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San Luis refuge plan takes flight

SAN LUIS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE — A coyote can hardly get any rest amid the traffic and noise in this engineered sanctuary north of Los Banos. Sandhill cranes, mallards and geese are here for a feeding party.

But coyotes don't mind a few hundred-thousand fluttering visitors fleeing the brutal December in Alaska and northern Canada. It's a chance to fatten up on birds roosting near the ground.

While farming has withered in many places, the three-year drought hasn't been tough on critters here. Marshes have remained filled with water from more than 100 miles away, delivered at a higher priority than many valley farms have.

Yet for all the emphasis federal officials have placed on San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, it comes up short for one important species — human visitors. Officials hope to change that.

Next year, the government will begin pouring $10 million into a visitor center on the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, which never has had such an attraction. It should be finished by June 2011.

The center is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's big- gest investment of stimulus money anywhere in the country. It has been at the top of the agency's construction list for most of the last decade.

The 16,000-square-foot building, which will operate as much as possible on solar panels, is important to the Fish and Wildlife Service because it will serve 9 million people in the region, including Fresno, Sacramento and San Francisco.

Staff working in strip mall

The refuge's visitor total, about 100,000 annually, could double after officials move out of their existing office next to J.C. Penney in Los Banos, according to federal estimates.

"We've been needing this visitor center for a long time," said refuge manager Kim Forrest. "Besides, I don't think it's the best use of federal money to continue spending $200,000 a year for our office space in a commercial strip mall."

The center will feature an exhibit hall to explain vernal pools, the San Joaquin River, salmon and the Pacific Flyway, the bird migration route from Alaska to Patagonia at the southernmost region of South America.

Then visitors can enter the wetlands on driving and walking tours to see nature up close.

The 26,350-acre San Luis refuge is among a collection of preserved wetlands in western Merced County, totaling more than 130,000 acres.

The collection is the Central Valley's largest remnant of wetlands that once stretched over 4 million acres.

What drought?

Before Friant Dam was built, the San Joaquin River often flooded a swath of wetlands where millions of birds stopped during migrations each year. Now, the remaining wetlands are supported with Sacramento River water pumped from Shasta Reservoir.

The state's drought never touched this place because the refuge is among the high-priority destinations on the Central Valley Project, thanks to a 1992 federal irrigation reform law. The refuge could be cut back 25 percent only in the most extreme drought situations, which has not happened yet.

"These are precious wetland acres," Forrest said. "There's only a small percentage left compared to a century ago."

The San Luis refuge is split into more than 150 small units, which are managed for the birds and other wildlife. For instance, some types of ducks like to swim in open water while others tend to seek water with nearby brush, so officials provide both kinds of habitat.

In December, the region is fully flooded and swarmed with geese and ducks, said federal recreation planner Jack Sparks. In spring, officials draw down the water for shorebirds, which prefer shallow water.

Some birds nest at the refuge, he said. They include cinnamon teal, mallards and some pintail ducks, as well as egrets, herons and songbirds. But many birds are headed to Argentina or other places in South America.

Said Sparks, "It's important for them to have a stopping place here."

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