Urban Wildlife Refuge Part 2: New Orleans' Bayou Sauvage

Offering a 24,000-acre living laboratory, Bayou Sauvage is an outdoor recreation and wildlife gem in one of the country's most vibrant urban centers.

By Kristen Pope October 19, 2015

When most people think of New Orleans, their minds wander to steaming bowls of gumbo and jambalaya, late-night jazz haunts, Mardi Gras and the bustling French Quarter. Unfortunately, since Hurricane Katrina, our memories are burned with images of a once-vibrant city struggling to recover from a natural disaster.

To find your closest refuge, visit http://www.fws.gov/refuges.

Whatever your impressions of this Southern city, they probably don’t include vast swaths of public land or wildlife, but that’s exactly what you’ll find in the 24,000-acre Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, which rests entirely within the New Orleans city limits.

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, New Orleans, Louisiana

Keep your binoculars handy to scope out birds and other animals in Bayou Sauvage, home to 340 bird species.

Bayou Sauvage (meaning “wild bayou”) is one of eight refuges in southeastern Louisiana cooperatively managed by the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges Complex. David Stoughton is the supervisory park ranger in charge of these special places.

“We associate New Orleans with food and music and culture, but where we get the food and where we get a lot of our cultural influences is from these wetland areas, and to have that so close is a really unique aspect of what Bayou Sauvage is all about,” Stoughton says.

The refuge contains diverse habitat, including freshwater and brackish marshes, lagoons, ponds, bayous and bottomland hardwoods, among other habitat types.

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, New Orleans, Louisiana

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, New Orleans, Louisiana

It’s located at the end of the Mississippi Flyway where birds rest and feed before heading out over the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s one of the last freshwater marsh areas before [migratory waterfowl] reach the open waters of the Gulf,” Stoughton says. “About half of the birds in North America use it every year to migrate.”

Great blue herons, bald eagles, peregrine falcons are just a few of the 340 different species of birds that can be seen at the refuge during different times of year. During fall, winter, and summer, over 75,000 individual birds can be at the refuge at any one time.

And it’s not just birds that depend on the refuge. Alligators, otters, white-tailed deer, turtles, feral hogs, nutria, mink, shrimp, crabs, largemouth bass, and catfish are just a few of the other species that also rely on this expansive habitat. Stoughton reports seeing over 60 alligators in just a couple hours. “The whole refuge and region is a hotbed for alligators,” he says.

But marshland can be hard to access. Thankfully, the refuge offers easy access via the Ridge Trail, which is a three-quarter mile long raised boardwalk that provides unique access to areas that would otherwise only be accessible by boat. “Walkways give you that opportunity to get out into marsh areas where you wouldn’t have any other way to get out there,” Stoughton says.

Other recreation opportunities at the refuge include hunting and fishing, which people can do as long as they have the proper permits and follow regulations.

This living laboratory also offers extensive opportunities for environmental education, and volunteers are a huge part of these programs.

While the refuge currently works extensively with local groups and colleges to reach out and educate youth, outdoor industry brands and retailers could also be key players in this effort. The refuge’s off-site and on-site education programs at the eight-refuge complex reached over 5,700 participants last year alone.

While the refuge currently works extensively with local groups and colleges to reach out and educate youth, outdoor industry brands and retailers could also be key players in this effort. The refuge’s off-site and on-site education programs at the eight-refuge complex reached over 5,700 participants last year alone.

“One of the neat things Bayou Sauvage offers is the opportunity to do citizen science work and do service learning projects and programs, whether invasive species management or litter pick-up or tree planting or marsh planting,” Stoughton says. “These are all things done at Bayou Sauvage with the help of volunteers.”

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA: An air boat in the Bayou Sauvage.

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA: An air boat in the Bayou Sauvage.

The refuge also works on educational outreach programs, going into schools and working with partners to present the programs. “We’re always looking to leverage resources through a variety of partner groups to provide unique educational opportunities for students within the city of New Orleans,” he explains.

“We’re always looking to leverage resources through a variety of partner groups to provide unique educational opportunities for students within the city of New Orleans.” David Stoughton, supervisory park ranger.

Bayou Sauvage is also home to a number of unique projects, including the annual Christmas Tree Drop where trees are collected after the holidays and hauled by helicopter out over the marsh. Once over the water, they are dropped and they sink down, eventually trapping sediment to create new habitat. Marsh grasses can then grow on these “tree jetties.”

Groups looking to partner with the refuge can contact the refuge directly or contact Friends of Louisiana Wildlife Refuges, which is the refuge complex’s nonprofit partner. They raise money through grants and donations, and help with outreach, environmental education, and maintenance.

The refuge is eager to work with a wide variety of groups, and they regularly work with paddling and hiking clubs, Audubon groups, and many other groups and individuals who help out with litter pick-up and other events at the refuge. Activities and projects can be tailored to group and individual interests, and outdoor brands and retailers can find many ways to make a difference in these special bayou lands.


Read about five other urban refuges from coast to coast and our tips to help outdoor brands and retailers tap into these unique resources.

1. America’s First Urban Wildlife Refuge, Philadelphia’s John Heinz at Tinicum
2. New Orleans’ Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge
3. Portland’s Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge
4. L.A. River and the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge
5. Albuquerque’s Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge
6. Denver’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Visit the Fish and Wildlife Service to find the refuge closest to you.