Big Muddy wildlife refuge celebrates land acquisition

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:39 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Hal James takes a picture of Thomas Bell, John Burk and Tom Shryock at a dedication ceremony of more than 500 acres of land. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service combined with Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation to purchase the land.

COLUMBIA — After nearly 10 years of vying for a portion of wetlands adjacent to the Missouri River, the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge was able to acquire 502 acres of the river's flood plain. Big Muddy is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Although the purchase was made in 2007, a ceremony was held Tuesday evening to commemorate the partnership that led to the successful acquisition of the land at the Overton Bottoms Unit, one of nine units that make up the Big Muddy refuge.

Standing next to the black stone commemorative marker on a hill overlooking the purchased land, Big Muddy refuge manager Tom Bell said the wildlife service is grateful for the generous assistance from the National Wild Turkey Federation and Ducks Unlimited for helping in the purchase of the property.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchases land only from willing sellers, Bell said. The approximate cost of the land was $860,000, funded in large part by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is appropriated by Congress to individual agencies, according to Bell.

"We aim for conservation, but with this particular refuge, we want to reconnect the Missouri River to the flood plain," Bell said. "Otherwise, it would be levied and farmed over, and although there's nothing wrong with that, but if that's the only thing you have, then it can be devastating."

Bell mentioned the massive flooding of the Missouri River in 1993. That flood scoured the floodplain's grounds and left large ponds that now contain abundant fish such as largemouth bass, crappie, carp, gar, and catfish, according to the Big Muddy refuge's Web site

Both national organizations, the turkey federation and the duck organization depend on a large base of volunteers who not only organize the funding for conservation and preservation projects for wildlife, but also build extensive networks with government agencies such as the National Wildlife Refuge in collaborative tasks. Many of those attending the ceremony were members of both organizations.

John Burk, the turkey federation's regional biologist, said the federation chapters work more often on local efforts. He said the project is important for both organizations.

"Land acquisition is something that's here forever," Burk said.

Ducks Unlimited tends to fund projects to protect nesting wetlands north of Missouri and the winter havens south of the state. Missouri provides an important feeding stop between the two areas. 
Tom Shryock, state chairman for Ducks Unlimited, said that the duck organization raised over a million dollars. With partnerships such as this one, he said, they are able to better leverage the money spent. 

"Ducks Unlimited does not buy land unless it's a critical situation," Shryock said. He also added that this refuge is more of a sanctuary for deer, turkey and other small game than for ducks.  The importance of the wetlands, however, should not be underestimated, Shryock said, since ducks and people alike can benefit from the huge water basin.

In an email, Shryock said this project will benefit waterfowl and hundreds of wildlife species.

"The real story here, in my opinion, is that the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge will benefit people forever in water retention and water quality," said Shryock.

Park Ranger Tim Haller said the Overton Bottoms Unit covers about 3,000 acres, while the other units dot the length of the Missouri River from Kansas City to St. Louis covering nearly 10,000 acres.

While pointing to the refuge's stretch of dense forest, Haller said that "all of this 15 years ago was farmland. Fifteen years ago, if we were looking out, all we would see would be corn and soy fields."

A volunteer committee member for the turkey federation, Brandon Fowler, said he enjoys the land for more than hunting. "What brings me out here is the land," Fowler said. "My wife doesn't hunt, but we enjoy coming out and watching the birds and ducks."

"He's the muscle that makes the fundraising possible," said Burk about members such as Fowler. "Without him, we don't have banquets. Without banquets, we don't have money. And without money, we can't fund projects like these."

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