The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

7 hours ago

Wonderland Under Warrior returns at Alabama’s Rickwood Caverns State Park

(Rickwood Caverns/Contributed)

Alabama State Parks, a division of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, this week announced that one of the state’s unique holiday traditions has returned this year at Rickwood Caverns State Park.

The park’s centerpiece cave system will once again be home to “Wonderland Under Warrior,” a magical experience in which the cave is transformed into a festive underground winter wonderland. Holiday light displays and decorations accentuate the cave’s natural formations.

“Wonderland Under Warrior is one of the top attractions at the park every year, and it’s the perfect way to get into the holiday spirit,” Rickwood Caverns State Park superintendent Chris Bentley said in a statement. “We are extremely pleased to keep this holiday tradition going for all of our guests.”

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Wonderland Under Warrior runs through December 30, operating from 2:00 until 8:00 p.m. CT on the days it is open, and the last tickets will be sold each day at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $10 per person.

A complete schedule can be found on the park’s website here.

All regular cave tours are suspended for the duration of “Wonderland Under Warrior” and will resume in 2021.

Cave visitors are required to wear masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and guests are required to maintain a social distance of six feet from anyone not in their household. Capacity restrictions will be enforced by park employees in the cave, nature center and gift shop and must be followed by guests. Hand sanitizing stations are also located throughout the cave, and park staffers reportedly disinfect frequently.

The cave temperature remains at 62 degrees year-round, so visitors should not be dissuaded by cold days. The park’s gift shop will be decorated for the holidays and offer unique gifts, ornaments, snacks and hot cocoa to purchase.

Further, “Wonderland Under Warrior” features an out-and-back self-guided tour, so the 110-step ascent at the end of the normal cave tour is not required. This makes the walk easier for anyone with mobility concerns and small children. The entire walk is about a mile in the cave.

“Wonderland Under Warrior has become one of the top holiday attractions in the entire parks system, and we know many visitors look forward to it every year,” commented Greg Lein, director of the Alabama State Parks System. “The parks system offers unique experiences from the state’s Gulf Coast beaches to the gorgeous scenery in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northeast Alabama. Diving deep into Rickwood Caverns is a holiday experience unlike any other, and it represents another way to offer our guests something truly adventurous and memorable.”

Rickwood Caverns State Park is located just off Interstate 65 in Warrior, about 30 miles north of downtown Birmingham and about 75 miles south of Huntsville.

You can view a video of Wonderland Under Warrior from last year below:

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 days ago

With piers closed, Thornton takes to Alabama’s beautiful beaches

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

With a nickname like Pier Pounder, David Thornton of Mobile has seen his favorite pastime disappear with 2020’s double whammy of hurricanes. Hurricane Sally took the Gulf State Park Pier out of commission, and Hurricane Zeta destroyed Cedar Point Pier in Mobile County.

“I guess you can call me the Pier-less Pounder because the only pier open in the Mobile area is the Fairhope Pier, and it’s closed at night because they don’t have any lights,” Thornton said.

However, Thornton has a major backup plan, thanks to Alabama’s beautiful beaches and surf teeming with a variety of fish species.

Thornton said he’s been hooked on fishing in the surf since he was 12, and a trip to Gulf State Park Pier with his buddy, Tom Allenbach, sealed his loved for pier fishing.

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“Tom was fishing a live alewife under a float,” Thornton said of the trip to Gulf State Park Pier. “He told me to hold his rod while he caught more bait. I asked him how I would know when I got a bite. He said, ‘You’ll know.’ About that time, I felt a tug and thought I was hung on somebody else’s line. Then the fish took off, stripping drag. It was about a 10 ½-pound king, and that was when I really got hooked on pier fishing.”

But for now, fishing from shore is where Thornton will be until a portion of Gulf State Park Pier is reopened sometime late this winter.

Before Thornton decides where to pursue fish in the surf, he gathers information about weather, water, wind and tide conditions.

“Know what the weather is going to be like with the marine forecast,” he said. “It’s not that I look for any certain conditions; it’s just that I want to know what to expect and adjust. I look at the tide tables. Then I’ll decide where I’m going and what I’m going to fish for based on the conditions. Ideal conditions would be 10-15 mph winds either onshore or sideshore with waves 1 to 3 feet. For shore fishing, it’s really better with a little chop on the water. I think it stimulates the fish to bite more readily. Also, you have current flow. If there is a current working over the sandbar, you want to pay special attention to the tide, especially if it’s close to a pass. If it’s too rough or too calm or with very little tidal movement, the fish don’t cooperate as well. If I’m going to fish a neap tide, I’m going to fish close to the pass.”

When Alabama’s tides come off a neap cycle, the tide swings will sometimes reach more than 2 feet from low tide to high tide. That’s when Thornton likes to be fishing the open beaches.

