Cold-Stunned Turtles to Be Released Wednesday

 Cold stunned Green Atlantic turtles small and large were saved by Sea Turtle Inc. earlier this week after water temperatures dropped in the Laguna Madre recently.

These cold-stunned sea turtles were rescued by Sea Turtle Inc. and taken to its facilities to warm up. The rehab center says the turtles have been rehabilitated, are all active and ready to go back in the water.

According to Sanjuanna Zavala, Sea Turtle Inc. marketing manager said cold water temperatures caused sea turtles to become vulnerable to hypothermia, and many were found floating or washed up ashore suffering from “cold-stun.”

The turtles will be released at the island Wednesday at noon.

By RAUL GARCIA Staff Writer

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Pelican storm: Teamwork saves 200 birds along Highway 48

More than 200 brown pelicans were rescued by volunteers along State Highway 48 Thursday, which was in stark contrast to a vehicular massacre of the birds one year ago.

The “Pelican Team” was created following two storm-filled days last December after cold fronts created conditions forcing pelicans onto the roadway that stretches from Port Isabel to Brownsville. Between 60 and 100 birds perished under the wheels of vehicles along a stretch of highway with a 75-mph speed limit.

This year between a dozen and two dozen birds were lost, but the numbers were far fewer due to the efforts of the Pelican Team as well as the Texas Department of Public Safety, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas General Land Office, Texas game wardens, Good Samaritans and the Port Isabel Volunteer Fire Department.

“Thinking back and talking with people today, I think we probably pulled off the road in total something around 150 birds,” said team member Justin LeClaire, a wildlife biologist. “I know I personally grabbed and moved across the road 24 by myself and there were 10 of us out there.”

Other pelicans were flushed from the roadway to safety.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we saved at least 200 pelicans yesterday,” he added.

LeClaire said team members began operating about 2 p.m. Thursday when pelicans trying to escape the high winds from the strong cold front began dropping on State Highway 48 as they attempted to fly from the Brownsville Ship Channel into the Bahia Grande Unit of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

Due to how the roadway is constructed, particularly the barriers on both sides of Highway 48 and the center divider, when the wind is just right out of the north or northwest it creates conditions that push flying pelicans down onto the roadway.

The barriers intensify high winds on the sides but leave a dead zone over the roadway which causes pelicans to flop onto the asphalt where they are vulnerable to vehicles.

“Winds are hitting the barriers and the causeway in general and being forced up over it, and when they’re forced up it really speeds up the wind,” LeClaire said. “In that first lane … there’s this void of air, there’s no air flow going on there. But above it is this increased wind speed.

“The pelicans are flying low down the Gayman Channel from the Ship Channel trying to get into Bahia and they go up and just don’t have enough air going over the road,” he added. “They hit that super-fast wind and they basically stop and slowly cruise downward and they get so low it seems like they hit that pocket of dead air and they just don’t know how to handle it and they just fall out of the air from about five feet up.”

TxDOT has studied the barriers and the effect they have on flying pelicans using a wind tunnel to simulate conditions like those that occurred Thursday afternoon between 2 p.m. and dusk. TxDOT workers also put out flashing signs warning motorists of the pelicans on the roadway and urging them to slow down.

“TxDOT has basically now determined that the barrier is the issue, and they’re contracting for the next phase of this study,” said Nicole Ekstrom, president of Friends of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and an organizer of the Pelican Team although she wasn’t out on the highway Thursday. “They need more studies so that they can determine which kind of configuration would work.

“TxDOT is all about the safety of motorists so they can’t remove the outside barriers or you’d fly off the bridge and they can’t remove the middle barrier because of potential head-on collisions,” added Ekstrom, who also is a wildlife biologist.

Safety of human volunteers was at the forefront of Thursday’s action, with four DPS cruisers and three game wardens all with their vehicle lights flashing — and the Port Isabel Volunteer Fire Department.

Fire Marshal John Sandoval said his department responded to a request from the Cameron County Office of Emergency Management and sent a rescue truck and a command vehicle out late in the day to the Highway 48 site.

