Long before groups like the Nature Conservancy were established to protect lands and waters in the United States, the federal government set up agencies and programs to protect fragile landscapes, wildlife and wildlife habitats.
The first “reservation” was established in 1869 in the Pribilof Islands of Alaska to help protect fur seals. That reservation led to the birth of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS), which now includes more than 560 refuges, 38 wetland management districts, and other protected areas that total over 150 million acres, all managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
In Alabama there are 11 National Wildlife Refuges, and they protect a great diversity of wildlands, from the deep caves in the northern sector of the state to the barrier sand dunes on the Gulf Coast. Thanks to these refuges, Alabama remains one of the most ecologically diverse regions in the South, and in the country. Plus, the refuge system ensures that the state’s abundant forests, streams, lakes and coastal ecosystems will be enjoyed by generations of Alabamians. If you’re not familiar with the various refuges in Alabama, this quick guide will get up to speed on the wildlife and landscapes they protect, and what you’ll encounter when you visit them.
Protecting the Geology
In north Alabama, where the geology is primarily made up of limestone, you’ll find a remarkable geologic phenomenon called karst topography. Because limestone is very soft, wind and water dissolve it easily. What’s left behind is what cavers will tell you is a fascinating labyrinth of sinkholes, caves, and underground streams.
Alabama is part of the TAG Area (Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia), which has an extensive karst topography. In 1997, in aptly named Limestone County near Florence, the 1,060-acre Key Cave NWR was established to protect this fragile geologic area and in turn the habitat it provides for two species of sightless crayfish and the Alabama cavefish, a small, sightless fish that can only be found here. The cave is also the home of 40,000 endangered gray bats.
Protecting Gray Bats
Gray bats were placed on the endangered species list in 1976, but their numbers began to dwindle long before that. The reason for the decline? Gray bats tend to live in large numbers in only a few caves. Because of this, they are highly sensitive to any disturbance, which causes them to use a lot of energy during hibernation, and many die because of it. In recent years, gray bats have also faced the deadly virus known as white nose disease.
Shortly after being placed on the endangered list, USFWS established the Fern Cave NWR near Gurley, Alabama. This 199-acre refuge is the gateway to an intricate underground cave system that is the home of the largest wintering colony of gray bats in the country. The refuge gets its name from the rare Hart-Tongue Fern that grows here.
In addition to Fern Cave, the Sauta Cave NWR was created in Jackson County in 1981. It was once a Civil War saltpeter mine, then a prohibition nightclub, and then a 1960s fallout shelter. Now, the cave is the summer home and breeding habitat for more than 300,000 gray and Indiana bats. It’s an awesome sight to see hundreds of thousands of these nocturnal creatures swarm out of the caves around sunset en masse.
Protecting Fish, Reptiles, Birds & Mammals
Among Alabama’s 11 NWRs, five really stand out, including the state’s largest, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.
Located near Decatur, Wheeler is the oldest NWR in the state, having been established in 1938. The location was selected because it’s on a major waterway, the Tennessee River, but also because it’s on the eastern boundary of the Mississippi Flyway, a major migration route for birds. Thousands of wintering birds call the refuge home each year, including the rare Whooping Crane.
The watercress darter, a colorful but small, 2-inch long fish can only be found in a few natural springs in the state. In 1988, USFWS opened the Watercress Darter NWR near Bessemer to protect the quarter-acre Thomas Spring.
On the Gulf Coast in northern Mobile County, more than 4,200 acres in the Choctaw NWR have been set aside to protect a winter habitat for migrating wood ducks.
On the eastern side of the state, the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge has over 11,000 acres of what has been called a “mosaic of habitat” – impoundment ponds, wetlands, streams, and, of course, Lake Eufaula – that hosts an incredible 300 species of birds, including wood storks, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons, as well as 40 different species of mammals
And then there is the Cahaba National Wildlife Refuge in West Blocton. The Cahaba River is arguably one of the most ecologically significant rivers in the South, and perhaps the entire country. In fact, the Cahaba has more species of fish in its waters than in the entire state of California.
The Cahaba NWR protects five federally listed species of fish, snails, and darters, plus 64 endangered animals and rare or imperiled plants like the famous Cahaba Lily that grows in only a few places in the world.
Since President Theodore Roosevelt established the first National Wildlife Refuge in 1903, the refuge system has served one main goal—to to protect wildlife habitats.
Three other NWRs in Alabama showcase that effort nicely, including the Mountain Longleaf NWR near Anniston. This refuge was created to restore the region’s longleaf pine ecosystem so it can regenerate and return to Alabama the prime habitat for many of the birds and mammals that live in the state. The refuge also provides scientists and educators a chance to study this intricate ecosystem first-hand as it matures.
On Alabama’s Gulf Coast you’ll find the Grand Bay NWR, which protects one of the last remaining expanses of Gulf wet pine savanna. And just down the road from Grand Bay across Mobile Bay is the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, which protects the state’s natural barrier sand dunes and in turn the home of many migratory songbirds and endangered or threatened species of wildlife, including the Loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.
Opportunities for You to Explore
The best part of the National Wildlife Refuge System is that it’s yours. USFWS has opened many areas so you can hike, canoe, bird watch, or do photography. Visit each of the NWR websites for information on planning your visit to Alabama’s amazing wildlife refuges.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for RootsRated Media in partnership with BCBS of AL.