Contact: Bonnie Strawser - 252-473-1131
January 8, 2010
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge Management: Best Practices for Long-term Good
Recent visitors to the farming areas of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge may have left with the perception that wildlife management practices have changed for the worse. Even novice managers know that a variety of habitat types in a mosaic with lots of "edges" provide the best habitat for the greatest variety of wildlife. On this refuge and at this time, it certainly doesn't look like our managers have mastered that concept. But, looks can be deceiving. Deputy Refuge Manager Scott Lanier, who heads up the management of the farm fields of the refuge, explains, "In an ideal world, most major management work would be done in a rotation, leaving patches of many levels of plant growth and producing a variety of habitat types. Mowing, v-ditch clearing, tree removal, maintenance of filter strips, and other on-going work would be done gradually, often in a hit or miss fashion. But, when the work is long overdue because of staff and funding shortages, and you finally get the means to accomplish the projects, you accept the short-term impacts for the long-term gain."
He continued, "On the farming areas of the refuge, there have been several important projects that we just haven't had the time or money to get done. Our v-ditches have not been maintained in years- some of them had almost completely filled in. Our ability to manage water levels is probably the most important capability we have for producing high quality wildlife habitat. So, when the funds came to maintain those ditches, we did what was necessary to accomplish that - which included mowing areas that would not have normally been mowed during this rotation. The contractors had to have access to the ditches. Ideally, this would have been done in stages, so all of the ditches would not have been mowed at once." A contract completed in early December cleaned out 110 miles of v-ditch spanning all three farming units. This work will enable the refuge to appreciably increase habitat quality and quantity for wildlife over 4600+ acres.
Another management project that may be misunderstood is the clearing of trees and stumps from the north dike of the farmfields. Again, the integrity of the water management system must be maintained. When trees are allowed to grow on a dike, the system can be compromised by a tree being blown over or dying. Dikes must be maintained at an early successional plant level (low-growing non-woody plants), so that large, heavy roots do not infiltrate the dike itself. The north dike has not been maintained for many years. We are in the process of cutting the trees and will remove the stumps and repair sections that have been leaking. In order to accomplish this project, very noticeable dike clearing was necessary. But, "rehabilitating" the dikes will restore the integrity of the water management system which allows us to create excellent migratory bird habitat on the moist soil, cropland, and permanent water within the farming area.
"We do not have any intention of implementing long-term 'clean farming' practices at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.," added Lanier. "In fact, with assistance from U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and our cooperative farmers, we will be implementing a new conservation practice that will require our farmers to disk the filters strips - the areas either side of the v-ditches- in the Fall on a rotational basis. This will be done according to a plan developed by NRCS. According to Bill Edwards, NRCS biologist, this practice should provide better early successional habitat than planting and trying to maintain the filter strips with native warm season grasses. The width of the filter strips will remain 75'." Filter strips are maintained to prevent soil erosion and chemical contamination of the waterways and to provide nesting areas and food for small mammals and upland game.
The public is encouraged to visit the refuge often to observe these areas as they grow and develop into high quality wildlife habitat. Everyone is also encouraged to contact the refuge for questions about these practices or others they see in progress on the refuge by calling 252-473-1131 ext 230 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Typical v-ditch in a farming unit of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge prior to v-ditch clearing. Note the area has been mowed to provide easy access for the contractor. Photo credit: FWS, Bruce Creef.
The same v-ditch during the ditch-clearing operation. Clearing these v-ditches will enhance water management for over 4600 acres of farmland, moist soil, marsh, and ponds. Photo credit: FWS, Bruce Creef.
North Perimeter Dike, prior to cutting trees. Photo credit: FWS- Bruce Creef.
North Perimeter Dike after tree removal has begun. The dike rehabilitation is on-going; tree cutting, stump removal, and dike repair will continue until the project is complete and the dike is completely clear and functioning. Photo credit: FWS- Bruce Creef.