“That tide movement stimulates the bite,” he said. “When I go, I’m looking for a longshore sandbar. The longshore sandbar is usually 100 to 150 yards off the beach. But there are places where the longshore sandbar swings in closer to the shore. The best places are where the sandbar is within casting range. That creates a pinch point where the fish are going to be moving from one trough to the next. When the bar is closer, you can use lighter tackle and target a variety of fish. I’d much rather catch a big fish on light tackle and take a long time than catch a small fish on heavy tackle.”

Thornton casts to the inside edge of the sandbar to start the day and adjusts his casts according to the bite.

“The fish tend to feed along the edges,” he said. “They use the sandbars for protection from predatory fish. The area from the shore out to the first bar is where most of the fish live. That old adage is that 90 percent of the fish live in 10 percent of the water. It’s the same in the surf.”

Speaking of light tackle, Thornton truly goes as light as possible. Where some folks show up on the beaches with long rods with 20- to 30-pound line, Thornton fishes with line in a range from 4-pound-test to 15-pound-test. He uses his 10- to -12-foot rods with the 15-pound line for the long casts. He takes his 7-foot rods and light line for fishing closer to the shore. However, anything can bite any of his rigs.

“I’ve hooked 20-pound black drum within 10 feet of the shore, and I’ve caught whiting and pompano out by the sandbar,” he said. “The mistake I see most people make is they’ll cast out as far as they can, pop the rod in a rod holder, plop down in a chair and wait for a fish to bite. If they don’t catch anything, they say the fish weren’t biting that day. Odds are, they overcast the fish. With light tackle, I feel like I have just as much fun catching 14- to 16-inch whiting and an occasional pompano as somebody heaving this heavy tackle and waiting hours between bites.”

Thornton uses No. 4 Kahle hooks and a variety of sinkers from pyramid to no-roll egg-shaped. If he wants the bait to remain stationary, he sticks with the pyramids. If he doesn’t mind the bait moving a little, he’ll use the flattened egg sinkers or coin sinkers.

“If I’ve got a side wind that is creating current, I can also use that slow-moving bait to cover more ground,” he said. “That way, I’m not just throwing darts at the fish. If your bait is moving too fast, you may have to go to a pyramid.”

Thornton suggests forgoing the ready-made pompano rigs and sticking with lighter line.

“If you’re targeting one- to two-pound whiting and one- to three-pound pompano, even 20-pound line is overkill,” he said. “Light line allows the fish to give account of themselves. They’re really feisty for their size. When you match the tackle with the fish, you’re going to have a lot more fun, and I really think you get more bites. It seems like every time I step down in tackle size, the number of bites I get practically doubles. Whiting and pompano can be particularly line-shy at times.”

Thornton considers the Florida pompano as his target species, but he is happy as can be with what he calls the “byproduct” of pompano fishing, which is whiting, a silvery species with a black patch at the top of its tail. Known as Gulf kingfish elsewhere, whiting don’t get much larger than two pounds but are delicious table fare. Thornton said Southern kingfish, known locally as ground mullet, are common in the surf at Dauphin Island.

“Whiting, by far, is the most prevalent fish in the surf,” he said. “But you never really know what you’re going to catch.”

As far as bait, Thornton uses fresh dead shrimp with the heads and tails pinched off when he has run out of ghost shrimp, a crustacean that lives in the surf that is caught using a suction pump commonly called a slurp gun to extract the creatures from the sand. On our outing last week, the fish definitely showed a preference for ghost shrimp. Thornton also uses a product called Fish Bites, a product with different scents infused into the material.

Thornton said shore anglers will be able to catch whiting and a few pompano throughout the winter. When the water gets a little colder, sheepshead will show up around all the jetties. The pompano limit in Alabama is three fish with a minimum total length of 12 inches. The limits on sheepshead are 10 per person with a 12-inch fork length minimum. Whiting have no size or creel limit.

The best time all year to fish the surf is in the spring, according to Thornton, who keeps readers apprised of coastal fishing conditions with columns in Great Days Outdoors and the Mullet Wrapper.

“Late March through April and possibly early May is the time to fish the beach, especially for pompano,” he said. “With the lockdown this past spring, we didn’t get to fish for pompano until May. The Gulf State Park Pier was still open during that time, and the pompano catches were astounding.”

Thornton is definitely going to celebrate when the Gulf State Park Pier reopens a portion of the pier about 40 feet past the middle section with the restrooms.

