White sand dunes at sunset with some dune grasses growing on them.
South Padre Island Sun begins to rise over the coastal sand dunes. © Kenny Braun

Stories in Texas

Safeguarding South Padre Island

Protecting the world's largest barrier island.

Safeguarding South Padre Island (1:00) TNC's latest conservation deal in South Padre Island protects vital habitat for the endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle.

Bordered by the Laguna Madre to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the east, Padre Island stretches for 113 miles down the southern Texas coastline. It’s the world’s longest barrier island, and home to a bustling resort community as well as habitat for 16 wildlife species with federal or state conservation status.

White sand dunes with plants growing on them and the ocean in the distance.
Preserving the Texas Gulf Coast Protecting South Padre Island’s rich ecosystem is a priority for The Nature Conservancy in Texas. © Kenny Braun

That includes the world’s smallest and most critically endangered sea turtle, the Kemp’s ridley. While most are found in Mexico, in the U.S., they nest primarily on South Padre Island. Each summer, visitors crowd the beachfront to watch hours-old hatchlings journey from sand to surf. A natural imprinting process occurs along the way, allowing female sea turtles to remember and return to the beaches from which they hatched when it’s time to lay their own eggs.

Contact with humans and human development can cause turtles to “false crawl” or enter the beach without nesting. Protection of what’s left of the wild, undeveloped coastline of South Padre Island is critical to helping these turtles—and numerous other threatened species in the region—replenish their populations.

A tiny sea turtle hatchling in the sand as water laps up nearby.
Kemp's ridley Critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles rely on South Padre Island for nesting habitat. © Carlton Ward Jr.
Three piping plover chicks in the sand.
Piping Plovers The Island is home to 16 threatened or endangered species, incuding threatened piping plovers. © Dottie Dowling
Kemp's ridley Critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles rely on South Padre Island for nesting habitat. © Carlton Ward Jr.
Piping Plovers The Island is home to 16 threatened or endangered species, incuding threatened piping plovers. © Dottie Dowling

In 2000, The Nature Conservancy and its partners came together to safeguard nearly 25,000 acres of South Padre Island. Nearly two decades later, we’re still working to protect the Gulf Coast. Most recently, in 2019, we collaborated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Natural Resource Damage Assessment trustees—the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the General Land Office—to add over 6,200 acres to that number in the largest conservation effort on South Padre Island in two decades.

Wispy brown stems growing out of a sand dune with live growth showing yellow and orange at the top of each stem.
Coastal Sand Dunes In addition to providing habitat, sand dunes serve as natural infrastructure, helping buffer storm surges and absorb flood waters during extreme weather events. © Kenny Braun

The newly-protected area will be incorporated into surrounding wildlife refuge lands at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Preserve. The Gulf beach will remain accessible to the public, and the rest of the land will be managed for the benefit of wildlife. Ultimately, by protecting portions of the remaining wild, undeveloped Texas coastline, its beauty and integrity will be preserved for people and nature for decades to come.