As Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary, A Look At A Place That Is More Than Just A Wildlife Haven
story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information
Its name is certainly apropos, Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge. If you’re a duck migrating along the Mississippi Flyway, this 70,000-plus acre coastal land fronting the Gulf of Mexico in Cameron and Vermilion parishes is a haven from hunters and a great place to rest and refuel, a refuge indeed.
But wildlife refuge barely scratches the surface when describing this unique Louisiana treasure. There is so much more to tell, so much to see, so much to learn from it.
And as Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, managed by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, celebrates its 100th anniversary, it’s a fitting time to lift the curtain on a place that is as coastal Louisiana as it can get.
Perhaps it’s best to let someone who has been around Rockefeller all his life introduce it. LDWF Program Manager Scooter Trosclair grew up in Cameron Parish and near Rockefeller. Much of his working career has been on the grounds of the refuge. But it’s also one of his first memories as a child.
“I can still remember when I was about 3 years old walking the sidewalk at Rockefeller with my mom and dad,’’ Trosclair said. “There was a duck pen and some alligators in a tank. I don’t know necessarily that it was because of that memory but I’ve always had a desire to be at this place. People tell me how passionate I am when I talk about it. I just wish I could tell how special it is.’’
Unlike Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., or Times Square in New York, Rockefeller isn’t braggadocious. It’s a serene coastal wetland bordering the Gulf of Mexico for 26.5 miles and extending inland to the Grand Chenier ridge, a stranded beach ridge six miles from the Gulf. It’s flat, mostly treeless and perfect for hungry ducks thanks to the organic soils that produce copious amounts of waterfowl food.
Trosclair is the latest caretaker. He’s an LDWF biologist and the program manager of Rockefeller. He’s been there in numerous capacities since 1991, taking over as program manager in 2014.
“So many outstanding biologists and conservationists have come before me and made this place the great refuge that it is,’’ Trosclair said. “I see my job as continuing that and improving it as well as facing the many challenges we do in maintaining it.’’
What’s in a Name
The Rockefellers of New York and Edward Avery McIlhenny, whose family created and produces the famous Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce, were the driving forces behind Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge. Previously, McIlhenny helped develop State Wildlife Refuge in Vermilion Parish and Marsh Island Wildlife Refuge in neighboring Iberia Parish.
After helping to acquire those two refuges in the early 1910s, McIlhenny, who died in 1949, and Charles Willis Ward, another conservationist whom McIlhenny met in a Louisiana bait shop, began work to purchase 86,000 acres in western Vermilion and eastern Cameron parishes that would become Rockefeller. They bought the land for $212,500 (which translates to about $5.3 million today) through the Rockefeller Foundation in 1914.
On Dec. 18, 1919, the property was donated to the state hence the 100-year celebration of Rockefeller.
“What amazes me is how difficult it was to communicate back then,’’ Trosclair said. “You’d wait months for a response. It impresses me how this was put together. Mr. McIlhenny was ahead of his time when it came to conservation. He understood the importance of setting aside land for refuges.
“One of his biggest visions was with migratory waterfowl. He wanted that in the deed of donation (of Rockefeller). One of the obligations was to maintain the property for waterfowl. We manage this property for many different reasons. But we always keep in mind to create the best possible habitat for waterfowl.’’
When McIlhenny donated Rockefeller to the state he had put in writing in the deed of donation several terms, including the property had to be maintained as a wildlife refuge, boundaries had to be posted, enforcement agents had to protect the area, no hunting or fishing and the refuge staff had to study and manage the property for wildlife.
But perhaps the biggest requirement was how property management was to be financed. Mineral revenue, from oil and gas production on the property, would be stashed into the refuge trust fund to take care of the costs. That fund is capped today at $50 million with any surplus going to land acquisition for LDWF Wildlife Management Areas.
“The work we do now at Rockefeller wouldn’t be possible without the mineral revenue,’’ Trosclair said.
There have been some alterations in the terms of the donation. The biggest is that in 1983, regulated sport fishing and commercial trapping were approved on portions of the refuge and the public could visit at certain times of the year. Hunting is still prohibited, however. That’s good news for migratory waterfowl and ducks and geese that call it home year-round.
More than Managing for Waterfowl
Though the top priority for McIlhenny when he created the refuge was waterfowl, there is so much more being done now on Rockefeller. As Trosclair said, it’s important to keep up the property for migrating and non-migratory waterfowl.
But the refuge houses more than ducks and geese. Some of the common resident animals on the property include furbearing animals like nutria, muskrat, mink and otter. There is an abundance of freshwater and estuarine fish species like largemouth bass, redfish, speckled trout and black drum. Shrimp can also be recreationally fished on Rockefeller. You’ll also find white-tailed deer and, as you might imagine, alligators. Lots and lots of alligators.
In fact, the research done at Rockefeller in the 1950s, 60s and 70s helped in understanding the American alligator life cycle and assisted in taking the species off the Endangered Species List.
“The information gathered by LDWF biologists and researchers here was so useful for so many different reasons,’’ Trosclair said. “They learned about what was called a head start alligator. That is, taking a hatchling alligator then raising it to an age where predation wouldn’t be a problem then releasing it back into the wild. The research also helped to start the alligator farming and ranching programs that today help the sustainability of the species.’’
LDWF biologists also learned the importance of waterfowl impoundments at Rockefeller. Former LDWF biologist Allen Ensminger, who died in January of this year, did extensive research and development of waterfowl impoundments.
“Allen Ensminger showed statistically that these impoundments produce 600 percent more waterfowl than other unmanaged property used by waterfowl,’’ Trosclair said. “Those techniques, over time, have been used for landowners and coastal areas that can benefit from it.’’
One of the impediments facing the LDWF Rockefeller team has been coastal land loss through the years. When Louisiana took over the property, it measured about 86,000 acres. Today that number stands at about 70,000 acres. So research has been done at Rockefeller in the building of water control structures and other barriers to coastal land loss, such as rock weirs, in an effort to stop extensive land loss.
“We just completed a new water control structure,’’ Trosclair said. “It’s worked great. I recall being told that we should be focused on new technology, new material, for these water control structures. So we’ve worked on that and come up with what we believe is cutting edge technology and these structures function so well. I had an engineer working on a similar project call and ask if we could help them with their plans with this new style of structure.’’
Trosclair said one of the basic tenets of Rockefeller he learned from previous managers of the property is the refuge is a gigantic outdoor laboratory. LDWF has certainly benefitted from the research done there. But many other scientists from Louisiana, the rest of the nation and world, have too.
There are dormitories available for researchers, students and others to use during their stay. And some are welcomed to stay for months at a time. Trosclair said during summer months some 400-500 students visit the property.
“We have contracts with colleges and universities from all over the world,’’ Trosclair said. “We’re funding some of this work that we see as necessary and beneficial. Not so much for our knowledge but something that can be dispersed to help other landowners and managers and scientists. The outreach that comes out of what has been learned here at Rockefeller is tremendous. It goes further than just the state of Louisiana.’’
The beauty of Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge is something Trosclair, and anyone else who has worked or stayed there, can scarcely describe. A sunrise or sunset at Rockefeller can be breathtaking.
Trosclair said he can imagine McIlhenny seeing the property for the first time and being immersed in the simple elegance of Louisiana’s coastal outdoors.
“Rockefeller is made up of a team of very talented people who put in a tremendous amount work and make it the great place it is,’’ Trosclair said. “I believe part of the reason is because of how easy it is to be taken in by it. I don’t think there is anywhere else like it.’’
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