Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Alabama is home to 11 national wildlife refuges (NWR) that, when taken in total, represent a cross-section of Alabama’s diverse natural environment. Two of these refuges are shared with Georgia and Mississippi. Alabama’s protected federal lands encompass the beaches of the Gulf Coast, the waters of the Tennessee River, the mountains of northeast Alabama, the Cahaba River, the swamps and wetlands along the Tombigbee River, and the bat-filled caves in the Tennessee Valley.
The National Wildlife Refuge System was established in 1903 by Pres. Theodore Roosevelt when he designated the first national wildlife refuge at Florida’s Pelican Island. The refuge system has grown steadily and today encompasses more than 150 million acres within more than 600 wildlife refuges and similar units.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages this network of lands and waters for conservation, management, and restoration of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitat. In addition to protecting wildlife, national wildlife refuges provide opportunities for outdoor recreation; hunting, fishing, biking, hiking, and other outdoor activities are permitted within the refuges. All 50 states as well as the U.S. territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have refuges. The history of each refuge invariably involves the preservation of a unique habitat or a specific plant or wildlife species. Alabama’s NWR lands protect a variety of rare and endangered plants and animals, including bats, mice, and fish.
Bon Secour. Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge This coastal refuge sits on the Fort Morgan peninsula, 10 miles west of the city of Gulf Shores in Baldwin County. It encompasses 7,000 acres of beaches, dunes, saltwater marshes, freshwater swamps, and scrubland. The refuge was established in 1980 with the goal of preserving coastal habitat for migratory songbirds. Bon Secour lies directly on the migration path for many of these birds who use the refuge as a stopping point on their fall migration before they begin the long flight to the Caribbean and Central and South America. Bon Secour is first landfall for birds returning to the United States in the spring. Most of Alabama’s coastline along the Gulf of Mexico has been developed, making Bon Secour one of the last remaining natural patches of coastal habitat and thus vital for the survival of migratory birds. Coyotes, red foxes, American alligators, armadillos, and more than 370 species of birds have been sighted at the refuge. Bon Secour is also home to the endangered Alabama beach mouse, and loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, both endangered species, nest on its beaches.
Cahaba River. This refuge, located east of West Blocton, Bibb County, protects the largest remaining stand of the rare and showy Cahaba lily and is home to more than 60 endangered or threatened plant and animal species, including the endangered Cahaba shiner, goldline darter, round rocksnail, and cylindrical lioplax snail. Established in 2002 to protect and manage a unique section of the Cahaba River and the land adjacent to it, the refuge currently encompasses more than 3,500 acres and 3.5 miles of river. The refuge is also home to stands of the threatened native longleaf pine, Alabama’s official state tree.
Choctaw. This 4,218-acre refuge lies 80 miles north of Mobile on the Tombigbee River in Mobile County. The refuge was established in 1964 from land associated with the Coffeeville Lock and Dam and is a mixture of lowland lakes, sloughs, and bottomland hardwoods. The primary purpose of the refuge is to provide habitat for nesting wood ducks and to serve as a protected wintering area for migratory waterfowl. More than 10,000 ducks and geese winter here, and each year some 200 broods of wood ducks are successfully reared. The lowlands are important habitat for numerous neotropical migrant and wading birds. Most of the refuge is susceptible to annual spring flooding from the Tombigbee River, and a large portion of the refuge is accessible only by boat. Bald eagles sometimes nest in the refuge, and wood storks spend the summer months raising young there. Resident animals include white-tailed deer, turkeys, raccoons, American alligators, and beavers.
Eufaula. The Wood Stork and Young Eufaula refuge is located along the Chattahoochee River in east-central Alabama and west-central Georgia, with its centerpiece being Lake Eufaula, an impoundment of the Chattahoochee River. The refuge was established in 1964 and consists of 11,184 acres in Barbour and Russell Counties in Alabama and Stewart and Quitman Counties in Georgia. In addition to the lake, numerous streams and wetlands provide a variety of aquatic and upland habitat. The refuge provides habitat for wintering waterfowl and other migratory birds and a place for wildlife-oriented recreation for the public. Lake Eufaula is a popular fishing destination for regional anglers. Turkeys, hawks, owls, rabbits, squirrels, otters, coyotes, bobcats, and beavers reside in the refuge throughout the year. Eufaula also provides protection for endangered and threatened species such as the bald eagle, wood stork, American alligator, and peregrine falcon.