As the Pelican Team disbanded because of the danger from traffic in the unlit area after dark, Port Isabel firefighters took the next shift.

“We were trying to slow down traffic,” Sandoval said yesterday. “In previous years, it’s been a complete slaughter out there but I think we did a pretty good job of getting most of them out of the roadway.”

Sandoval said it appeared the conditions that cause the pelican deaths were moderating yesterday afternoon but his department was assessing the situation and would respond again if needed.

Pelicans, alas, show little appreciation in being rescued.

The birds, understandably disturbed by their flight difficulties over the highway, sometimes regurgitate fishy oil all over the rescuers.

Some injured birds were taken to the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville for treatment.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

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Ahoy! Hoy! Hoy!

With the waters of the Laguna Madre awash in the colors of the holiday season, spectators gathered along the bay last Saturday evening to enjoy the South Padre Island and Port Isabel Annual Christmas Lighted Boat Parade.

More than 20 boats of all shapes and sizes participated in this year’s event, departing from South Point Marina in Port Isabel, crossing the Laguna Madre Bay, then cruising the shore of South Padre Island. The boat parade culminated at the Painted Marlin Grille for judging, with an awards ceremony at Louie’s Backyard immediately following.

Mike Valdiviez from Brownsville enjoyed his first ever boat parade, along with four generations of his family, including grandmother Timotea Montana. “The weather was real good, very nice for the kids to be here without coats,” Montana commented.

Her 8-year-old great grandson Misael Martinez agreed, saying that seeing Santa was his favorite part of the festivities.

Boats in the parade were judged on four specific criteria: first impression, theme, special effects and the amount of lights.Ahoy! Hoy! Hoy!

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Man Allegedly Destroys Entrance Canopy at Isla Blanca Park

 It's an entrance many people in the Rio Grande Valley have gone through in the past 30 years, to get to the jetties or Isla Blanca Park.

Now a man is facing charges for ramming into it and destroying it.

People on South Padre Island woke up to unfamiliar sights, the snow and the concrete Isla Blanca Park entrance structure caved-in.

"Oh my gosh, we thought it was the wind," Theresa Collins said, "You know because we've had that horrible wind."

Park officials told CHANNEL 5 NEWS this was no act of nature.

"At about approximately 11:30 last night a vehicle ran into the toll booth into the entrance canopy of Isla Blanca Park," Cameron County Parks Director Joe Vega said. "Basically, it destroyed the toll booth and made the canopy collapse."

Cameron County Parks Police Chief Horacio Zamora said a white 2017 Dodge Ram 3500 mega cab, took down the structure, causing an estimated $450,000 worth of damage.

The chief said the driver, Devin Scott Holley, left the scene.

Today, he turned himself in and is now facing charges for hitting the structure and not reporting the accident.

Winter Texans living at the RV park told us they were surprised by the damage.

"I have no idea, I've never seen this before," said Jim Hass. "It's pretty bad whatever happened." 

Vega said the Isla Blanca Park will soon undergo about $30 million worth of renovations. They weren't expecting to deal with a redesign of the entrance just yet. They'll have to move-up plans to renovate the entrance.

"We want to do something that's going to compliment the improvements that we are currently doing at Isla Blanca Park," he said.

Vega is hoping this won't keep visitors away from the park for the winter season. He said the park remains open for business.

Those who plan to visit Isla Blanca Park will have to go through a temporary side entrance and toll booth that has been set-up to the right-hand side.

Right now, park police are still investigating why Holley allegedly ran into the canopy.

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Authorities Warn to Watch for Pelicans Near Gulf

 Authorities have issued an alert for motorists to watch for brown pelicans on roadways along the coast as a major cold front blows through.

Low temperatures and brisk northerly winds and rain sometimes lead pelicans to land on coastal highways and bridges, especially Queen Isabella Causeway to South Padre Island and Bahia Grande/Gayman Bridge area on State Highway 48.

National Weather Service forecasters noted volunteers and police also may be in or near these locations during the next couple of days and nights.

