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San Luis Wildlife Refuge offers over 26,000 acres from wetlands to riparian forests

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POSTED June 22, 2012 6:36 p.m.

MEFRCE - The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge encompasses over 26,600 acres of wetlands, riparian forests, native grasslands and vernal pools. A thriving population of tule elk is showcased by one of three auto tour routes. The refuge is host to significant assemblages of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants; some of which, such as the tiger salamander and San Joaquin kit fox, are endangered species.

The refuge is a major wintering ground and migratory stopover point for large concentrations of waterfowl, shorebirds and other waterbirds. Large flocks of northern shoveler, mallard, gadwall, wigeon, green-winged teal, cinnamon teal, northern pintail, ring-billed duck, canvasback, ruddy duck, and snow, Ross’ and white-fronted geese swarm over the mosaic of seasonal, and permanent wetlands that comprise a quarter of the refuge. Waterfowl generally remain until mid April before beginning their journey north to breeding areas. Some mallard, gadwall, and cinnamon teal stay through the spring and summer and breed on the refuge.

Shorebirds including sandpipers and plovers can be found in the tens of thousands from autumn through spring. Large flocks of dunlin, long-billed dowitchers, least sandpipers and western sandpipers can be found feeding in shallow seasonal wetlands, whereas flocks of long-billed curlews are found using both wetlands and grasslands. Over 25 species of shorebirds have been documented at the San Luis NWR.

The San Luis NWR has played a key role in the recovery of the tule elk, a non-migratory elk subspecies found only in California. Prior to the mid-1800s, an estimated 500,000 tule elk lived in California. Due to over-hunting and loss of natural habitat, they were nearly driven to extinction by the turn of the twentieth century – by some accounts, the population was down to 10-20 individuals. In 1974 a herd of 18 animals was established in a large enclosure at the San Luis NWR and has since thrived. Elk from this herd are periodically relocated to establish new or join other tule elk herds throughout California. A true wildlife recovery success story, the statewide tule elk population has recovered to over 4,000 animals.

Less well known are the extensive upland habitats found on the refuge. Many of these habitats are characterized by saline or alkaline conditions which are accentuated by the low rainfall and arid conditions that characterize the San Joaquin Valley. These habitats support a rich botanical community of native bunchgrasses, native and exotic annual grasses, forbs, and native shrubs. Trees, such as the valley oak, cottonwood, and willow are found along riparian corridors. In these areas, visitors might encounter coyotes, desert cottontail rabbits, ground squirrels, western meadowlarks, yellow-billed magpies, loggerhead shrikes, as well as northern harriers and white-tailed kites coursing over the vegetation and other raptors. Stately great blue herons, great egrets and white-faced ibis are frequently sighted throughout the refuge.

Visitor Center

The San Luis NWR Complex Visitor Center and Headquarters located on the San Luis NWR includes an exhibit hall with interactive educational exhibits on wildlife and habitats, tule elk viewing, a multi-purpose room to hold conservation meetings and conduct environmental education programs for schools, and is the administrative headquarters for the Complex. The Visitor Center complements the wildlife refuges of California’s San Joaquin Valley and provides a focal point for visitors, and a launching point to explore the entire Refuge Complex. The Visitor Center may be open for extended hours seasonally, but it is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except holidays.

Wildlife Observation

Automobile tour routes on the Complex enable visitors to experience the diverse assortment of wildlife that call the refuges home. The San Luis NWR has a 5-mile Tule Elk Tour Route that takes visitors around an enclosed herd of over 50 tule elk. Interpretive panels along the way tell the successful story of the tule elks’ struggle against extinction. A 12-mile Waterfowl Tour Route at the San Luis NWR provides viewers the opportunity to see the vast numbers of ducks and geese that make the refuge their winter home.

The 2 ¼-mile tour route at the West Bear Creek Unit of the San Luis NWR provides an intimate view of waterfowl, shorebirds, and riparian songbirds. On the Merced National Wildlife Refuge tour route, visitors can view thousands upon thousands of sandhill cranes and Ross’ geese. Most of these auto tour routes have associated nature trails and observation decks. Visitors are encouraged to bring binoculars, field guides and cameras to more fully enjoy wildlife.


Whether an amateur photographer or professional, seeking mammals, birds, wildflowers, or natural landscapes, the Complex provides endless opportunities for wildlife photography. Your vehicle can serve as an excellent photo blind while on auto tour routes.

Environmental Education

The Complex acts as an important outdoor laboratory for schools visiting on field trips. By exploring refuge units, classes of all grade levels integrate the natural world into their classroom lessons. Field trips are by appointment only and can be tailored to specific subject matter. Many interpretive amenities throughout the Complex help visitors understand the importance of the Valley wildlife. Look for information kiosks, elevated viewing platforms, and interpretive panels along the auto tour routes and nature trails.


Designated areas of the San Luis NWR are open to fishing during daylight hours. The most common species caught are channel catfish, bullhead catfish, striped bass, and black bass. All anglers must have a current fishing license with proper stamps.

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