“I’ll be ecstatic,” he said. “The cruelest irony of all was the pier had scheduled a grand reopening the day that Sally smashed it. I was supposed to give a little talk that day, and I was going to reminisce about walking out on the new pier after many people had been waiting five years for the pier to be rebuilt after Ivan. It took my breath away. I remember on the old pier, we would often say, ‘If it was just 100 yards longer.’ Then they built it 200 yards longer. The fishing was just outstanding. When I walked out on the pier before Sally I couldn’t help but think about all those people who helped me become a better fishermen, people like Harley Rogers and so many others. For most of the people who are regulars on the pier, they have the attitude of ‘pay it forward.’ When you see somebody struggling, you try to help them with their tackle or bait. Then you see their whole attitude change. You don’t see that everywhere. That’s one of the things that makes Gulf State Park Pier special.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

6 days ago

Nearly $26M of Fish and Wildlife grants coming to Alabama’s Gulf Coast

(Alabama Power Foundation/Contributed)

Governor Kay Ivey announced Thursday that $25,970,000 million worth of projects on Alabama’s coastline have been funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).

The projects, which include a major investment in Dauphin Island and a headwaters restoration of Bon Secour River, were developed in partnership with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR).

“These projects represent a continuation of Alabama’s coastal recovery from the 2010 BP Oil Spill. They will restore some of what was damaged, while at the same time making our coastal communities more resilient,” remarked Ivey in a statement.

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The largest of the investments announced Thursday is worth $19,970,000 and will go towards restoring habitat around the Dauphin Island Causeway.

“[T]he Dauphin Island Causeway project is an example of multiple agencies working together to restore Alabama coastal habitat and at the same time create resiliency in our coastal community. Mobile County, with support from Mobile Bay NEP, is doing an excellent job leading this project,” stated ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship in a release.

All projects in Alabama are being funded out of the NFWF’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund (GEBF), a pool of money created by BP as recompense for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The NFWF was created by Congress but exists as an independent charity that seeks to enhance and protect the availability of America’s outdoor environments. It is governed by a 30-member board of directors appointed by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Alabama has now received GEBF support for 38 projects worth nearly $241 million. All projects granted through the GEBF have been selected after extensive work done by the ADCNR.

Blankenship added Thursday that his department was “pleased and excited with this team effort making the most of this opportunity to protect and manage Alabama’s natural resources. We are appreciative of the work to implement all these valuable projects for the betterment of Coastal Alabama.”

“I thank our partners at NFWF and ADCNR for their continued diligence in leading this effort,” Ivey concluded.

The full list of projects, per the governor’s office:

Bon Secour River Headwaters Restoration – Phase II, $5,100,000
This award supports the implementation phase of an effort to improve approximately one mile of streambank and construct a 70-acre wetland system designed to treat urban runoff that is adversely affecting downstream fisheries. The constructed wetlands will address nutrient, sediment and debris flow to improve water quality in the lower Bon Secour River and Bon Secour Bay. This section of the Bon Secour River encompasses major headwaters and the main channel of the Bon Secour River immediately downstream from the City of Foley.

This project addresses the top priority identified in the previously funded Bon Secour Watershed Management Plan. Specifically, the plan identifies the need to address urban runoff from the City of Foley as one of the top priority activities for restoring watershed health.

Wolf Creek Headwaters Restoration – Phase I, $500,000
This project will complete the engineering and design phase of a project to improve water quality within the Wolf Creek headwaters. This project area is the largest source of artificially high sediment runoff to Wolf Bay, an Outstanding Alabama Water. The project would consist of approximately 7,000 linear feet of stream restoration/stabilization, 36 acres of riparian wetland restoration, and a constructed wetland with floodplain enhancement encompassing the major headwaters of Wolf Creek. The headwaters restoration, stabilization, floodplain and wetland enhancement will reduce pollutant and stormwater impacts to Wolf Bay from increased stormwater runoff that is the result of rapid development of the City of Foley over the past two decades. Increased floodplain functionality during storm events will facilitate improved hydrologic function and prevent the harmful effects of future erosion within the watershed.

Dauphin Island East End Beach and Dune Restoration – $1,400,000
This project will complete engineering, design, and permitting for the restoration of nearly a mile of beach and dune habitat on the east end of Dauphin Island, a 14-mile long barrier island off the coast of Mobile County. The initial project concept is to place an estimated 1.2 million cubic yards of sand along 4,800 feet of shoreline to restore 35 acres of beach and dune habitat. Additional measures, such as planting and sand fencing, would be included as appropriate to assist in retaining sand on the restored beach and dune system. In 2016, the Town completed the first phase of this priority beach restoration project using Coastal Impact Assistance Program funds.

