Roadwork will re-open refuge’s Bayside Drive to vehicles

LoS Fresnos — A modified Bayside Drive will be constructed at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and traffic will be flowing — slowly — through ocelot territory early next year.

Officials say the Federal Highway Administration is funding a multimillion-dollar project which will change the 15-mile one-way loop into an 11-mile track. Of those, 8.2 miles will be a two-way, out-and-back road for vehicles and three miles will be dedicated solely for bicyclists and hikers.

The new roadway will add wildlife underpasses and a raised section will traverse some ocelot habitat, all of which will allow ocelots to move safely within the refuge without having to negotiate traffic.

Boyd Blihovde, refuge manager, said depending on location, there will be a 25-mph speed limit and an even lower speed limit in certain areas where ocelots are most active. He said risk to the endangered cats will be “reduced drastically.”

Two ocelots were killed by vehicles along Bayside Drive in 2009 and 2010, and these were significant losses on a refuge where the ocelot population hovers at around 15 animals.

GPS data from radio collars on ocelots collected later showed they were crossing Bayside Drive up to 100 times per month, and that new information prompted refuge officials to shut down the loop to vehicles in 2013.

The caliche trail continued to be used by hikers and bikers and was popular with visitors on the refuge’s tram tours. The route will close to all visitor use beginning June 7 when construction is proposed to begin and will re-open in early 2019.

After closing the popular drive, the number of visitors to the facility dropped by 34 percent, although the deteriorating roadways leading to the refuge also was a major factor.

“It’ll certainly allow us to provide a better service to the public and to accommodate more visitors,” Blihovde said. “It’s been one of our constant complaints, that the public tells us they don’t want to come out because the roads were too bad.”

Since the closure, FM 106 has been resurfaced almost all the way to the refuge, and an alternative entry along Buena Vista Road is undergoing reconstruction as well.

“Unfortunately, those roads, we didn’t have much control over, but we’ve been trying to be a good partner to get the roads improved and we certainly think that just based on the feedback we’ve gotten from the public we’ll have more visitation in the future,” Blihovde said.

Once the work on Bayside Drive is complete, the refuge plans to open it to vehicles on Fridays and Saturdays, and bicyclists and hikers the rest of the week.