Tuesday, June 19, 2007

New Tex. state park is good ocelot, jaguarundi habitat

Resaca de la Palma is an oasis amid urban sprawl
Steve Sinclair
June 17, 2007 - 11:54PM

WEST OF BROWNSVILLE — It's an oasis in a sea of development. That alone is reason enough for Resaca de la Palma State Park to be a special place in the Rio Grande Valley.

But there's more to this park than that — much more.

Resaca de la Palma is a remnant of what the Lower Valley once was.

An ancient resaca snakes through a forest of Texas ebony trees, sabal palms and rare plants such as Bailey's ballmoss. It's a Valley time warp.

An alert visitor might see nesting Altamira orioles, a summer tanager or maybe a green kingfisher. And, just maybe, an endangered ocelot or jaguarundi may still be stalking the forest.

Somehow, the park escaped the plow and urban development.

"It is one of the largest intact habitats along the Rio Grande," noted Chris Hathcock, habitat restoration coordinator for the park.

"It's a mature ebony forest with sabal palms scattered throughout the ebonies. Some of these palms are 40 feet high. It's relatively undisturbed."

The 1,200-acre park, just west of Brownsville on Military Highway (U.S. 281), could open in December, according to Pablo de Yturbe, park superintendent. The park is about two miles north of the Rio Grande.

It will be the only state park in Cameron County and one of three resource centers of the World Birding Center. The other two are the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park headquarters near Mission and Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco.

A visitor's center, much of the trail system and a tram road are just about finished. One of the last major projects left is restoration of the resaca.

"We're working on putting water in the resaca, constructing more culverts and some structures to contain the water," de Yturbe said. "Then we're going to flood the resaca.

"When we flood the resaca, we will be able to control the water and mimic the way it would have been when the (Rio Grande) used to flood it," he said.

Before construction of Falcon and Amistad reservoirs upstream more than 50 years ago, periodic flooding of the Rio Grande filled the resaca. Once the river was tamed, the resaca only had water during occasional rainfalls.

What nature has ceased to do, however, an agreement with Valley Municipal Utility District No. 2 will. Twice a year, water will be pumped into the resaca, but it won't be free. It will cost $6,300 to fill the 63-acre resaca with two to three feet of water.

The Resaca de la Palma experience will be as wild as visitors want to make it. No vehicles will be allowed past the visitor's center, but a three-mile tram road will encircle the park, much like the one at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

For the more adventurous, trails will take hikers down to the forest bottom and along the resaca. There will also be an observation deck. The trail system is six miles.

Jim Booker is a naturalist at Bentsen Rio Grande State Park who has visited Resaca de la Palma numerous times.

"It's very wild," Booker said. "I enjoy walking along the resaca edge. Even though it's dry, there's little spots of water left from rains."

The park is actually a combination of habitats. Forest, wetlands and Tamaulipan thornforest should make for some excellent birding.

Booker said that besides the oriole, tanager and kingfisher, also documented there are yellow-billed cuckoos, green jays and the Brownsville sub species of the common yellowthroat.

Just about all the Valley specialties are there. World-class birder John Arvin has put together a checklist of birds at the park.

Linda Laack of Environmental Defense, who formerly headed the ocelot program at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge for a dozen years, is familiar with the park.

"It certainly is possible an ocelot could be there," she said.

"We have all kinds of birds," de Yturbe said. "We should have an ocelot or jaguarundi, but I've never seen one. The terrain here is exactly the same as what the cats live in."

There are also numerous reptiles, amphibians and butterflies, including the somewhat rare Rio Grande lesser siren, an amphibian.

Over the past 10 years, Brownsville urban sprawl has spread almost to the park's boundary, further isolating the park and its wildlife. Where crops flourished, now there are hundreds of new homes and miles of new roads.

"I consider this place really special," Hathcock said. "It's a remote island in an ebony forest. It's an area that will be completely surrounded (by development)."

There's no bigger fan of Resaca de la Palma than de Yturbe, however.

"This park is unique in the whole United States," he said.

Maintaining the park will be a staff of nine people. The park will also include offices, restrooms, refreshments and a gift shop.

An entrance fee will be charged.

http://www.themonitor.com/news/park_3128___ article.html/resaca_grande.html

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