Dauphin Island Causeway Shoreline and Habitat Restoration Project – Phase II, $18,970,000
This project will design and install breakwater and create intertidal marsh habitat while providing protection against future erosion and storm damage. In April 2020, Phase I of this project, a $9,392,000 award, was funded award under GEBF to create and protect important coastal habitat, reducing vulnerability of the only access route between south Mobile County and Dauphin Island. Project activities will be co-funded through NFWF’s Emergency Coastal Resilience Fund which was funded under the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2019 (P.L. 116-20), allowing grants to be awarded through a partnership between NFWF and NOAA. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) was instrumental in the passage of this critical funding legislation.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

1 week ago

Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association launches ninth annual Big Buck Photo Contest

(Alabama Black Belt Adventures/Contributed, YHN)

The Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association (ALBBAA) on Wednesday announced the kickoff of its ninth annual Big Buck Photo Contest.

“Deer hunting in Alabama, and especially in Alabama’s Black Belt, is a time-honored tradition that we are proud to promote through this annual competition,” stated Pam Swanner director of ALBBAA.

“The real trophy is the time spent with family and friends making lifelong memories, so we want to encourage time afield in our bountiful and scenic region of the state,” she continued.

The Black Belt includes the following counties: Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Crenshaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lee, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Monroe, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Russell, Sumter, Tuscaloosa and Wilcox.

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To enter, contestants must upload a photo of a buck harvested within the 23-county Black Belt region during the 2020-2021 whitetail deer season to the contest website here.

The entry that receives the greatest number of votes will be announced as the winner once the season closes on February 10. Photo contest winners from the previous two years are not eligible for entry, per a release. Votes are allowed once a day, per entry, per IP address.

The photo contest winner will receive an original 16×20 whitetail deer photo mounted on canvas by award-winning, nationally credited wildlife photographer Tes Jolly, along with a $100 gift card to Bass Pro Shops. Jolly, owner of Jolly’s Outdoor Visions located near Tuskegee, is a freelance wildlife photographer and writer specializing in whitetail deer and wild turkey.

Alabama features one of the longest whitetail deer seasons in the country that begins with bow season starting in mid-October followed by the opening of gun season on Saturday, November 21, in the majority of the state.

Before heading to the woods, ALBBAA reminds all sportsmen and sportswomen to refer to the rules and regulations — and purchase a hunting license — through the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) to support the crucial conservation work being done across the state. Hunters are also reminded to report their harvested deer via ADCNR’s Game Check.

RELATED: Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association names winner of 2020 Best Fish Photo Contest

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 weeks ago

Parks officials working to reopen portion of Gulf State Park Pier

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Gulf State Park on Alabama’s beautiful Gulf Coast will be a beehive of activity now and into the future.

One of the priorities is to get a portion of the popular Gulf State Park Pier open after Hurricane Sally collapsed a 175-foot section near the end octagon.

Although no estimate is available as to when the collapsed portion can be replaced, Alabama State Parks officials are working diligently to open a segment of the pier as soon as possible.

Lamar Pendergrass, State Parks’ South Region Operations Supervisor, said Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) bridge inspection divers inspected the pier after Sally to make sure the standing portions of the pier are structurally sound.

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“The divers also inspected and took pictures of the collapsed portion of the pier,” Pendergrass said. “We’re going to have assess what is the most feasible way to proceed with that section. That hasn’t been determined at this point. We have damage to the main water line, a 4-inch line that went all the way to the octagon. The electrical service that supplied the up lights and down lights has been damaged.”

The good news is the electrical supply to what Pendergrass calls the T, where the restrooms are located in the middle of the pier, is intact.

“We already have the lights in that area on and working,” he said. “After inspection, it looks like we will be able to open about a 40-foot section beyond the T. We will section it off and have it available for fishing.”

The contractor who had just finished a $2.4 million renovation to the pier days before Sally hit is on-site and working to get the pier repaired.

“We have the contractor who did the remodel under contract,” Pendergrass said. “He has a team of individuals working on the pier to put back the panels that were displaced during the storm.”

The 1,540-foot pier was built with panels designed to blow out to mitigate the damage to the structure. More than 200 of those panels were recovered after Sally.

“Those workers are replacing those panels, repairing the ones that were damaged and building new ones for the panels we weren’t able to recover,” Pendergrass said. “This week, the crew that installed the handrails should be on-site and start repairing the handrails that were damaged. The handrails around the restroom area took a good bit of damage.”

Pendergrass said a definite timetable on when the work might be completed is hard to determine right now.

“It’s very hard to say,” he said. “We’re really just scratching the surface. The electrical and water have to be addressed. We’re probably looking at winter. But we don’t want to put a date on it. We’re definitely going to open as soon as possible.”

The aforementioned renovations to the pier included replacing the pine decking and handrails with ipe (pronounced ee-pay), a hardwood from South America with a projected lifespan of 30 years, compared to 10 for pine.

The grand reopening of the pier was scheduled the day that Sally made a direct hit on the Alabama coast with 105-mph winds and a forward motion of 2 mph, which caused the coast to be pummeled for hours and hours with hurricane-force winds.

Pendergrass said Parks officials heard from many pier users during the renovations and in the aftermath of the storm.

