Sandhill cranes by the thousands use Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur as wintering grounds because of the habitat and abundance of food. The endangered whooping crane also uses the refuge, which recently held its 75th anniversary celebration. (Credit: USFWS, David Rainer)
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Celebrates 75 Years of Waterfowl Preservation
The rattling trill of noise was baffling as I walked across the parking lot at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur recently to celebrate its 75th anniversary.
Because I hadn’t visited the refuge in winter, I didn’t realize what all that noise was until the trill with a goose-like finish started getting louder and louder. I looked in the gray skies and the mystery was solved. It was a group of six cranes floating lazily in the north wind, headed for an agricultural field for a mid-morning snack.
"Whooping cranes?" I asked one of the rangers.
"Nope, those are sandhills," he answered. "We’ve got thousands. We’ve got some whooping cranes, too. If you look in the back field, the whooping cranes are the white ones."
Indeed, the back field was filled with cranes, mostly the red-capped sandhill variety. The white whooping cranes, an endangered species, were easy to spot.
The crane population is only one aspect of the mission for Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge providing food and rest for a vast variety of bird and waterfowl species using the Tennessee River Valley as wintering habitat.
"We average at peak in the winter between 60,000 and 75,000 ducks on the refuge," said Wheeler NWR Manager Dwight Cooley. "Almost without exception, mallards are the No. 1 waterfowl species we winter here. There has been a bit of change over the last 20 years. Gadwalls are our second highest number of birds that winter here. At one time, the American wigeon was second.
When 9-year-old Brooklynn Howard volunteered to help Larry Battson in the exotic animals presentation, she didn’t know she’d end up holding a python on her neck. Brooklynn is the daughter of Adam and Linda Howard. Linda is a software developer at Alabama Farmers Cooperative. (Credit: Decatur Daily)
"At one time, we had 50,000 Canada geese wintering here. Now we’re lucky to get between 500 and 1,000 of the migrant Canada geese. Our geese come from Southern James Bay. There was a study done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited that looked at this. What the study found was the geese were wintering north of us for a variety of reasons, one of which was changing agricultural practices to minimum tillage and no-tillage areas. The birds are just not getting this far south any more."
While no waterfowl hunting is allowed on the 35,000-acre Wheeler NWR, Cooley said the refuge’s wintering habitat makes the hunting better throughout the state.
"The fact that the refuge attracts the largest number of ducks in the state, even though we don’t hunt the refuge, I think the surrounding areas see a lot of benefits in the waterfowl hunting throughout the Tennessee Valley," he said.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the executive order to establish the refuge in 1938, Cooley said it was a time when the United States was trying to "tame" the Tennessee River.
"It was also a time of concern about waterfowl populations and breeding habitat in particular," said Cooley, who has been the manager at Wheeler for 16 years. "It was really viewed as an experiment to see if wildlife could be managed in these newly developed deep-water reservoirs in north Alabama. This is a long, almost riparian type of refuge. It’s 20 miles long. It was part of the land acquired by the Tennessee Valley Authority for buffers and flowage easements when Wheeler Dam was constructed in 1936.
"As a matter of fact, in the executive order signed by President Franklin Roosevelt it was stated that waterfowl was the prime reason the refuge was established."
Cooley said, although the NWR system is in a period of tight budgets, the primary missions will be continued.
"For here, our priorities are waterfowl and endangered species," he said. "We will provide recreational opportunities for residents. And we’ll provide conservation and environmental education for the public. The City of Huntsville brings every student in the fifth grade over here every year, and uses the visitor center and observation area for their conservation and education classes.
"There are plenty of fishing opportunities. And we allow hunting for deer, feral hogs and small game. The deer and hog hunting are bow-only except for a two-week to 20-day season for flintlocks or primitive muzzleloaders. We follow state regulations on small game. We allow shotguns with non-toxic shot and rimfire rifles. We get quite a lot of use during the hunting seasons. And we have more and more people who are interested in wildlife photography."
As part of the festivities, the Teddy Roosevelt Show, featuring Joe Weigand, made its way through the crowd during the celebration.
Like most everything, Cooley said the effort to enhance the waterfowl habitat at the refuge has been trial and error, and has significantly evolved over the years.
"When it started, the work was primarily in the deep-water habitats in the reservoir itself with suitable plant species," he said. "It didn’t work very well because of the depth of the water and raising and lowering of the water levels from summer to winter pools. That also involved electricity production, flood control and, early on, mosquito control.
"The managers at the time said there was one thing they could do, which was farm the areas that had been in crops when the TVA acquired it. That was aimed primarily at geese, which they knew would use those upland areas. So the farming program in the National Wildlife Refuge System really started right here at Wheeler. In fact, one of the former refuge managers Tom Atkeson wrote a book called ‘Farming for Wildlife,’ which was based on some of the early work done here at Wheeler."
The habitat improvement eventually included water-control structures in the lowland areas to control the water levels to help in the planting of native vegetation with good seed production as well as row crops around the edges of the areas.
"As we flood them in the winter time, those areas are flooded to provide food for the waterfowl," Cooley said. "In the upland areas, we farm between 3,000 and 5,000 acres on a share agreement with eight farmers in the area. We rotate between corn and soybeans, mostly. Sometimes we will plant milo and millet."
Celebrating its 75th year of existence was a lesson in persistence. The government shutdown forced the original anniversary celebration to be rescheduled. Then Mother Nature decided to send a winter blast through north Alabama for the rescheduled date of Dec. 7. Because of the weather forecast, a variety of outdoors components to the celebration were canceled. The remainder of the events was held inside the visitor center just off Highway 67.
Despite a long journey in bad winter weather, Larry and Cheryl Battson, founders of Wildlife Educational Services, made it to Decatur in time to present their live wildlife program at the celebration with a variety of native and exotic animals.
The Teddy Roosevelt Show, featuring Joe Wiegand, entertained the audience with his one-man theater show about the life and times of America’s 26th president, who was an avid hunter and explorer.
The anniversary celebration wasn’t the only big event scheduled for Wheeler NWR. On Jan. 11, 2014, the refuge celebrated the second annual Festival of the Cranes.
The Festival of the Cranes included nature walks, live raptors and refuge tours. Visitors got a chance to see some of the more than 12,000 sandhill cranes, along with several pairs of whooping cranes, that winter each year at Wheeler.
Hosted by the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge Association, the Festival of the Cranes kicked off at 6 a.m. with a sunrise breakfast in the visitor center classroom. Cooley then led an early morning walk to see cranes and other waterfowl as the birds foraged in nearby fields.
Joan Garland, education outreach coordinator for the International Crane Foundation, gave presentations on efforts to restore a migratory flock of whooping cranes to eastern North America. Additional activities included two showings of "Hope Takes Wing," a film by and about Operation Migration on the history of the whooping crane, and two presentations by Auburn University’s Southeastern Raptor Center that taught about birds of prey, including owls, hawks, falcons and eagles.
David Rainer is with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.