Georgia DNR And Nature Conservancy Protect 3,000+ Acres In Wheeler County

Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Near Lumber City, an unusual example of Georgia’s ecology and geology has been purchased by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), with assistance from The Nature Conservancy and other partners. The 3086-acre tract is now open to the public as the Alligator Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Wheeler County.  In addition to being a great site for bird watchers and other nature enthusiasts, it will be available for hunting during all statewide hunting seasons. 
 
“We’ve seen an abundance of deer and turkey sign on the property,” according to Allen Smith, wildlife technician with DNR.
 
Alligator Creek WMA, which lies near the confluence of the Little Ocmulgee River and Alligator Creek, includes deep sandy soils that originated as ancient wind-blown sand dunes.
 Historically, places like these supported habitat for many diverse plants and animals that have become rare or endangered throughout the southeast, like longleaf pine, red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise, gopher frog, indigo snake, and pine snake. 
 
The Alligator Creek WMA continues to harbor some of these species, including the gopher tortoise, a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act.  Protecting key tortoise populations and their habitats has become increasingly important to a coalition of partners seeking to prevent such a listing.
 
“In our analysis, the Alligator Creek tract ranked as one of the top five unprotected tortoise populations in the state," said Matt Elliott, DNR's assistant chief for the Wildlife Resources Division Nongame Conservation Section.  "We believe that protecting this habitat, providing public recreation land in a previously underserved area, and reducing the need to list the species is a ‘win-win-win’ for Georgians.”
 
Although much of the WMA’s original longleaf pine forest had been harvested before it was purchased by The Nature Conservancy last July, most of the groundcover plants, and the tortoise burrows that are critical for a larger community of other ground-dwelling animals, were still intact. 
 
Noting the abundance of wiregrass and other fire-friendly groundcover on the site, the Conservancy’s Erick Brown expressed confidence that “the vast majority of ecological elements we need for restoration are here.” Mr. Brown is the Conservancy’s land steward and fire boss. “By planting longleaf pine and returning fire to the system,” he said, “We can recreate a diverse and healthy longleaf pine woodland in relatively short order. “
 
Over 500 acres of the tract have already received both prescribed fire and new longleaf pine seedlings.  In addition to negotiating the land purchase, the Conservancy received grant funds to carry out such management practices on Alligator Creek WMA over the next several years, in partnership with DNR.
 
Along with The Nature Conservancy, the protection of Alligator Creek was made possible by the cooperation of many organizations and individuals, including seller R. T. Stanley Jr., who had assembled the property for his agricultural business but agreed to a negotiated sale due to its importance as wildlife habitat, the Orianne Society, whose scientific and educational expertise on Georgia’s native reptiles became a key part of the dialogue with the seller, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through a Recovery Grant and Wildlife Restoration grant, and the Knobloch Family Foundation, whose interest-free loan to the Conservancy, and monetary gift to the State, were critical elements of the deal.  The state purchased the tract from the Conservancy in October 2016.

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