“A lot of people in this area and people who visited the area are very disappointed they don’t have the pier to come to and fish and share the fellowship with the other fishermen,” he said. “But we have the support of those people who know that when we do open the pier back up, we’re going to have a very nice facility.”

In addition to the repairs to the pier, a new $3.6-million project is starting at Gulf State Park that encompasses several areas in the 6,150-acre park.

Additional parking spaces are being added near the pier and The Lodge at Gulf State Park.

Significant upgrades are also planned in other areas of the park, including around Lake Shelby and the Beach Pavilion to the east of the main park complex.

With the exception of trail access, Lake Shelby will be closed to the public during the renovations, which are expected to be completed by the summer of 2021.

The Lake Shelby area enhancements will include a modern playground with three areas for different age groups, separate small and large dog parks with covered seating and water fountains, new bathrooms, improved parking, a new tram stop and a bikeshare station for public use within the park.

A parking area and tram stop will be constructed across from the middle beach walkover where South Campground Road intersects East Beach Boulevard.

The Beach Pavilion will be upgraded to better accommodate volunteers, staff, weddings and other events. Also, traffic signs will be updated throughout the park.

“We are pleased to announce these improvements to Gulf State Park,” Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said. “This project has been in the works for several months. Thankfully, we were able to remain on schedule as we also continue the extensive cleanup and repairs associated with Hurricane Sally. In recent years this park has become a model for how to blend environmental sustainability with public access to our beautiful coastal landscape. We are looking forward to sharing these new enhancements with the public in the coming months.”

Pendergrass said work is underway to repair damage from Sally in the Gulf State Park Campground.

“We lost several electrical distribution panels during the storm,” he said. “We should have those repairs done this week. We are checking each panel box to make sure the breakers are good and there is no water damage. We want to make sure if campers do hook up, they will have electricity. We plan to open the entire campground up this week. That will give us 500 sites instead of the 175 we had available after the storm.”

Pendergrass said the work continues to clean up after Sally. Weeks later, Hurricane Zeta came close enough to the Alabama coast to add to the cleanup work.

“We’re riding daily through the park, picking up limbs and debris after the storms,” he said.

Pendergrass was especially appreciative of the Alabama State Parks Strike Teams that came from other parks around the state to help at Gulf State Park after Sally.

“Individuals from strike teams from almost ever park came to help us out,” he said. “The Lakepoint Strike Team came twice. They cut trees and removed debris. They did a tremendous job of helping this park out. This is just something we do when we have an emergency or tragedy; we send help to each other. And it’s greatly appreciated.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

2 weeks ago

Alabama Power, Southern Company support research to fight bat-killing disease

(Alabama Bat Working Group/Contributed)

Bats can be scary to some people. But far more frightening is the impact a virulent bat disease is having on the furry, flying mammals.

White-nose syndrome (WNS) is a highly contagious disease that has killed more than 6 million bats during the past decade. It is now confirmed in 34 states, including Alabama. It’s caused by Pseudogymnoascus destructans, a fungus that affects hibernating bats.

The fear and concern around WNS was one of the prominent themes of Bat Week, which concluded this year on Halloween. It’s an annual celebration designed to raise awareness about these misunderstood, slightly creepy critters and the initiatives underway to conserve the more than 1,400 species of bats.

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Alabama Power biologists have been closely involved in studying the bat population in the state. The company and its parent, Southern Company, also support ongoing efforts to the slow the spread of WNS and aid the recovery of bats affected by it.

“A lot of people don’t realize how important bats are – here and across the globe,” said Jeff Baker, a senior biologist at Alabama Power.

Bats are effective pollinators, with some plant species relying wholly on bats for survival. But equally important are bats’ voracious bug-eating powers. Estimates put the value of the natural pesticide services bats provide at more than $3 billion annually – protecting and bolstering agricultural production, including the Southeast’s important timber industry.

Locally, the Alabama Bat Working Group has been conducting surveys to track bat populations and gauge their health. Alabama Power is among the participants in annual “bat blitz” surveys that take place across the state, along with state and federal agencies, academic institutions and volunteers.

In addition to loving caves, some species of bats use man-made structures such as mine shafts and culverts as places to hibernate. WNS has been documented in bats that use both natural caves and man-made structures.

Over the past two winters, the bat working group has been surveying culverts in the state with the goal of identifying new places where bats are hibernating, so they can be monitored over time and tracked for the spread of WNS. Culverts are places to potentially test new treatments for WNS that scientists may not want to introduce into natural caves.

To help combat WNS, Alabama Power and Southern Company have been partnering since 2017 with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to support the Bats for the Future Fund. The fund supports research aimed at reducing the spread of WNS and helping affected bat populations recover.

“Supporting the Bats for the Future Fund is a great opportunity to continue our company’s legacy of cooperative conservation,” Baker said.

