Piedmont NWR Turns 50
Refuge celebrates resurrection from barren desert to top wildlife area in the state.
Fifty years ago, the land that is now Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge was essentially a desert. Cleared by settlers in the 1800s, the land had been transformed from forest into massive cotton farms. Crop after crop of cotton finally wore the land out, and by the 1870 about half the farms in the area had been abandoned. Stripped bare, the land was then ravaged by erosion. Approximately 90 percent of the topsoil washed away. Then in the early 1900s, the combination of the boll weevil and the Great Depression combined as the one-two punch to push out most remaining farmers.
The Piedmont of the 1930s would be unrecognizable to today’s visitor to the refuge. The ecology of the Piedmont had been destroyed: the habitat was gone. There were almost no trees. No deer roamed the washed-out gullies; no turkeys foraged on the bare hillsides.
Then in January 1939, the land was rescued. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the property in Jasper and Jones counties at the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge to be maintained as a breeding ground and refuge for wildlife of the region. The property had been selected by Ira Gabrielson, chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey (the forerunner to today’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) as a management demonstration area to show that raped land could be recovered.
Initial work by Civilian Conservation Corps workers were designed to stop the erosion of the soil, and from there natural reforestation began.
It has taken decades of careful management, but Piedmont has been restored. And while the long recovery process is still under way, Piedmont is now the crown jewel of wildlife management areas in the state.
It has been a long road back. Deer were first reintroduced into the area in the early 1940 when 60 deer from Wisconsin, North Carolina and Georgia’s coast were released on the property. Nine wild turkeys from South Carolina were released in 1944. Even beavers had to be reintroduced.
Today, Piedmont celebrates 50 years of wildlife management, which to most Georgia hunters translates into outstanding deer hunting. Ironically, providing hunting opportunity was never an expressed purpose of the refuge. As a federal refuge, Piedmont exists first and foremost to protect endangered species. All else is secondary. The second priority is to provide resting and feeding areas for migratory birds. The third priority is indigenous species, thus the effort to re-establish deer and turkey populations.
Even so, according to Piedmont Refuge Manager Ronnie Shell, direct species management is seldom the aim.
“What we try to provide is year-round habitat—food, cover and breeding habitat for a variety of species,” said Ronnie.
Habitat diversity is one of the keys to Piedmont’s success. The natural selection of plant communities moves from grasses; to grass and shrubs; to pines; to hardwood trees as the climax forest. Each stage of succession provides habitat suitable to a certain variety of species. The more diverse the habitat, the more diverse the number of species.
Piedmont is divided into 35 compartments of approximately 1,000 acres each. Within each of those compartments, management practices are used to halt or manipulate natural succession to maintain some areas within each compartment at each stage of success.
Piedmont is a patchwork of interspersed habitat. Approximately 5 percent of each compartment is maintained in wildlife openings. Pine stands are prescribed burned a 3-year rotation to remove forest litter, increase the amount of browse and remove mid-story seedlings. Timber thinning opens the forest canopy and increases the amount of sunlight that reaches the forest floor, encouraging new and diverse growth on the forest floor. Beavers are allowed to dam streams and create new wetlands. There are also 11 man-made lakes and ponds on the refuge.
To Georgia hunters, what all this management means is that Piedmont is perhaps the best tract of deer habitat in the state. The deer on Piedmont, no less than the pulpwood pines trees or saw timber that is harvested, are considered a renewable resource. The deer herd on Piedmont is managed to maintain a population of about 40 deer per square mile. The deer population is lower than on some property in surrounding counties, but a population slightly below the carrying capacity of the land insures a healthy, strong herd.
Piedmont’s deer herd management also attempt to maintain an excellent buck/doe ratio of about 1:1. While there may be more deer elsewhere, you are more likely to shoot a buck on Piedmont than on most areas in the state.
The management took used to maintain the deer herd is recreational hunting, and hunters from all over Georgia and the Southeast apply each summer for the chance to hunt deer on Piedmont in the fall. Last year, more than 10,000 hunters applied for the six quota deer hunts that were held on the refuge. For many hunters, the fall trip to Piedmont has become a 10- or 20-year-long hunting tradition.
There is no question that Piedmont is near and dear to Georgia hunters. That fact was born out recently by a federal Environmental Impact Study (EIS) that sought public comment on the operation of the nation’s federal refuges. Among possible management options up for comment was the closing of refuges to sport hunting. GON ran an article on the EIS study under the premise that Piedmont might be closed to hunters. We asked Georgia hunters to let the EIS team in Washington, D.C. know how they felt. When the public comment period ended, more than 28,000 comments had been received, and more than 26,000 were in favor of continuing present management of the refugees, with sport hunting as a reasonable management tool. Of the total number of comments received, more than 20,000, or more than 70 percent of the national total were from one state—Georgia. The spectacular response was spurred by the prospect of the gates to Piedmont Refuge being locked to hunters.
Piedmont is 50 years old this year. After half a century, the land has healed. The refuge is a prime example that wildlife management works, and also a reminder that wildlife management begins with dirt. Wildlife management begins with habitat management, and at Piedmont, that lesson has been proved from the bare ground up.
“After 50 years, Piedmont is fairly impressive habitat,” said Ronnie Shell. “But give us another 50 years, and it ought to be really something.”
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