WHEELER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Wheeler NWR, located along the Tennessee River between Huntsville and Decatur, was established in 1938 to provide habitat for wintering and migrating birds. Considered the easternmost Refuge in the Mississippi flyway, this 34,500 acre Refuge attracts thousands of wintering waterfowl each year and supports the southernmost and Alabama's only significant concentration of wintering Southern James Bay Canada geese. It also serves as winter habitat for the State's largest duck population. In addition to migratory birds, the Refuge hosts 115 species of fish, 74 species of reptiles and amphibians, 47 species of mammals, and 285 different species of songbirds. The Refuge is also home to 10 federally listed endangered or threatened species.
Wheeler NWR is comprised of a great diversity of habitat types such as bottomland hardwoods, wetlands, pine uplands, agricultural fields, and backwater embayments. These habitats provide excellent feeding, loafing, and roosting sites for waterfowl, as well as nesting sites for migrating songbirds. The Refuge provides a much needed oasis in one of the fastest growing regions in the state, with Madison being ranked as one of the top ten fasting growing cities in the nation in 2002.
The Refuge is essentially a riparian buffer along the Tennessee River and consists of bottomland hardwoods, mixed hardwood and pine uplands, shallow water embayments, and agricultural fields. Of the Refuge's 35,000 acres, there are 19,000 acres of land and 16,000 acres of water. The land acreage consists of some 10,000 acres of forested wetlands and upland hardwoods, with main species consisting of red and white oaks, hickories, poplar, ash, and tupelo gum; 3,000 acres of pine plantations, much of this subjected to sanitation cuts in the mid-1990's due to Ips and southern pine beetle infestations; and 4,000-5,000 acres of farmland, with the remainder including open shelves, rocket test ranges, and other areas. This mix of habitat provides for a wealth of wildlife diversity on the refuge.
Wheeler NWR has supported up to 60,000 geese and near 100,000 ducks, although modern peaks until 1990 are nearer 30,000 geese and 60,000 ducks. Since 1990, winter goose populations have dropped significantly due to many different factors; below 15,000 from 1990-1995 and about 2,500-5,500 in the last few years. Snow geese are now the most prominent component of the winter goose population, peaking near 1,500-3,200 in recent years. The refuge includes interesting flora, a bird list of 288 species, mammals ranging from shrews to deer, and a wide variety of reptiles, amphibians and fishes.
Until the early 1800's, the Tennessee Valley was controlled primarily by native Americans of either the Shawnee, Chickasaw, or Cherokee tribes. Early settlers found an almost unbroken forest blanket over the Valley and it provided the needed building materials to support the development of Madison County, the most populated area in the territory that would later become Alabama. In 1934, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) began purchasing land as a bed for and buffer strip for Wheeler Reservoir, and in 1936, the Tennessee River was impounded for flood control and hydropower production to meet the booming area's needs.
In 1938, the Refuge was established by Executive Order of President Roosevelt and became the first National Wildlife Refuge to be overlain on a multi-purpose reservoir. This was a new concept and was looked at by many to see if the project would indeed be successful. One of TVA's practices involved impounding shallow backwater areas of the reservoir in order to control mosquito populations that were responsible for disease in the surrounding communities. By pumping these areas dry in the spring and summer, mosquito breeding habitat was eliminated and adjacent communities enjoyed a better quality of life, at least a life a little more free from pesky mosquitos. As a beneficial side effect, these impounded areas produced vast quantities of natural waterfowl foods such as wild millet, smartweed, sedges, and other seed bearing grasses that would contribute to the area becoming a waterfowl magnet when the winter rains re-flooded the impoundments. This, in conjunction with the vast amount of agriculture in the area, led to Refuge being the home to the State's only significant concentration of wintering Canada geese and the State's largest duck population.
in 1941, for national security reasons, about 4,085 acres were included inside the Redstone Arsenal boundary. The Arsenal was established to develop and test rockets and missiles and has played a vital role in our nation's space and rocket programs. Currently, about 1,500 acres of the 4,085 acres is administered by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
Today the Refuge hosts almost 700,000 visitors annually who come to fish, hunt, and observe wildlife in it's natural setting. The area continues to be one of the fastest growing areas in the State, but the Refuge will always serve as a home to our country's most precious wildlife resources and as a constant reminder to us of their importance.