Learn more about bats by visiting Bat Conservation International’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 weeks ago

WFF reports no CWD positives; Testing continues

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

With the nation focused on the coronavirus, very little has been heard about the status of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Alabama.

Chuck Sykes, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, has some cautious good news about the spread of CWD in the South.

“Despite what you read on Facebook, just because COVID-19 hit, CWD didn’t go away,” Sykes said. “We just haven’t been talking about it as much. We’re still taking samples. We had a target of about 1,630 samples last year, and I think we took nearly 1,700, covering all counties, with no positives.”

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Last year, Mississippi and Tennessee reported new positive CWD tests. That cautious good news is the infections are not spreading toward Alabama.

“Right now, we’re staying basically status quo from last year,” Sykes said. “It looks like the cases in Tennessee and Mississippi are moving northwest. We have no new zones, nothing any closer than what we had last year. And nothing has tested positive in Alabama, so we’re on the same protocol as we were on last year.”

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/CWD-Info and scroll down the page to view the Alabama CWD Strategic Surveillance and Response Plan, which establishes a CWD Management Zone around the location of a CWD positive deer and implements specific response protocols dependent on the distance from the CWD positive. Positive deer in Pontotoc County, Mississippi, and Hardeman County, Tennessee, have prompted a response affecting Alabama’s surveillance activities. Portions of five counties in Alabama – Colbert, Franklin, Lamar, Lauderdale and Marion – are within 50 miles of those positives. Sampling and testing for CWD have been increased substantially in those counties.

CWD has only been shown to affect members of the deer family, including whitetails, mule deer, elk, moose and caribou. CWD is a fatal neurological disease, a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), which causes lesions on the brain. As the disease progresses, the affected animal will develop holes in the brain and eventually die. Infected animals may be infected for 5 years or longer before they exhibit symptoms.

The first case of CWD was discovered in Colorado in 1967. The disease spread very slowly, only taking in a 15- to 20-county region on the Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming borders in the next 30 years. In the late 90s, CWD was detected in Saskatchewan. That incident was traced to captive elk from South Dakota that were transported to Canada. CWD continues to spread and now has been found in 26 states and three Canadian provinces. South Korea, Finland, Norway and Sweden also have detected CWD. South Korea’s CWD-positive animals can be traced back to the live transport of captive deer from infected facilities in Saskatchewan. Over the past 20-plus years, the movement of live cervids or infected carcasses by humans has contributed significantly to the increased spread of the disease.

Regulations that banned the importation of live deer into Alabama have been in effect for many years. The regulations were amended a couple of years ago to prohibit the importation of deer carcasses from all states and countries. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/cwd for regulations about importing deer parts from out-of-state.

Regulations allow for the importation of certain parts of the deer but not whole carcasses. Permitted parts include:

  • Meat from the family Cervidae (white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose, fallow deer, red deer, sika deer, caribou, reindeer, etc.) that has been completely deboned
  • Cleaned skull plates with bare attached antlers, if no visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present
  • Unattached bare antlers or sheds
  • Raw capes, if no visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present
  • Upper canine teeth, if no root structure or other soft tissue is present
  • Finished taxidermy products or tanned hide

The WFF Enforcement Section has also implemented procedures to intercept the potential illegal importation of deer carcasses into the state with surveillance along state borders in an effort to keep CWD out of the state. The “Don’t Bring It Home” campaign highlights the ban on the importation of deer carcasses.

The disease is primarily spread by body fluids such as saliva, urine and feces. The infectious agent, called a prion, can even survive outside the animal’s body.

No evidence exists at this time that CWD can be transmitted to humans. However, caution is recommended when consuming deer. The prion that causes CWD cannot be eradicated by cooking.

The CDC recommends that hunters who harvest deer in areas with CWD should have the deer tested for the disease before consuming the meat. If the test comes back as CWD detected, the CDC recommends the proper disposal of the venison. That venison should not be thrown out by the individual; rather, contact a WFF official or enforcement officer who will ensure its proper disposal.

Last year, WFF set up self-service stations with freezers for hunters to drop off deer heads for sampling and testing. At the self-service locations, hunters must first remove the deer’s head with 4-6 inches of neck attached. For bucks, antlers can be removed at the base of each antler or by removing the skull plate before bagging the head. Hunters will then place the head in the provided plastic bag and tie it closed. They will need to complete all sections of the Biological Sample Tag and attach the tag to the bag with a zip tie. Hunters should remove and keep the Biological Sample Receipt located at the bottom of the Biological Sample Tag before placing the bagged head in the freezer. All materials needed to drop off a sample are provided at each freezer location. Hunters can check the results of their test by visiting www.outdooralabama.com/cwd-sampling-results and entering the six-digit number found on the Biological Sample Receipt.

