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Learning to Drive, then Learning to Lead at Laguna Atascosa NWR

It was an old Ford on a bumpy caliche road, but in time, I began to navigate just fine. Along the way, I learned that doing the right thing for wildlife often means doing the right thing for people, too.

As young girl in junior high and high school, I drove my dad’s 71 Ford pickup truck on the caliche roads and bumpy grass trails at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, where we lived in the 1990s, deep in South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. It was our grandfather, Pop’s, truck. White body, rumbling engine, and spring-loaded seats. The truck had no power steering or power breaks, which meant I had to press the clutch with all my might, shifting the gears from second to third, all while condensation from the air conditioner dripped on my bare feet.

Just a few miles north of Mexico at the southernmost tip of Texas, the alkali flats of Laguna Atascosa NWR give way to the lapping waters of the Laguna Madre, a long, shallow, hypersaline lagoon along the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Roseate spoonbills skim the water’s surface, their pink feathers dipping into the warm wetlands. A line of great blue herons stalk and stab dinner, and the pelicans glide, catching the wind just so before kicking out their feet to come in for a gentle, graceful landing.

The coastal prairies and muddy lagoons are flanked by yucca spines, prickly pear cactus, and wiry grass, spanning tens of thousands of acres now available to kestrels, caracara, white-tailed hawks and endangered northern aplomado falcons.

Coastal Prairie across the Bahia Grande Unit at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas. Credit: Jena Thompson Meredith.

The grassland gradually thickens to a dense, thorny shrub, so thick in some places you can’t see through it. Mesquite, granjeño, coyotillo, Texas ebony and the lantana understory provide shelter to another endangered species, the ocelot. Everything has spines, or a tapestry of roots and low branches, built to keep wildlife like the ocelot safe, and predators at bay.

One summer, the brush near headquarters and the visitor’s center was ablaze, likely from a tossed cigarette, catching the dry grass first, fueled by the warm South Texas winds. It was a weekend, and with few staff to help, it was my job to drive the fire truck while our dad, Steve Thompson, the Refuge Manager at Laguna Atascosa NWR, and several neighbors and refuge staff who lived nearby hopped on and off the tailgate, armed only with shovels and a too small hose attached to water tank on the truck. I crept along, holding the CB radio in my lap, listening for instructions and calling for assistance from anyone listening at the county airport nearby.

Many evenings, our entire family would pile into dad’s truck for a sunset drive around the refuge to watch the animals enjoy the magical light between dusk and dark. We’d head to the 15-mile Bayside Loop, now Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive, along the east side of the Refuge to see what we could find.

Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive: The drive has been closed to private vehicles since October of 2013, after two endangered ocelots were struck and killed by vehicles on the drive in 2009 and 2010. The new Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive is open now to hiking and biking. Photo: Calida Nolan Kelley.

Growing up as a kid with a giant backyard meant my sister and I shared each experience with nature with awe, and a sort of comforting, familiar pattern built on the outdoors that made it seem as if we’d always been there. We spent our days hoping we’d be called up to help release a collared ocelot from her trap, working the deer hunts, watching the javelinas kick up their heels at the first cold front, dodging tarantulas as they weaved through the yucca, welcoming alligators as they rambled through the front yard, and sharing those experiences with our friends.

With my sister and our friends, we wheeled our bikes across the dirt paths to Alligator Pond, singing Alabama and U2 songs at the tops of our lungs. We flicked ticks from our knee-high tube socks, and pulled larva from the underside of the flowers in our hair. We held the spotlight late at night, listing to the gator pups yelp for mom, and inhaling quietly when she slid silently from the shore into the black water to answer their call. We wondered why the coyotes were having a party without us down at Osprey Overlook, and nearly jumped out of our skin when the pauraque let out a whistle in the pitch black night.

Laguna Atascosa is where our mom, Renee, became fascinated with falcons. Today, she is a fierce advocate for birds of prey and all animals. Her ability to bring stories to life through her writing shone at the Harlingen Chamber, where she played a key role in the establishment of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. That passion for wildlife is present today in her novels and short stories.

Named for Renée Thompson, Renée's Overlook rises above Redhead Ridge along Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive.

Laguna Atascosa is where my sister, Maya, gained the fundamentals she would need to open a business years later with our dad and build partnerships with farmers and ranchers to help bring back salmon in the Sacramento Delta.

