July 2018
From Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

We’re not just the hook-and-bullet crowd.

WFF biologists manage a variety of wildlife, both game and nongame alike.

 

Marianne Hudson, a conservation outreach specialist, and Carrie Threadgill, a nongame biologist, helped with the release of the eagle.

Many animals you see and hear while sitting in your deer stand or waiting on that gobbler are in the category of nongame wildlife. In fact, 95 percent of Alabama’s native species cannot be legally hunted. The Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries Division’s Nongame Wildlife Program is tasked with managing, protecting and enhancing the populations of those animals.

I will highlight two species to illustrate the wide variety of nongame animals in our state: the bald eagle and the eastern indigo snake. Outwardly, they’re quite different: One rules Alabama’s skies and the other slithers through its sandy soils. However, both have benefited from the efforts of the Nongame Wildlife Program.

At a division-sponsored educational event in June, WFF staff asked a group of schoolchildren if they had ever seen a wild eagle. All the children raised their hands to indicate yes. Decades ago, the responses were much different.

In 1984, the Nongame Wildlife Program began a bald eagle reintroduction program and released 91 birds over an eight-year period. This initiative is one of the greatest accomplishments of the program, as you are now likely to see bald eagles anywhere in Alabama.

Chuck Sykes releases the rehabilitated eagle in the Pine Barren Creek Special Opportunity Area.

 

No longer on the endangered species list, bald eagles are thriving. We have recorded over 200 nesting pairs, and they are potentially nesting in every county. The increased number of eagles means landowners are more likely to encounter them on their property.

Occasionally, a debilitated eagle is found and taken to a state- and federal-permitted wildlife rehabilitator for temporary care.

One such eagle was taken to Auburn University’s Southeastern Raptor Center last fall after being found grounded with a broken wing and close to starvation. The eagle recovered. On May 2, I released that eagle back into the wild at our Pine Barren Creek Special Opportunity Area in Dallas County.

My hands were hopefully the last to ever touch that bird, and I expect it to hunt the area for another 30 years.

On May 4, another nongame success story passed through my hands. We released 20 eastern indigo snakes in the Conecuh National Forest.

Topping out at over 8 feet long, these nonvenomous snakes are a top predator in Alabama’s longleaf pine ecosystem. Indigos eat a variety of prey, including rattlesnakes and copperheads.

This species is now considered threatened. Habitat loss, collection for the pet trade and the now-illegal practice of gassing gopher tortoise burrows led to its decline.

Before reintroduction efforts began in 2010, they had not been seen in Alabama since the 1950s.

Indigos are bred and raised in captivity for the purpose of release to re-establish a breeding population in their historic range. Over 170 have been released through these efforts.

 

Joey Dobbs, chairman of the Conservation Advisory Board, helped with the release of the eastern indigo snakes.

This year, the release was followed by the Indigo Snake & Wildlife Festival that was open to the public. Hundreds of visitors, including the aforementioned schoolchildren, visited Conecuh National Forest to learn about snakes, tortoises, red-cockaded woodpeckers and other aspects of local habitat.

Our biologists worked with a number of federal, state and private conservation organizations to make the Indigo Snake & Wildlife Festival a success.

Partners are very important to all efforts involving the indigo snake and many were also involved in the eagle reintroduction. One of the most essential partners in these nongame success stories is reading this article right now: the Alabama hunter. The Nongame Wildlife Program is funded via hunting license revenue along with federal matching funds provided from an excise tax on the sale of guns and ammunition. In addition, many Alabama residents choose to offer support via the Nongame Fund tax checkoff located on state income tax forms or by purchasing an Alabama Wildlife Heritage License. Many nonhunters also choose to back the conservation of nongame species by purchasing an Alabama hunting license.

If you enjoy birdwatching, know that conservation efforts and habitat support for those species are both funded by license sales. If you see an eagle, thank a hunter.

Nongame biologists conduct hundreds of surveys annually to gather data on wildlife populations and monitor species of concern. Some biologists are flying above in planes counting eagles, while others have their boots on the ground as they peer into gopher tortoise burrows to search for indigos.

In addition to birds and reptiles, the Nongame Wildlife Program focuses its initiatives on other animals as well. Biologists are inspecting bat species across Alabama for deadly white-nose syndrome and studying the prevalence of the spotted skunk. They are searching for amphibians such as the eastern hellbender salamander and examining their habitats.

The program helps administer a variety of projects involving federal- and state-listed species of concern and Scientific Collecting Permits for numerous projects. Such initiatives provide data allowing us to better manage our myriad nongame wildlife for the sustainable benefit of the people of Alabama.

Most of you reading this article probably never knew that we manage species other than the ones we hunt. Even though deer and turkey are the primary species we talk about, WFF biologists manage a host of game and nongame wildlife.

Why should we as hunters care about nongame species such as the indigo snake, the gopher tortoise or the red-cockaded woodpecker?

Because improper management of endangered, threatened or species of concern such as these could have a negative impact on how we manage the game species in our state. That’s why we work closely with our federal and state partners to practice sound wildlife and timber management.

Most hunters understand the use of prescribed fire in a thinned stand of longleaf pine timber to produce quality food and cover for deer, turkey and quail. But those same hunters may not understand the practices of thinning and periodic fire also produce quality habitat for many other species. In other words, proper management benefits all species whether we hunt them or not.

My recent experiences with two nongame success stories were literally hands-on, but, anytime you’re outdoors, look skyward or downward to see species that are mindfully managed by Alabama’s Nongame Wildlife Program.

 

 

 

Chuck Sykes is director of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.