, and to contemplate things like the neck muscles necessary to support a gigantic rack of antlers.

It then becomes easier to imagine how much our valley has changed in 165 years since the appetites of Gold Rush miners began the destruction of an elk population that once numbered 500,000. One of the major themes of the trip was the balance between human civilization and natural ecosystems. Not only did the trip include scientific themes, it also provided a case study of scientific connections with politics, economics, education, recreation, and history. Trips like these provide lasting examples and memories that can be referenced throughout the year to illustrate new topics.

Ducks and geese are just beginning to arrive at the refuges. My favorite time to visit is from late December through early February when their numbers peak. At sunset they return to the waters of the refuge in great numbers. The gates are open from one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset. The visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on all days except Federal holidays. Expect mosquitoes until after we have freezing temperatures. Roads in the refuge units are well-maintained gravel, passable for any car except directly after a heavy storm.

The San Luis Refuge Complex is made up of several units. The most popular are:

Merced: Located on Sandy Mush Road, 7.5 miles west of Highway 59, this unit offers a 5 mile auto-tour route, 4 short trails, and 2 accessible viewing platforms.

San Luis: This unit is located north of Los Banos at the end of Wolfsen Road. It has elk and waterfowl auto tour routes (5 and 8.5 miles respectively), 5 short trails, 3 accessible viewing platforms, and the new visitor center.

Bear Creek: North of the San Luis Unit, this Highway 165 unit has a 2.5 mile auto tour route and 2 short trails.

San Joaquin: The accessible viewing platform on Beckwith Road is one of the single best places to see what seem to be “tornadoes” of geese.

For more information about these units or any of the others, go to Some of the other units offer hunting (always separate from areas designated for viewing). Adjacent landowners, duck clubs and organizations like Ducks Unlimited help to improve habitat and support duck and goose populations, making possible both hunting and robust species populations.

Refuge events are posted regularly on the website. The next one is a 1-2 hour birding walk at the San Joaquin unit this Saturday at 9:30AM. For more information, go to the website or call (209) 826-3508.

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