And Laguna Atascosa is where I’ve learned how forge lasting partnerships with companies, from Dell, and U-Haul to Walmart, along with nonprofits like The Conservation Fund—all working to restore hundreds of thousands of trees for the endangered ocelot.

It’s also the place where our father, Steve Thompson, learned to lead.

It was in the Rio Grande Valley where Steve began to bring together ranchers and landowners to protect private lands. He opened each meeting with a dinner, hosted by a trusted friend (often Lee Bass, then Chair of The Peregrine Fund), and he learned to listen more than he talked. He wasn't there to tell the ranchers how to ranch or the farmers how to farm. Instead, he asked for help. He was honored to work with Dale Hall, Tim Cooper, Richard Moore, Walt Kittleberger, Mike Farmer, Father Tom, Frank and Mary Yturria, the Cullen family, and many, many more. With farmers, environmentalists, chemical company representatives and the Fish and Wildlife Service, he launched the Cameron County Agriculture-Wildlife Coexistence Committee.

The partnerships forged 25 years ago made all the difference then, and they grow only stronger today. Those meetings were foundational to what would become the Steve Thompson way. Bringing the very best people together—especially when they didn't see eye-to-eye—to find common ground and do something huge. Something of which each of them could be proud.

"I’ve met people from all sides of some of the most pressing resource conservation issues of our day,” Thompson said. “I’ve gotten to know them, and gotten to know how fish and wildlife issues affect their livelihoods and their families. I’ve developed friendships with many people who, years ago would have been considered adversaries of wildlife conservation. Along the way, I’ve learned that doing the right things for wildlife often means doing the right things for people."

When Steve passed away in 2018, we were overwhelmed by the outpouring of love for our family, and appreciation for the lessons Steve shared with so many.

Birdwatching with Mamacita. Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge has an impressive 417 species of birds, 45 mammals, 44 kinds of reptiles, 130 butterfly and 450 plant species. Photo: Jena Thompson Meredith.

This weekend, my mom, sister, I piled into a white truck on those South Texas roads once again. This time, it was Maya’s son at the wheel, sitting on my sister’s lap, as we slowly rambled along a dirt path, listening to the crunch of rock under the tires, and the songbirds offer their hello. My eyes welled as I watched her son run the sand dunes with wild abandon, step up on an old wooden fence to spot his first gator, and gasp with glee as we spotted hawk after hawk soar across the fields.  

No Moleste Los Lagartos! Gator spotting at Kindey Pond, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Maya Kepner.

This place—with the sweet smell of huisache, the struts of the chachalaca, the solitude of Turkey Trail—is a gift to us, and to the world. But it is the people of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the partnerships they forge, that will keep it thriving. 

Our family remains incredibly blessed to have been a part of Laguna’s history, and we are honored that Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive will bring the wonders of nature, and leadership, to so many. We promise to remain fierce champions of conservation for its future.


Thank you for the dedication, leadership and extraordinary commitment to protecting the resource: Boyd Blihovde, and to the entire Laguna Atascosa NWR staff: Sarge, Juan, Hilary, Sara, Chris, George, Eusibio, Christian, Jesse, Will, Elissa and Alfredo. 

Thank you for the heartfelt comments during the dedication: Amy Lueders, Regional Director; Shaun Sanchez, Deputy Chief of Refuges; Dale Hall, Former Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Tim Cooper, Project Leader, Chenier Plain NWR Complex; Alfredo Salinas, Equipment Operator; and Richard Moore, Nature Videographer.

Thank you for the food, logistics, countless volunteer hours, and support: Nicole Ekstrom, Board President, and the entire team at Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Readers, don’t forget to attend Ocelot Conservation Day on March 8, 2020 at Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville.

Thank you for the research, science and dedication to birds of prey (and for the tour!): Lee and Ramona Bass, Dale Hall, Pete Jenny, Brian Mutch, Paul Juergens, and the team at The Peregrine Fund.

Thank you for the inspiring commitment to conservation and restoration in South Texas: Andy Jones, Julie Shackelford, Callie Easterly, and Alterra Hetzel at The Conservation Fund.

Thank you for the beautiful, handcrafted benches at Redhead Ridge: Hunter Woodman, Eagle Scout.

Thank you for the public leadership on infrastructure and conservation: Congressman Vela. These infrastructure investments make an impact on the local economy. Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is a big draw for eco-tourism, generating nearly $30 million in local economic benefits because of its 300,000 visitors each year. On average, every $1 spent here leverages $37 for the local economy—a dramatic and positive impact on a community where 47 percent of children live in poverty.


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