The San Luis Wildlife Refuge will be filled with the oohs and aahs of 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds through the end of the month thanks to a federal grant.
Jack Sparks, an outdoor recreation planner for the refuge, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife awarded the 27,000-acre refuge $8,000 aimed at connecting people with nature.
"We thought a good fit for that is to get some kids out here," Sparks said, noting schools have tight budgets. "We figured, let's make it easy on them. We'll pay for the bus," he said.
Since the end of April, third- through fifth-graders have taken hikes and toured the complex's visitor center, which is roughly 5,000 square feet and features interactive displays of vernal pool, wetland, grassland and riparian ecosystems -- the habitats found in the preserve.
Sixteen classes in all, from all seven elementary schools in town, will get a lesson on the 20,000 sandhill cranes, 60,000 snow geese, 1 million other waterfowl and many more animals that make their home about 15 minutes north of Los Banos.
On Monday, fourth-graders from R.M. Miano Elementary took a guided tour, getting within yards of a foraging desert cottontail, nesting killdeer and swimming American coots, among other animals.
The scavenger hunt inside the hands-on visitor center, which opened in October 2011, asked children to connect the animals with their respective habitats -- for example, the riparian brush rabbit is true to its name. Riparian ecosystems are typified by tall trees and dense brush along a riverbank.
The children's day ended with a tour around the 800-acre tule elk reserve -- a sort of highlight of the refuge. Tule elk are only found in California and were about 30 animals away from extinction before conservation efforts kicked in. The 18 animals in 1974 at San Luis are up to about 90, out of 4,000 statewide, today.
"One of the things we wanted to do with this project is just get people tuned into this place," Sparks said. "This is 15 minutes away, it's open every day, it's free and there's tons of stuff to do."
In 2011, the refuge saw about 77,000 visitors, which increased to 90,000 in 2012 after the center opened. Some early speculation had the $9.8 million addition of a visitor center doubling visitors.
Sparks said the closing of Highway 165 the same month the facility opened likely affected the numbers. It partially re-opened at the end of February.
"The first year, we really didn't see what we wanted to see, but it's definitely increased," Sparks said.
Paula Mastrangelo, area administrator for elementary education, said she visited the 16,000-square-foot visitor center before accepting the invitation from its staff.
"I was very impressed with the facility itself and what it offers for kids," she said.
The lessons on habitats and what a refuge does fit into the the curriculum for the targeted group, Mastrangelo said.
Each school has its own policy on field trips, Mastrangelo said, so it's up to the individual staffs to plan future trips. She said she suspects most teachers are unfamiliar with the nearly 2-year-old visitor center.
"It's right here in our back yard," Mastrangelo said. "It would be a big disservice if we don't take kids out there."
The refuge is at 7376 S. Wolfsen Road, off Highway 165, about six miles north of Highway 152.
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanos
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanos enterprise.com.