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Diversity of species calls wildlife refuge home

Linda Wilcox of Vincennes flipped through a book to identify a wildflower while leading a group. Photo courtesy of Tegan Johnston/The Herald.
Linda Wilcox of Vincennes flipped through a book to identify a wildflower while leading a group. Photo courtesy of Tegan Johnston/The Herald.

A group of wildflower hunters gathered at Snakey Point Marsh at the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge Saturday morning ready to trudge through the underbrush in search of spring’s first blooms. But first, nature treated the group to a young bald eagle soaring through the sky.

“You come for wildflowers, and you get bald eagles,” said Nancy Gehlhausen, president of the refuge’s Friends group. “That’s what the refuge is all about.”

The wildlife refuge spans roughly 9,000 acres of land across Gibson and Pike counties along 30 miles of the Patoka River. It was established in 1994 ­­- 91 years after President Theodore Roosevelt founded the National Wildlife Refuge program - and offers land for hikers, hunters, fishermen, nature photographers, bird watchers and canoe/kayakers.

The refuge boasts 250 species of birds - including the endangered interior least tern - that pass through the refuge on their migrations, and roughly 400 other wildlife species are found in the refuge, around 80 of which are considered endangered or threatened.

In 2002, scientists discovered a new species of burrowing crayfish in the refuge.

“Very few people know anything about (the refuge) and what it has to offer,” Gehlhausen said.

The refuge - managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - aims to restore the Patoka River ecosystem to its natural wetland, forest and prairie state. Decades of strip coal mining and non-native plant growth have damaged the land and polluted the water, according to the Friends group’s brochure.

The Snakey Point Marsh Complex off State Road 64 in Oakland City is one of the best public access sites, according to the brochure. It offers two miles of hiking trails, a fishing pier and small boat access for fishing or paddling. The refuge office is located not far from the entrance at 510 1/2 W. Morton St.

Land in the refuge comes primarily from purchasing old farm and mine land. Gehlhausen said the land used to be purchased through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses royalties from energy companies to conserve land. However, Gehlhausen said, in recent years Congress has been allocating those dollars elsewhere, making those dollars hard to come by. The Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition has reported the same issue.

Now, Gehlhausen said, the Friends group turns to other grant programs to obtain money for land acquisition. Recently, the group worked with the Sycamore Land Trust in Bloomington to purchase more old mines. The plan is for the refuge to someday span more than 20,000 acres.

Once land becomes part of the refuge, the Friends group gets to work. The refuge has about three staff members, Gehlhausen said, so the Friends group takes on a lot of projects. They recently installed a new fishing bridge in the Snakey Marsh area, but most of their work is restoration and conservation. They build and maintain hiking trails, plant trees and remove non-native plants.

“They’re nasty creatures, and once you get them here, they’re hard to get rid of,” said Larry Wilcox, a member of the Friends group. He and his wife, Linda, live in Vincennes and are active in conservation organizations across southwestern Indiana.

Non-native plants bloom before native plants and die after them, choking out the native plants and damaging the ecosystem. Several bird and insect species depend on a single plant to survive, so if that one plant is overrun by non-natives, that species will no long live in the area. Monarch butterflies are an example. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed. Over the last 20 years, depletion of U.S. grassland ecosystems has lead to less milkweed available and a roughly 90 percent drop in the U.S. Monarch population, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

“Plants are the base of the ecosystem,” Linda Wilcox said.

Right now, the Friends group’s big project is restoring the recently acquired land from the Sycamore Land Trust. Part of that land will become forests, and part will become prairie. Once restoration is complete, those areas will be stocked with native plants to support and attract the native wildlife.

“Some people say (the non-native plants) will just become the new natives,” Gehlhausen said. “I say no, that can’t happen. You lose so much diversity.”

By Leann Burke

Republished with permission from The Dubois County Herald

Last updated: May 5, 2017