OAKLAND CITY, Ind. (AP) - Thousands of migrating ducks, geese and swans stop in the Patoka River valley along their way north every February and March.
The birds find temporary lodging in Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge and Management Area and other nearby southwestern Indiana wetlands as they wait for their northern destinations to warm.
While the refuge is both home and sanctuary to hundreds of wildlife species, appreciation for it has been slow in growing among Southern Indiana residents.
But more and more, people other than hunters and fishers are discovering what the refuge has to offer.
“People are really just starting to find us. We are getting more and more birders and hikers now,” said Bill McCoy, refuge manager.
A nonprofit volunteer support group - Friends of the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge - has been instrumental in spreading the word.
“It’s becoming a more well-known place to see some interesting birds,” said David Howell, president of the group. “It’s a place where you can walk and enjoy nature and see some interesting things.”
McCoy said the historical aspects within the refuge boundaries also are beginning to draw attention, such as the Wabash & Erie Canal, its connection to the Underground Railroad and the many old cemeteries tucked away from early Indiana settlements.
The refuge’s boundaries encompass 30 miles of Patoka River, three miles of the South Fork Patoka River and 19 miles of old oxbows cut from the river’s flow.
However, the diversity of habitat within the refuge area is much broader than just wetlands. It includes what is considered one of Indiana’s best remaining bottomland hardwood forest habitats as well as upland habitat such as grasslands.
That’s not surprising since the boundaries of its acquisition area stretch across Gibson and Pike counties, two time zones and encompass a diverse array of wildlife habitats and lands.
Preserving and restoring those habitats is the core of the Patoka refuge’s reason for being.
“The goal is to have a forested corridor along the river. We’re restoring the natural habitat,” McCoy said.
The goal, he said, is to reforest 5,000 acres in the refuge area - mostly bottomland that was once cleared for farming. Already, more than 1,000 acres have been replanted with a mix of trees found in bottomland areas, such as oak, hickory, gum, persimmon, pecan and even some cypress, McCoy said.
The refuge also has been at work restoring grassland habitat on the former Columbia Mine - more than 1,000 acres located in the heart of the refuge between the Patoka River and South Fork.
“Lack of grassland habitat is a serious problem for grasslands nesting birds,” McCoy said.
When Peabody Coal stopped mining at the site in 2002 and reclaimed it, the site’s lush mix of prairie grasses and oaks was a nesting paradise for Northern Harrier hawks and short-eared owls, McCoy said.
However, by the time the site was acquired as a nature preserve by the Bloomington, Indiana-based Sycamore Land Trust in 2012, there had been 10 years for foreign invasive plants to overtake the property.
Although reclamation of the Columbia Mine land prairie is ongoing, McCoy said he already is seeing some indications of success, gauged by the return of Henslow’s sparrows to the area - birds that will not nest in an area if there are not at least 250 acres of grasslands.
After purchasing the Columbia Mine tract, the Sycamore Land Trust entered into a conservation easement arrangement allowing the Patoka refuge to manage it.
Last month, the trust purchased another 108-acre land tract for the Patoka refuge.
Grants and assistance from nonprofits have been essential in piecing together the refuge as lands become available for sale within its acquisition boundaries, which encompass 22,473 acres.
It has taken more than 20 years for the wildlife refuge to reach one-third of the way to that goal.
Since the refuge was approved in 1994, it has slowly acquired 8,803 acres, although many of the tracts are not connected to each other, causing maps of the wildlife refuge to resemble a quilt.
“We’re buying land as we get the money. There is no lack of willing sellers,” McCoy said.
But the primary source of money for land acquisitions at the refuge is the federal government’s Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“We haven’t received LWCF funding in six years,” McCoy said.
Instead, the McCoy has used $3,250,000 in funding received from environmentally related lawsuit settlements to leverage acquisition funding by providing matching funds for other nonprofit grants.
“To be successful you have to know how to work all the angles and partners,” he said. “We chip away at it.”
Christian Freitag, executive director of Sycamore Land Trust, said it makes sense for the trust to help out Patoka National Wildlife Refuge when it can.
“You look at wildlife pictures taken there and you think they are from a magazine like National Geographic or Smithsonian - ‘there can’t possibly be animals like that here in Southern Indiana.’ But there are three national wildlife refuges in Indiana and all of them are in Southern Indiana,” Freitag said. “It makes sense for Sycamore Land Trust to help (Patoka) because there are dozens and dozens of rare and sensitive species that call the refuge home. Wetlands and bottomland hardwood forests have exceptional wildlife habitat value.
“They are called refuges for a reason.”
Source: Evansville Courier & Press, https://bit.ly/1R6cGCX
Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, https://www.courierpress.com
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.