Two cold fronts 10 days apart one year ago led to the deaths of between 60 and 100 brown pelicans along State Highway 48 as they sought shelter along the roadway.

Forecasters urge motorists to exercise caution and slow down in these areas through this week, especially Wednesday night.

The cold front is expected to begin to approach and pass through the area tonight with colder air following Wednesday into Thursday.

Temperatures will drop quickly behind the cold front and will struggle to make it out of the upper 40s and low to mid-50s on Wednesday and Thursday.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

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UTRGV Texas OneGulf research grant will focus on Lower Laguna Madre ecosystem

Three professors in the UTRGV School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences are among an elite group of scientists awarded two-year research grants as part of the Texas OneGulf Center of Excellence.

UTRGV’s Dr. John “Chip” Breier, associate professor, Dr. David Hicks, professor, and Dr. Hudson DeYoe, professor, in collaboration with Dr. Warren Pulich at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos, were awarded $213,956 for their proposal, “Developing a predictive ecosystem model for the Lower Laguna Madre.”

Texas OneGulf is one of two consortia established by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to enable usage of federal funding provided through the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2010 (RESTORE Act).

The RESTORE Act requires the five Gulf States affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill – an 87-day discharge of millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico – to establish centers of excellence for conducting research on the Gulf Coast region.

Texas OneGulf, a consortium of nine Texas institutions, is a unique multi-disciplinary team of marine science, socio-economic and human health researchers united to promote collaborative research and problem-solving actions in support of programs, projects and activities that restore and protect the environment and economy of the Gulf Coast region. The total grant funding for all nine institutions’ research is $2 million.

“Our project will develop a predictive ecological model, with the goal to bring together all of the essential cross-disciplinary information needed to predict future trends in water quality and ecosystem health for the Lower Laguna Madre,” Breier said.

The grant will support the research and education of three graduate students in the new School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences at the new UTRGV Coastal and Ocean Science Center (COSC). Currently in the design stage, a COSC facility will be located on Garcia Street in Port Isabel.

“The Lower Laguna Madre is a vital, unique, and ecologically important region of the Gulf of Mexico, yet it remains terribly data-poor,” Breier said. “Starting immediately, we hope to use retrieved data to begin generating predictions.”

Breier said this is the first step in developing a working predictive model, and that it will improve over time as the dataset and understanding of the system grow.

“Whether the implications of our predictions are good, bad or mixed, the key goal is that the predictions themselves are as accurate as they can be,” he said. “The result of the team’s research will be increased resiliency of our coastal communities and the overall health and well-being of the population.”

Texas OneGulf is led by the Harte Research Institute (HRI) for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi.

“We are very appreciative of the governor’s support of Texas OneGulf as it has allowed us to fund these diverse and innovative projects,” said Dr. Larry McKinney, HRI Director. “What happens in the Gulf of Mexico affects the health and economic well-being of Texas citizens on a daily basis, and making sure that we focus the best available science on these issues is the goal of our RESTORE designated Center of Excellence.”

By Cheryl Taylor, Special to the Star

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SNIFFING OUT CLUES SPI Fire Department to get accelerant detection canine

The South Padre Island Fire Department next year will be adding a four-legged investigator to its arson team.

The City of South Padre Island will be acquiring an arson dog, through a scholarship granted in October from State Farm, that will begin its service in May 2018.

“This team will be used to investigate fire, but also provide community outreach programs and education seminars on fire prevention and safety,” Chief Doug Fowler said in a press release.

The State Farm Arson Dog Program was established in 1993 and has resulted in more than 380 dogs and their partners being put to work in 45 states, three Canadian provinces and in the District of Columbia, according to State Farm.

Accelerant detection canines, or arson dogs, are able to sniff out accelerants like gas and lighter fluid that may have been used to start fires. Canines and their handlers must complete 200 hours of training. State Farm provides financial aid for acquiring an arson dog and training it.

South Padre Island’s arson dog, which will be a labrador, will be the only accelerant detection canine in the lower Rio GrandeValley, according to the South Padre Island Fire Department. The canine will be able to locate accelerants at a fire scene in about 20 minutes, which would take a fire investigator hours to do.

