Protect and Preserve
Protecting the wetlands serves many purposes at the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge
At a Glance
Cameron and Vermilion parishes
Each year from November through January, biologists conduct aerial waterfowl surveys that cover more than 550,000 acres of LDWF’s coastal wildlife management areas and refuges.
Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge opened to public access in the early 1980s. Each year, an average of 200,000 recreational fishermen visit the refuge for crabbing, shrimping and fresh and saltwater fishing.
At Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, Phillip “Scooter” Trosclair parks his truck beside a makeshift migratory waterfowl research station. For the past 10 days, Trosclair’s Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries colleague Paul Link — North American waterfowl management plan coordinator — has been monitoring geese in the area. Link learned their patterns, and he knows when and where geese land here.
“Within one minute, they were on schedule,” he says, noting that shortly after midnight, he released a charge, detonating a net that rose and then fell over nearly 150 snow and blue geese. His team then separated the geese into 18 cages. Now Link places a GPS collar around each bird’s neck. “They leave here, go to Alaska, then Russia, then California. Birds need these wetlands for their migratory patterns. This is why we have to protect the wetlands. They’re so important, especially for migratory waterfowl.”
Twenty yards away, Liz Bourgeois of LDWF and Deb Carter of the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study draw blood and swab the geese to test for diseases. From her base at the University of Georgia, Carter follows the flyways, tracking birds through Texas, Delaware Bay, the Carolinas, Minnesota, Idaho and here at Rockefeller, which straddles Cameron and Vermilion parishes. “We do all the processing ourselves,” she says as she works from the tailgate of her truck, which doubles as a lab. Carter swabs a snow goose and prepares to bleed a blue goose. The swab lets her know if the goose carries avian flu. The blood sample informs her if the goose possesses antibodies to the disease.
Standing beside Carter, Trosclair — biologist program manager at Rockefeller — stresses the importance of the refuge’s location for this research. “It’s like a funnel,” he says. “These birds migrate down here for winter. It’s important we have proper vegetation and wetlands so they can fly back, reproduce and return the following year.”
This is one aspect of the endless and wide variety of work that Trosclair and others carry out at Rockefeller. Established in 1920 as a wildlife refuge, the land’s previous owner, E.A. McIlhenny, worked with the Rockefeller Foundation to institute a refuge for migratory waterfowl. To conduct such research and provide sustainable habitat a century later, staff here face a daily challenge: saving this precarious land from vanishing. In 1914, the refuge contained 86,000 acres. Due primarily to coastal erosion, acreage now stands at 70,000.
At stake is much more than migratory waterfowl research. That’s why work at Rockefeller includes building rock walls along the Gulf Coast. These walls protect the coast by decreasing wave energy. Sediment then settles behind the walls, raising land elevation.
“The first line of defense is the Gulf,” Trosclair says as we leave Link, Bourgeois, Carter and the rest of the team to board a boat and inspect the walls. “If you don’t protect the Gulf, you lose everything. There would be no waterfowl. Without these structures, people in these areas wouldn’t be able to crawfish, grow rice, raise cattle. Saltwater intrusion would inundate the land.”
Trosclair oversaw completion of the first 3 miles of the rock wall project in 2018. Since then, another 1.5 miles have been completed. Another mile is in progress, but Rockefeller borders the Gulf for nearly 27 miles. “Not finding the $10 million for this project now will eventually turn into a $100 million project,” he says.
A Cameron Parish native, Trosclair grew up working with his father, a seafood supplier who sourced from local fishermen.
“Seeing those boats come up to the dock, all of them filled with seafood, was mind blowing,” he says. In the Gulf, he cuts the engine and poses the same question he asked himself decades before about these bountiful waters: “Where did this come from?”
That question forged Trosclair’s passion and purpose. In the 1990s, still a high school student, he began working at Rockefeller. Today, his voice rings with delight and wonder at this ecologically rich yet vulnerable region.
“The only hope for us to keep our way of life down here,” says Tosclair. “Is to build this protection system.”
Did You Know? In 1913, E.A. McIlhenny purchased 86,000 acres in western Vermilion and eastern Cameron parishes to create a wildlife refuge. One year later, he sold the property to the Rockefeller Foundation for the preservation and protection of migratory birds. The Rockefeller Foundation donated the property to Louisiana in 1919. In 1920, the State of Louisiana created the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge.
Did You Know? Rocks for the coastal protection project at Rockefeller come from Kentucky. In 2018, because of high water along the Mississippi River, boats delivering rocks had to travel backwards on their journey south to Louisiana. “There’s nothing easy about it,” Trosclair says of this work to protect the coast.