Fern Cave. This 199-acre refuge in Jackson County, near Gurley, Madison County, was established in 1981 to protect federally endangered gray and Indiana bats. Fern Cave contains the largest wintering colony of gray bats in the United States, and more than one million bats hibernate there annually. Cave fish, cave crayfish, and cave salamanders have been found in the vast subterranean maze that lies under the surface of the refuge. Multiple levels and miles of passageways feature stalactite- and stalagmite-filled rooms. The forested surface acreage conceals four hidden cave entrances and hosts the endangered American hart’s-tongue fern, from which the cave gets its name.
Grand Bay. Alabama shares this refuge with neighboring Mississippi. Grand Bay’s 10,188 acres straddle the state line and are located along the Gulf Coast. Along with Bon Secour NWR and Mississippi’s Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR, Grand Bay NWR is part of the federal Gulf Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The refuge was established in 1992 to protect one of the largest remaining expanses of wet pine savanna habitat. It is a patchwork of wet pine savanna, maritime forest, tidal wetlands, salt marshes bays, and bayous. Protected species that inhabit the refuge include the threatened gopher tortoise, the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, and the endangered brown pelican.
Key Cave. Located near the city of Florence in Lauderdale County, Key Cave NWR was established in 1997 as an outpost of Wheeler NWR to protect critical habitat for the endangered Alabama cavefish, a small, eyeless fish found nowhere else in the world. It is also an important brooding site for some 40,000 endangered gray bats. Two species of sightless crayfish also inhabit Key Cave. The refuge’s 1,060 acres of hardwood forests and grasslands provide habitat for a variety of birds, including northern harriers, grasshopper sparrows, dickcissels, short-eared owls, loggerhead shrikes, and northern bobwhites.
Mountain Longleaf. This 9,000-acre refuge near Anniston, in Calhoun County, was established in 2003 on the grounds of the former Fort McClellan army base after the military installation was closed. The refuge protects old-growth and second-growth longleaf pine forests, which normally are found only in the Coastal Plain. The protected nature of the base and the frequent fires from artillery have allowed a remnant of the original longleaf pine forest to thrive on the slopes of the refuge’s Choccolocco Mountain, one of the highest ridges in Alabama at 2,063 feet.
Sauta Cave. Sauta Cave Sauta Cave, set among 264 acres north of the Guntersville Reservoir in Jackson County, was purchased in 1978 to protect the habitat of resident populations of federally endangered gray and Indiana bats. The cave is a summer roosting site for more than 300,000 gray bats and a refuge (called a hibernaculum) for overwintering gray and Indiana bats. The land surrounding the cave also hosts a federally endangered plant, Price’s potato bean. Sauta Cave has an interesting history, having been used at various times as a saltpeter mine during the Civil War, a nightclub during Prohibition in the 1920s, and a fallout shelter during the 1960s.
Watercress Darter. Alabama’s smallest NWR, at 23 acres, is located near Bessemer in Jefferson County and was established in 1980 to protect the endangered watercress darter, a small, colorful fish that measures about two inches in length. Thomas Spring, a quarter-acre pond, is one of only a handful of springs in central Alabama where the fish was known to exist. The federal government constructed a second pond on the site in 1983 to provide additional habitat. In 1988, 100 watercress darters were relocated from Thomas Spring into this newly constructed pond, resulting in the establishment of a second successful population.
Wheeler. Alabama’s largest national wildlife refuge is located in north Alabama along the banks of the Tennessee River near Decatur in north-central Morgan County. The refuge was established in 1938 to provide habitat for wintering and migrating birds. It lies on the eastern edge of the Mississippi flyway, a major bird migration route, and its 34,500 acres attract thousands of wintering waterfowl each year. The state’s largest duck population and significant populations of geese and sandhill cranes overwinter here, and in recent years, visitors have sighted the extremely endangered whooping crane. In addition to migratory waterfowl, the refuge hosts 47 species of mammals, 74 species of reptiles and amphibians, 115 species of fish, and 285 different species of birds. The refuge’s bottomland hardwoods, open backwater, wetlands, and fields are home to 10 federally listed endangered or threatened species as well as to American alligators, bobcats, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, beavers, and bald eagles. The Beaverdam Creek Swamp, a National Natural Landmark, is part of this refuge and was so designated for its unique inland tupelo gum tree plant community.