While our physical offices are closed until further notice in accordance with Austin's COVID-19 "stay home-work safe" order, the Handbook of Texas will remain available at no-cost for you, your fellow history enthusiasts, and all Texas students currently mandated to study from home. If you have the capacity to help us maintain our online Texas history resources during these uncertain times, please consider making a 100% tax-deductible contribution today. Thank you for your support of TSHA and Texas history. Donate Today »


William MacWhorter

SANTA ANA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is a 2,080-acre natural preserve on the banks of the Rio Grande seven miles south of Alamo in Hidalgo County. The refuge is noted for its unusual birds, mammals, butterflies, and plants. The site was acquired in 1943 by the federal government to protect a remnant of the subtropical Rio Grande Delta riparian forest, most of which had been lost to agricultural clearing. The refuge lies in El Agostadero del Gato (the Pasture of the Cat), Los Toritos (the Little Bulls), and Santa Ana land grants, but is largely within the latter. The Santa Ana grant was conveyed by the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, in which it then lay, to Benigno Leal on May 19, 1834. A ranch house of handmade bricks was built in the Rancho de Adentro (Inside Ranch), and a cemetery was established near the ranch buildings. No trace of the ranch house remains, but Santa Ana Cemetery is still visible, partly enclosed by the original hand carved Texas ebony fence which protects approximately thirty graves and a tomb built of hand formed bricks. The tomb originally contained the remains of Cristoval Leal, adopted son of the original grantee, and his wife María Rafaela Treviño. During the border bandit raids of 1915–16, the tomb was broken into. It remained open, exposing scattered bones, until 1943. After the federal government purchased the ranch, the tomb was repaired. Today the cemetery is protected and maintained and is one of the main attractions in the refuge.

As a remnant subtropical forest surrounded by cleared agricultural land and approached by urban sprawl, the refuge protects some of the few ocelots and jaguarundis remaining wild in the United States. Valid sightings of these elusive cats have been documented, and refuge biologists hope that their numbers will increase and spread to other sanctuaries along the Lower Rio Grande. In addition to these rare cats, over 33 species of other mammals, 372 species of birds, 200 species of butterflies, and 34 species of reptiles have been recorded in Santa Ana. Especially noteworthy birds are chachalaca, green jay, and alta mira oriole. Santa Ana has over 450 plant species. It is the northernmost range of many tropical plants and also has many species from the temperate zone. Although the land surface elevation varies only a few feet, five different mini habitats correspond to the slight elevation differences, soil types, and nearness to water in refuge lakes or in the Rio Grande. Resacas display retama (Parkinsonia aculeata), rattlebox (Sesbania drummondii) and black mimosa (Mimosa nigra). Upland Thorn Forest displays cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens), Texas ebony (Pithecellobium ebano), guayacan (Guaiacum angustifolia), trecul yucca (Yucca treculeana), coma (Condalia hookerii), and nine species of cacti. Bottomland Forest displays cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia), tepeguaje (Leucaena pulverulenta), and Rio Grande ash (Fraxinus berlandierana). Riparian Terraces display black willow (Salix nigra) and butterfly bush (Buddleja sessiliflora). Mudflats display few plants. The rarest plants in Santa Ana include Esenbeckia runyonii, which was thought to be extinct in the wild until rediscovered in 1986, and Santa Ana capparis (Capparis incana). In 1967 the refuge was designated a Registered Natural Landmark "because of its exceptional value in illustrating the natural history of the United States of America." It was one of the first federal areas placed in this category.

A sixty-eight-acre Texas Ebony Natural Area, located near the Rio Grande and east of the Jaguarundi Trail, has been set aside for research and educational purposes. Santa Ana Refuge has a visitor center that houses administrative offices, a museum, and an auditorium. Twelve miles of foot trails wind through the reserve, and a tour tram travels a seven-mile route during winter months. Although the primary purpose of the refuge is the protection of wild animals and the preservation of their habitat, the staff is dedicated to increasing public awareness of the critical need to conserve wildlife, plant species, and river systems. Visitors are invited to see interpretive films in the auditorium and to walk the trails. Santa Ana is an island of natural greenery surrounded by intensive farming and urban development. Visitors increased from 133,220 in 1983 to 273,990 in 1988.

Edward A. Kutac, Birders Guide to Texas (Houston: Lone Star, 1989). Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (Washington: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1978). Florence J. Scott, Historical Heritage of the Lower Rio Grande (San Antonio: Naylor, 1937; rev. ed., Waco: Texian, 1966; rpt., Rio Grande City, Texas: La Retama Press, 1970). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, William MacWhorter, "SANTA ANA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE," accessed August 03, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/gks05.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
visit the mytsha forums to participate

View these posts and more when you register your free MyTSHA account.

Call for Papers: Texas Center for Working-Class Studies Events, Symposia, and Workshops
Hi all! You may be interested in this call for papers I received from the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College...

Katy Jennings' Ride Scholarly Research Request
I'm doing research on Catherine Jennings Lockwood, specifically the incident known as "Katy Jennings' Ride." Her father was Gordon C. Jennings, the oldest man to die at the Alamo...

Texas Constitution of 1836 Co-Author- Elisha Pease? Ask a Historian
The TSHA profile of Elisha Marshall Pease states that he wrote part of the Texas Constitution although he was only a 24 year-old assistant secretary (not elected). I cannot find any other mention of this authorship work by Pease in other credible research about the credited Constution authors...