If you’re reading this right now you have the time and the resources to make your life comfortable. You do not have to fend for food, look for water or find shelter to withstand the harsh weather conditions.

That’s not the case for many of the animals we share this land with, however.

Because of human encroachment into natural areas, our native species now must not only compete for resources, but they have to cope with habitat loss.

It is imperative that we advocate for those who cannot defend themselves. That’s exactly the role of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) here in the Rio Grande Valley. Working in three different wildlife refuges Lower Rio Grande Valley, Santa Ana, and Laguna Atascosa in our South Texas region, the men and women of the FWS manage, conserve and restore the Valley’s remaining wildlife habitat in order to support our native species.

With more than 95 percent of the original forested land lost in the Rio Grande Valley, land acquisition is a top priority for FWS according to Bryan Winton, refuge manager. With help from Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge has been purchasing important tracts of land every year since 1997. As of March 2016, the refuge has nearly 130 tracts of land that they are preserving and restoring for wildlife. The ultimate goal is to create a corridor

A wildlife corridor ensures that high quality wildlife tracts are linked together to provide a safe way for wildlife to spread across the land. The wildlife corridor includes Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge which is home to endangered species such as the Aplomado falcon and the ocelot.

In addition to land purchases, FWS also engages in restoration projects here in the Rio Grande Valley. They work to heal a damaged land by restoring native vegetation. For these plantings, FWS grows 100,000 native plants as well as partnering with private individuals who also grow 100,000 seedlings annually. This includes 45-60 native species which are vital to our birds, butterflies and other migratory wildlife.

Kimberly Wahl, plant ecologist, is currently working on the front lines to restore our hurt lands; the process of restoration is dynamic because there are many needs to consider. Kimberly must consider question such as what plants will grow best? Which non-native species may become invasive if not removed? How will we secure funding? Are we going to have enough manpower?

Salt cedar is one of the invasive species that Kimberly Wahl is working on directly. The salt cedar eradication project is still currently in motion after six years, with methods being modified over time to be as effective as possible. Salt cedar is so harmful because it crowds out native species and reduces stream flows, uptaking 30 percent more water than the average native plant. Kimberly is waging an ongoing battle to limit its spread.

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge focuses on environmental education, educating students on field trips and in their schools about our natural heritage and about the work that the refuges have been doing for us. Christine Donald, recreational planner, emphasizes on the importance of educating our students on wetlands, reptiles and amphibians, pollinators, bird adaptations, and endangered species.

Santa Ana offers educational programs year-round to students from K-12th grade; Santa Ana is so passionate about environmental education that if a school can’t make it to the grounds, they will go and present information to our Valley schools from Zapata to Brownsville. Santa Ana extends their knowledge to 7,500 students annually to educate them about the importance of protecting places like Santa Ana NWR that provide habitat for our area’s wildlife, thus providing more advocates for our animals. With knowledge comes power.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been critical to preserving the Valley’s wild lands. Fish and Wildlife Service has been building a support system to prop up our Valley’s natural land, it would be hard to overstate the Fish and Wildlife Service’s importance to our region. From bringing endangered species back from the brink of extinction to molding pieces of land together that would have been lost to eradicating the damage that we’ve unknowingly inflicted.

Thank you Fish and Wildlife Service for bringing life back to our areas that we didn’t even know were dying. Thank you for being advocates for not only our animals, but for us as well. We are lucky to be living in such a diverse area but we are even luckier to have the Service around to uphold our heritage.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of guest columns written by students studying environmental studies in a course run by lecturer Stefanie Herweck at UT-Rio Grande Valley. Click here to view the first guest column, authored by Abbey Palomo. Click here to view the second guest column, authored by Rebecca Moran. Click here to view the third guest column, authored by Gracie Ibañez. For more information about the environmental studies course contact Stefanie Herweck at [email protected]