However, according to the fire department, donations are needed because the program can’t run long term without continued grant funding and donations. In a press release, the SPI Fire Department said donations are needed to help pay for ongoing costs of dog food, routine veterinary services, training aids and training props.

The SPI Fire Department has set up a fundraising page seeking donations at

So far, the fire department has raised $1,850 out of its $6,000 goal.

By MARK REAGAN | Staff Writer

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Kemps Ridley Sea Turtles Reach Highest Population in Years

Thanks to the collaborative effort between the Gladys Porter Zoo and several Mexican government agencies, the Kemps ridley sea turtle has seen its highest population in years.

The Kemps ridley sea turtle bi-national project started in 1978 as a cooperative program between Mexico and the United States to restore the Kemps ridley population to sustainable levels.

GPZ Curator of Conservation Jaime Peña said the Gulf of Mexico is home to five species of sea turtles.

Peña said one of the reasons the Kemps ridley population has decreased is because it’s the smallest sea turtle out of the seven species and nests only on the RanchoNuevoBeach in Tamaulipas, which is a big disadvantage for the species.

The nesting season for the Kemps ridley recently ended with 25,000 registered nests and each nest containing from 95 to 100 eggs.

“Basically what we do is we get there at the beginning of March just before the turtles start nesting and they’ll stay in their protective corrals in six different camps in Tamaulipas and South Padre Island,” Peña said.

Volunteers patrol the beaches and wait for the turtles to come out to collect as many eggs as they can before they harden. The eggs are about the size of a Ping-Pong ball.

“When they just lay the eggs, they’re very soft and leathery and in about eight hours they will harden,” Peña said.

Pena said it is estimated that one out of 1,000 baby turtles will make it to adulthood.

“This year, given the 25,000 registered nests, we did some estimates and we released 1.2 million (Kemps ridley) baby turtles into the Gulf of Mexico,” Peña said.

By Kaila Contreras Staff Writer

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County Raises RV Fees at Isla Blanca to Fund Improvements

Sherry and Richard Fry were relaxing in lawn chairs on a sunny Wednesday morning in the RV park at Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island. 

The couple, who hail from Michigan, say they have been visiting for 13 years because the spot just can’t be beaten.

“The truth is, it’s a bargain right now,” Fry said. “There’s nowhere else you can go and be this close to the water.”

The Frys aren’t the only ones who recognize the bargain, either. Cameron County commissioners also are aware.

“When we’re done, you and I are telling everyone we’re going to have the nicest facility on the Gulf Coast,” County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr., told Parks Director Joe Vega during a meeting Tuesday.

“So I don’t think it’s a problem to charge the individuals a proper rate since they’ll have the use of state-of-the-art facilities.”

Vega was in front of the Cameron County Commissioners Court, asking commissioners to sign off on RV rental site fee increases and to approve updates to the planned second phase of facility improvements in the park. Those fees are expected to help pay for the second phase.

Plans to upgrade facilities at Isla Blanca Park stretch back two years ago, when Cameron County adopted a master plan for its parks on South Padre Island. Initially, the plans set expansive goals that included proposed tennis and pickle ball courts, and even a dog park. Two years later, Vega described that master plan as more of a wish list than a to-do list.

“It was more like a working document, but not all that’s on the master plan is going to be included with our improvements,” Vega said during an interview.

However, even the toned-down version, in regards to Phase 2 of the Isla Blanca Park improvements, which include improvements to the Gulf-side amenities, has commissioners worried whether the rate increase on RV-site rentals is adequate.

Trevino said during that meeting that the Commissioners Court needs to make sure the rates are sufficient for the market area and what the county will be providing to people who visit Isla Blanca, which already experienced a 50-percent increase on its entry fee last year, from $5 to $10.

“Because, obviously, the individuals that are going to be renting these spaces have RV vehicles. They have the means,” Trevino said. “We’re not talking about the families that go there for a day. We’re talking about individuals that have RVs that are going to stay for weeks at a time and, in the past, that have stayed for months and years at a time.”