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/cwd-sampling for an interactive map of self-service locations throughout the state.

“We were a little disappointed about the number of samples dropped off at the self-service freezers last year,” Sykes said. “Hopefully this year it will be better. We’ve got good relationships with a lot of hunting clubs, processors and taxidermists that are helping us. A lot of our DMAP (Deer Management Assistance Program) participants are helping us. But it would be nice to get more random samples from the public.”

In 2018, WFF provided funds for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) to purchase equipment to perform CWD testing. The equipment is housed at ADAI’s Thompson Bishop Sparks Diagnostic Laboratory in Auburn. The equipment and technician have been certified to test for CWD by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and can test up to 90 samples per day.

To assist with these efforts, WFF recently created the Sick Deer Report. The public can report deer acting abnormally or a deer that has died for no apparent reason at www.outdooralabama.com/wildlife-related-diseases/report-sick-deer or by calling one of WFF’s district offices. Reports should include contact information for the person making the report, location of the deer and the symptoms observed. A member of the WFF staff will follow up to determine what may have caused the illness or strange behavior and see if the deer should be tested for CWD. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/hunter-resources/law-enforcement-contacts for information on the five WFF district offices.

Research into CWD received a significant boost recently when the U.S. Congress passed America’s Conservation Enhancement Act. Included in that legislation is the creation of the National Chronic Wasting Disease Task Force within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

4 weeks ago

Feral hog population in Alabama shows no decline

(ADCNR/Contributed)

Despite an increased effort to mitigate the impact of feral hogs in Alabama, the hog population shows no indication of decline.

“Unfortunately, it appears their numbers are continuing to increase,” said Matt Brock, Technical Assistance Wildlife Biologist with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division. “I’m basing that on talking to people and on reports from areas that haven’t had hogs before.”

Brock is also basing that theory on the number of feral hogs harvested by hunters during the 2019-2020 season. Disturbingly, that total exceeded the number of white-tailed deer taken during the same period. According to the WFF’s annual hunter survey, it was estimated that about 218,000 deer were harvested. The number of feral hogs taken was estimated at about 255,000.

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According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), feral hogs cause more than $1.5 billion in damages to property, agricultural interests (crops and livestock), native wildlife and ecosystems as well as cultural and historic resources.

Brock said as part of the Farm Bill passed by Congress, a large, comprehensive program is underway in Alabama to try to stop the spread of feral hogs, particularly in areas of heavy agriculture. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is conducting pilot projects in the Alabama Black Belt, the Wiregrass and on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

The Black Belt Project focuses on four watersheds covering almost 85,000 acres in Sumter County. The Wiregrass Project consists of 17 watersheds in Geneva, Houston and Henry counties. The Gulf Coast Project encompasses eight watersheds totaling almost 182,000 acres in Escambia and Baldwin counties.

The projects include purchasing feral hog traps with the latest technology, which allows the traps to be triggered remotely.

“They are trapping on the properties of private landowners with a long history of hog problems around agricultural areas,” Brock said. “They are offering this service to those private landowners in the designated watersheds and have hired several technicians to operate the traps. The end goal is not just to remove those hogs but to leave those landowners with the resources and knowledge to continue those trapping efforts once the pilot project ends. That’s a pretty big deal, getting that education out to the landowners to understand how to use the latest technology. I’m very glad to see that.”

One of the problems with feral hogs is the invasive species’ ability to rapidly reproduce. Brock said a typical litter is four to eight piglets, but he has heard of litters as large as 14. Some feral hogs can reach sexual maturity at six months. The gestation period is about 112 to 115 days.

“The sows will generally be close to weaning their litter before being bred again,” he said. “In theory, sows can have three litters every 14 months. Most of the time, they have one or two litters a year. Another thing is the piglets have a very high survival rate. They have very few predators because momma can be pretty aggressive toward anything that messes with her little ones.”

Brock said the bulk of today’s feral swine population in Alabama originated from hogs brought to America in the Mobile area by the Spanish in the early 1500s. He said he has seen some indication that some areas have hybrid stock that includes Eurasian wild boar characteristics.

“That area around Mobile is one of the first places in the United States to have hogs,” he said.

“It’s ironic to me that those hogs pretty well stayed in that drainage for about 400 years until we had gas-powered vehicles,” Brock noted, referencing the fact that the spread of feral hogs was very limited until humans started to transport the swine to other areas. Currently, feral hogs have been reported in all of Alabama’s 67 counties.

“A lot of their movement in the past 30 to 50 years has been in the back of a livestock trailer and then released,” Brock said of a practice that has been outlawed in the state.

“Now, once a hog becomes a person’s possession by either capturing or hunting, it cannot be released alive,” he said. “It must be killed on-site.”

