An article on the work that Tara Wildlife is doing to provide winter habitat for migrating ducks has been sitting on my desk for over a week. It is a follow up on an article I wrote three weeks ago about providing feeding stops for waterfowl north of the Louisiana Coast to keep them out of the oiled wetlands.
In that time Michael Grunwald at Time has published an article stating that maybe, just maybe the BP gusher will cause less damage to Louisiana’s wetlands than the airboats skidding across the wetlands to remove the oil will cause. Grunwald and the scientists he interviewed, G. Paul Kemp, who suggested in May that the Corps of Engineers change the Mississippi/Atchafalaya ratio of 70/30 to 80/20 to hold back the oil, and Ivor van Heerden, who documented the levee failures in New Orleans during Katrina in The Storm, have documented only 350 acres of oiled wetlands, tiny compared to the 2,000 square miles of wetlands lost to oil and gas canals reamed through the marshes to get at the oil. Len Bahr at LaCoastPost, who traveled with Grunwald on his tour of Barataria Bay, followed up with a posting that reflects what Grunwald described in Time.
Still the work that is being done at Tara Wildlife to provide refuge for migrating waterfowl is important, because it is being done at a private refuge, albeit with public money. The US Department of Agriculture will give $6.1 million dollars to private landowners in Mississippi to turn low-lying lands on their properties to wetlands for migrating waterfowl this fall. Some of that money will go to Tara Wildlife, which is creating wetlands on its lowlands.
When I was writing The Mississippi: A Visual Biography the reader suggested that I look into private efforts to restore wetlands. Fortunately, I had already toured Tara Wildlife with Sidney Montgomery, an avid bass angler who was Tara’s marketing director at the time. From him I learned about Tara’s owner Maggie Bryant, who inherited 20,000 acres from her husband and decided to take the land out of row crops and put it in conservation on her own. Tara fronts on twelve miles of the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg near Eagle Lake, an oxbow. In 2001 Bryant put 17,000 acres under conservation easement with Ducks Unlimited that that it would always be used for conservation.
Bryant and her staff manage Tara for sustainability. She took her cropland out of production and put in timber, rotating Tara’s harvest on an eighty-year cycle. First, she protected the young hardwoods from her carefully managed herd of deer. In the early years Tara refuge managed the deer for a private hunt club, and then offered it facilities to bow-hunters. Tara also catered to bird hunters, turkeys in the spring and dove and quail in the fall. The summers were devoted to youth camps to introduce kids to outdoor skills, wildlife management, and conservation. Bird watchers came to Tara for the 115 species that have been identified, including white ibis, roseate spoonbills, thousands of wood storks, and a pair of nesting bald eagles. As a dividend, birders might spot a silky black squirrel, more common in the northeast than the southeast, scrambling up a tree. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the folks at Tara began seeing Louisiana black bears, forty sightings in 2001 alone, leading wildlife biologists to hope that one day this private refuge would support a breeding population.
In 2006 Tara joined in a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and nineteen others* to encourage wildlife conservation on private lands. The Mississippi Partners for Fish and Wildlife hoped to build on the kind conservation work Bryan and her staff performed at Tara, and initiate bottomland reforestation projects, manage their timber, reestablish the hydrology in their wetlands, undam their streams and reestablish flow, and establish riparian buffers along their streams to absorb nutrients flowing off their fields.
In April 2001, the Jackson, Mississippi office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its fact sheet on the Yazoo Backwater Project, the Corps’ proposal to drain the lower third of the Yazoo basin with a huge pump, costing $181 million. The service refused to support the project. Among the several reasons given, the service feared that draining the backwater region would reverse the progress the private landowners had made in restoring its wetlands. Agriculture would replace conservation, farm fields would replace wetlands, corn and soybeans would replace bottomland hardwoods. Wildlife would lose habitat.
Finally, in 2002 Mrs. Bryant funded the salary of a full time staffer at the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee through the Tara Foundation and the Purvis Grange Foundation, two foundations she set up for the purpose of making contributions to conservation projects.[i] Photograph, 2006
*Audubon Mississippi, Delta Wildlife, Inc., Ducks Unlimited, International Paper Company, Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Mississippi Department of Transportation, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Mississippi Forestry Commission, Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation Commission, Mississippi Wildlife Federation, Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Foundation, Mississippi Chapter–National Wild Turkey Federation, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Quail Unlimited, Tara Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Weyerhaeuser Company.
[i] Young, Matt, “Tara’s Treasures,” Ducks Unlimited, May/June 2002, http://www.ducks.org/DU_Magazine/DUMagazineMayJune2002/2217/TarasTreasures.html; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Perspective on The Corps of Engineers’ Proposed Yazoo Pumps Project,” April 25, 2001, http://www.fws.gov/southeast/pubs/facts/yazooback.pdf.