Wildlife & Habitat Management Programs
The staff at Wheeler NWR use a variety of wildlife and habitat management programs to accomplish its mission. Programs are designed to provide habitat for a diversity of wildlife. Some of the most common programs include:
- Wildlife Surveying and Monitoring Programs
- Cooperative Farming Program
- Water Level Management
- Forestry Management
- Old Field Management
- Fire Management
Wildlife Surveying and Monitoring Programs
The staff at Wheeler NWR currently conducts limited surveys and incidental monitoring to document the populations of certain species and species groups. For example, Wheeler NWR has been monitoring waterfowl populations since the fall and winter of 1947-48. Until recently, waterfowl surveys were generally conducted aerially. However, due to the difficulty of finding pilots and/or planes in the area that meet all Department of the Interior safety requirements, most waterfowl surveys are now performed on the ground. Since many, but not all, areas utilized by waterfowl can be observed from the ground, these types of surveys likely give a good index of numbers of birds on the Refuge. In addition to waterfowl surveys, limited surveys and incidental monitoring are also conducted for shorebirds, and landbirds.
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service establishes hunting seasons and bag limits for waterfowl based on factors such as each species number, reproductive success, and survivorship. Various studies are conducted to learn more about waterfowl populations, including their movements. The Refuge helps with these efforts by banding wood ducks. Migratory bird managers determine how many wood ducks of various age and sex classes must be banded on the Refuge each year. Wood duck banding information is provided to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s and/or U.S. Geological Service’s migratory bird managers for further study.
Cooperative Farming Program:
One of the largest management programs involves the planting of agricultural crops such as corn, milo, millet and winter wheat to provide food for ducks, geese, and other wildlife. Over 4,000 acres of land are farmed by neighboring farmers under a cooperative farm agreement. The Refuge's share of crops is typically 25% and is left standing to be manipulated later so that it is available to wildlife. The refuge prefers to have corn left standing as its share of crops because it is a high-energy food source for waterfowl and other wildlife. However, the refuge sometimes takes part of its shares in milo, millet, or winter wheat.
Geese require a high-energy food source when it is cold, but will also feed on green plants such as winter wheat. The food has to be located in the middle of a relatively large (depending on shape, about 20 acres or larger), open field because they are wary of predators that may be lurking in hedgerows, woodlands, and other types of cover. In addition, the refuge staff plants some winter wheat for geese each year.
The standing corn is knocked down in the fall in order to make the ears of corn readily available to geese. The growing number of sandhill cranes that visit the Refuge each year benefit from this practice also. Although ducks will feed in fields, they much prefer to forage in shallow water. Unlike geese, many duck species will feed near or in cover where they can avoid aerial predators. Corn, milo, and millet are left standing in areas that will flood in the fall and winter. These crops are left mainly in impoundments not being managed for moist soil plants.
Water Level Management:
Water level management on Wheeler NWR is an important tool for providing habitat for waterfowl. Water levels are manipulated in approximately 2,600 acres of wetlands to provide food and resting areas. Two ways this is accomplished at Wheeler is leave water on an impoundment all year long to promote growth of submerged aquatic vegetation and through moist soil management.
Submerged aquatic vegetation consists of plants that essentially grow submerged in the water. Many are valuable waterfowl foods. One impoundment on the Refuge, Crabtree Slough, is managed to encourage growth of submerged aquatic plants. Essentially, the water level is kept at a relatively high level year-round. In the spring, summer, and early fall, leaving the water level relatively high promotes growth of this vegetation. Leaving the water at this level in late fall and winter provides food and resting areas for wintering waterfowl. Both dabbling ducks, and diving ducks feast on submerged aquatic plants. Many ducks, feed on the seeds and other parts of plants found in shallow water.
Refuge forests are maintained in a healthy state through a combination of timber management practices such as thinning and complete harvest to prevent the spread of forest insect pests. Habitat management for the benefit of migratory songbirds and other wildlife species is the primary goal of all Refuge timber harvests.
Old Field Management:
The refuge manages certain tracts of land as old fields. The old fields are maintained in an early successional stage of grasses, brush, and small trees. The fields are mowed, disked, and sometimes burned with prescribed fire to maintain them in an early successional stage. Species such as northern bobwhite, rabbits, and many species of song birds and small mammals make use of old field habitat.
Fire can be used to manage wildlife habitat. Historically, Native Americans used fire to improve hunting success and early settlers used fire to open land for farming. Today, wildlife managers use fire to maintain and improve wildlife habitat for many species of song birds, small mammals, and game species such as deer, turkey, and bobwhite. Prescribed fires are used occasionally in moist soil management units to revitalize plants that provide food for waterfowl. Prescribed fire also enhances the quality of forage plants by increasing the plant's mineral content thereby increasing the nutritional value of the plant when eaten by wildlife. Fire is an important factor in managing grassland habitats by reducing the amount on leaf litter on the ground, which allows grassland birds to feed and move freely on the ground. As the grasses re-grow, they also provide excellent nesting and foraging habitat for species such as grasshopper sparrows, dickcissels, and bobwhite.