Right now, monthly fees at the RV park range from $390 per month to $525 per month, depending on location and whether the sites are partial or full hook-ups, and whether they have cable, according to the county’s website.

The fee schedule that commissioners approved last Monday increases those fees to $600 to $800 per month during the summer peak season. And during winter and spring, those monthly rental rates spread from $500 to $750. These rates take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

Commissioner Sofia C. Benavides, who represents the South Padre Island and Port Isabel areas on the commissioners court, supports the rate increase.

“First of all, we’ve taken the first step to move forward in improving our parks, and second of all, I think we need to bring up our prices also,” she said. “I think now we really need to move forward with this.”

But it’s uncertain whether the increases can actually fund Phase 2 improvements.

“We’re currently looking at $13 million in improvements and finance that we’re going to seek for Isla Blanca Park,” Vega said during that meeting.

Right now, commissioners don’t believe the RV rental increases are substantial enough for the price-tag, and Commissioner David A. Garza said the fee schedule should be revisited on an annual basis.

“Having a very, very substantial increase at one time and not knowing how the public was going to react to that, you know, if we were to double or triple the price it may be that we get less revenue because we have less people coming,” said David Gordon, managing director at Estrada Hinojosa Investment Bankers, during the meeting.

Vega said Phase 2 includes tearing down and rebuilding the DJ Lerma and Sandpiper pavilions, along with adding a boardwalk that connects the two. Phase 2 also includes relocating several dunes in the park, improving roads and creating more parking. The total price tag on the current proposal is just less than $17 million.

However, as commissioners and the parks department figure out how to pay for Phase 2 improvements, Phase 1 construction has yet to even start.

That part of the project, which costs a little less than $6.5 million and is being paid through venue taxes, will bring an amphitheater and multi-purpose building to the area by Dolphin Cove.

“Once we get bids and they come within budget, from there we’ll determine a date to break ground,” Vega said.

The final phase of improvements at Isla Blanca will focus on the RV park, where Vega said his department is looking to upgrade infrastructure and to build additional sites.

Meanwhile, though, the Frys said they feel completely in the dark as to what is happening in the park. That sentiment was echoed by others who didn’t want their names in the newspaper.

And would-be visitors who want to reserve spots in 2018 are unable to, leaving an air of uncertainty. Not only that, some said they know changes are coming to Isla Blanca Park, but what those changes are depends on who is telling the story.

“Stories abound about what’s going to be done,” Sherry Fry said.

Her husband concurred.

“Anyone you talk to, you get a different answer,” he said. “We just want our spot.”

Vega said the parks department is working on updating RV park policies and, after they satisfy the Commissioners Court and are approved, then Vega said he hopes to open the park back up to reservations.

“We are not taking any reservations for the following season. We are still working on the financing for the RV site construction schedule,” Vega said. “We don’t want to take any reservations, and then start the project and give notices that they are not going to be able to come in.”

Those improvements to the RV park will be done in sections.

“Once we put the plan together, then we’re going to open up for reservations,” he said. “We’re hoping that once the court adopts the revisions to the park policies and once we determine a plan, then we’re going to open up for reservations.”

By MARK REAGAN Staff Writer

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SPI Fire Department Receives Arson Dog Scholarship

The City of South Padre Island Fire Department has received a scholarship from State Farm to add an arson dog as a community and regional asset. The new, four-legged firefighter will begin serving our community in May 2018.

Accelerant detection canines, also know as arson dogs, are trained to sniff out minute traces or accelerants (gasoline,lighter fluid,etc.) that may have been used to start a fire in about 20 minutes.

"We are very excited about adding this great program to our community," stated Doug Fowler, fire chief. "This team will be used to investigate fire, but also provide community outreach programs and education seminars on fire prevention and safety."

This program cannot run long term without continued grant funding and donations. The cost of acquiring the arson dog is covered, but the ongoing costs of dog food, routine veterinary services, training aids, training props for the new 4-legged firefighter is still needed.

If you would like to help make this program a great success in our community please consider a donation today through

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