Save the Swamp: But, Beware the “Rougarou”
Walking through a Louisiana swamp at night, the moon is full and the fog hangs low on the surface of an old bayou. All around, there is the movement of unseen life – the rustle of the swamp rabbit in the underbrush, the hoot of a barred owl, and maybe even a soft splash of an alligator as it slithers down the bank. Suddenly, the night is pierced by a distant howl. Could it be the howl of a ghost of the nearly extinct red wolf that once roamed the swamps and marshes of Louisiana? Or…could it be…a “rougarou”?
The Legend of the Rougarou
The rougarou (or loup-garou) is a monster from Cajun folklore. In the legend, this beast is often described as having the body of a man and the head of a wolf or a dog and prowls Louisiana swamps looking for misbehaving children. The stories were most likely inspired by European stories of werewolves that the Cajun people brought with them as they migrated to Louisiana.
How a person transforms into the monster doesn’t seem to be entirely clear. Nor is it clear if the rougarou only prowls during a full moon, like a werewolf. One thing that does seem certain, though, is that some of the rougarou’s preferred haunts are the swamps of central and eastern Louisiana.
Tragically, many of the swamps that helped shape Cajun culture and inspire stories of the rougarou have been cut off from the Mississippi River that once built and maintained them. River levees constructed for flood protection and navigation have starved many swamp areas of sediment and flowing water, leaving trees standing in stagnant waters that are too deep for new trees to sprout, and making them increasingly vulnerable to rising sea levels and storms that bring in salty water from the Gulf that could destroy these freshwater ecosystems.
Restoring Louisiana’s Swamps for the Long-Term
The loss of this important habitat is not inevitable. Two projects that would help restore and maintain swamp habitat are:
- Increase Atchafalaya to Terrebonne Marshes project which would dredge the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to increase the flow of water from the Atchafalaya east into the Terrebonne Basin. The swamps and marshes of the Terrebonne Basin, along Louisiana’s central coast, are far away from both the Atchafalaya River, the last major distributary channel of the Mississippi, and the Mississippi River. Starved of sediment and experiencing saltwater intrusion, these wetlands are rapidly converting to open water. This restoration project would dredge the Intracoastal Waterway to increase the flow of Atchafalaya River water east in the Terrebonne Basin.
- River Reintroduction into Maurepas Swamp project would help restore and maintain one of the Maurepas Swamp – one nation’s largest forested wetlands. This restoration project would reconnect this swamp with the Mississippi River, preventing land loss in the swamp, the conversion of swamp (tree-dominated wetlands) to marsh (grass-dominated wetlands), as well as push back against saltwater intrusion due to rising sea levels. In addition, the fine sediment from the river may also increase ground elevations in parts of the swamp to the point where some places remain dry for long enough for seeds to germinate, perpetuating the swamp into the future.
Louisiana’s swamps have always held an air of mystery and menace about them that have inspired stories like the fabled rougarou that emerges from the foggy darkness under night’s cover and vanishes at dawn.
These swamps are also important habitat for a lot of very real wildlife, including the Prothonotary warbler, the American alligator and the river otter. But as Louisiana continues to lose a football field of wetlands 100 minutes, its iconic swamps and marshes are in very real jeopardy.
By implementing projects that both mimic and restore natural processes and flows, we can make real progress on restoring and preserving as much of this important habitat as possible before it – like the rougarou – vanishes without a trace.