Mississippi River Priority Site

Cypress Island, Louisiana

Located about halfway between the towns of Lafayette and Breaux Bridge in south-central Louisiana, The Nature Conservancy's 9,300-acre Cypress Island Preserve shelters one of North America's largest breeding colonies, or rookeries, of wading birds, as well as a population of American alligators. The preserve is part of the largest remaining forested wetland in the Bayou Teche and Vermillion river watersheds, an area totaling about 20,000 acres that has been designated a priority conservation site by the Conservancy.

Lying near the western edge of the Mississippi's alluvial plain, the site contains the full range of native plant communities that historically occurred in the area, including virgin cypress-tupelo swamps, bottomland hardwood forests and live oak forests.

It has been estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 pairs of wading birds such as herons, egrets, ibis and roseate spoonbills nest each year at the Cypress Island site. It also supports viable populations of most species of forest-nesting birds found in the Lower Mississippi River Valley. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "de-listed" the American alligator as a threatened species in 1987, the loss of its habitat remains a potential threat to its long-term survival; large numbers of alligators, many over 8 feet in length, call Cypress Island home. The Cypress Island site provides proven opportunities for ecotourism, which, when conducted without damaging or disturbing natural features, can yield sustainable benefits for local economies.

Strategies and Progress

Numerous ecological stresses are being exerted on the Cypress Island site. Past and current forestry practices have altered the structure and composition of its forests. Its natural water flows have been affected by channel dredging in smaller bayous and by changes to the larger watershed, including stream alterations made to the Mississippi for navigation and flood-control purposes. Fragmentation of its wetland forests poses threats to the successful breeding of forest-nesting birds, while public use pressures and a growing ecotourism trade threaten the long-term survival of the rookery and alligators.

To bolster its conservation of the Cypress Island Preserve, the Conservancy, working with partners, established the Cypress Island Advisory Council to produce a blueprint to guide land use in the vicinity, including flood-control projects and the Conservancy's own efforts to restore the area's wetland forests. In addition, the Conservancy is constructing a visitor center, interpretive boardwalk and trail system that will focus public attention on the need to minimize disturbance of the rookery and alligators while accommodating human visitation and encouraging environmental education opportunities.

The Conservancy is seeking to reduce fragmentation of the site's wetland forests by purchasing land and conservation easements on land that is forested and by encouraging landowners whose forests have been cleared to participate in incentive-based forest restoration programs. Other Conservancy strategies at Cypress Island include working in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct science-based planning and restoration of the area's natural water flow patterns and performing inventories and other scientific research of the rookery as a basis for Conservancy protection strategies.