National Wildlife Refuge System

Happy 75th Anniversary Wheeler Refuge!

Wheeler refuge includes pine uplands and riparian habitat as well as bottomland hardwoods and wetlands.
Credit: USFWS
About 12,000 sandhill cranes migrate through Wheeler Refuge each year. A Festival of the Cranes will be held January 11, 2014.
Credit: George Lee

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama celebrates its 75th birthday this year. Located between Decatur and Huntsville in the Tennessee River Valley, the refuge was established in 1938 to provide wintering habitat for migratory waterfowl.

The refuge includes a reservoir created by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Some experts at the time did not think birds would flock to an artificial body of water. Now the refuge supports the southernmost concentration of wintering Canada geese, 50,000 migrating ducks and another 12,000 sandhill cranes. The beginning of winter is the peak viewing time at the refuge for migrating waterfowl.

Twelve whooping cranes also winter on the refuge, including nine that were en route to St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Florida when they stopped because of bad weather and never continued the journey. Wheeler Refuge also has ten endangered or threatened species, including gray and Indiana bats on its satellite refuges (Sauta Cave, Fern Cave, Key Cave and Watercress Darter Refuges).

Former refuge manager Tom Atkeson’s first assignment as a junior biologist was to map the brand new Wheeler Refuge. He developed an exceptionally keen knowledge of the refuge and became its manager in 1962, a position he held for 25 years. Atkeson brought otters from the Okefenokee Swamp to Wheeler Refuge as well as wild turkeys, muskrats, raccoons, beavers and bobcats. 

Atkeson also developed the practice of cooperative farming, through which local farmers cultivate refuge lands to produce crops that, after harvest, provide food for the migratory birds.  A universally accessible trail named in Atkeson’s honor passes by some of this farmland as well as a cypress swamp. Wheeler Refuge is also open to hunting, fishing (including a universally accessible fishing pier) and boating.

Anniversary celebrations planned in early October were cancelled because of the government shutdown but are expected to be rescheduled. The refuge’s first Festival of the Cranes kicked off a year of anniversary celebrations last January; the second crane festival will be held January 11, 2014.  More information will be available at

Wheeler Refuge Fact Sheet


Last updated: October 18, 2013