Brock said before the COVID-19 restrictions, WFF partnered with other agencies to actively educate the public on the feral swine problem.

“We had landowner workshops planned that we had to cancel,” he said. “We are going to try to get those rolling again as soon as possible. I think the workshops go a long way in providing knowledge and resources landowners need to take care of some of these hog problems.”

Brock said the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) has purchased several remote-activated traps that have been deployed on public lands – wildlife management areas (WMAs) and special opportunity areas (SOAs) with feral hog populations.

“Part of the management on those WMAs and SOAs with hog problems is to try to efficiently remove as many of those animals as quickly as possible,” he said. “This trap design can be extremely effective in accomplishing this.”

For the private landowners with hog problems, Brock said the NRSC also has a program that will help reimburse the cost of equipment and resources to deal with the hogs under certain conditions.

“If three landowners in close proximity sign up, the NRSC has some cost-share programs for those landowners to collectively purchase a trap,” he said. “The landowners have to document the hog damage before implementation of the program. Then after the trapping efforts, the landowners are reimbursed for a significant portion of the equipment.”

For more information regarding this program, contact your local NRCS office.

As shown by the harvest numbers, hunters obviously remove quite a few hogs annually from the landscape, but hunting has proven to be ineffective at reducing total numbers of hogs.

“The most efficient method at reducing the population in a certain area is to remove entire sounders (family group),” Brock said. “People who are using this remote-activated design trap are seeing effective population control as a result of whole sounder removal. That is the best method available.”

It’s also important when trapping to make sure the entire sounder is inside the enclosure when the trap is triggered.

“Hogs are highly territorial,” Brock said. “Older sows develop home ranges where they forage and take their young. If you can remove a group from one area and start going along the landscape, removing groups as you come to them, you are creating a void that no other hogs are in currently. Some people trap in a shotgun approach, but if you move along the landscape in a strategic fashion, you can do real well in removing sounders entirely. That is what we teach at the workshops.”

Brock said modern technology allows trappers to be much more efficient at removing sounders.

“Monitoring with cameras and live-stream video has completely changed the game,” he said. “I can’t stress enough the importance of monitoring to know what you’ve got. If you’ve got 100 hogs on the landscape and you catch 35 of them, you think you’ve done a really good job. But if you’re not monitoring them with cameras, you wouldn’t know you left 65 out there. Not only that, you also educated them. Cameras, especially with live-streaming, have really changed the game. When hogs come to the feed, they’re constantly moving, with some running others in and out of the trap. It’s a social hierarchy thing. With just still shots, some hogs may be outside the trap when you trigger it. With live-stream, you only have a one- to two-second delay when you drop the trap. You actually get to see what’s going on at the time you drop.”

For those who prefer to leave the hog removal to someone else, WFF has a list of nuisance trappers at www.outdooralabama.com.

For those who just need information on trapping hogs, WFF has a technical assistance biologist in each district who can provide assistance by assessing the hog damage to the property and recommending a trapping program.

Brock said landowners who provide the panels to build an enclosure can purchase a remotely activated gate for about $2,000. For a complete trapping unit, expect an outlay of between $5,000 and $10,000.

Hiring a professional feral swine trapper will run between $25,000 and $40,000 annually. That may seem like a lot, but Brock says you must keep costs in perspective.

“I had a farmer tell me, he estimated the hog damage in 2019 at $140,000,” Brock said. “He looked at what it was going to cost to hire someone to trap. It was $25,000 to $28,000. To him, that was a minor expense compared to that $140,000 loss.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

1 month ago

Weekends open until private anglers meet snapper quota

(David Rainer/Contributed)

If the recent blustery weather caused anglers to forgo a red snapper trip during the weekend extensions, don’t fret. Scott Bannon, Director of Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD), assures that private recreational anglers will have the opportunity to harvest the remaining quota.

The original plan was for a three-day extension from October 10-12, but Hurricane Delta foiled that plan. With snapper remaining in the quota, Alabama Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship and Bannon amended the extension to include Saturdays and Sundays until the quota is projected to be met.

“Remember, we are fishing to the pounds available in the annual quota, not to the dates,” Bannon said. “We expected a relatively low turnout for that three-day weekend. The only day with decent weather was Monday. We decided to leave that weekend open if anybody had the opportunity to go.”

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What MRD officials discovered through Snapper Check was a few brave anglers decided to venture out in the rough seas. Bannon said there were Snapper Check reports on Sunday and Monday of the Hurricane Delta weekend.

“That was not the weather I would have fished in,” Bannon said. “Although the weather was better Monday, some people in smaller boats went out and turned around. They didn’t feel safe or comfortable. I think that was a wise decision, but they will get opportunities later. Looking at the public access boat ramps, there were a few trailers, but they were not full. I think there are some Hurricane Sally residual effects. People are still trying to clean up from the impacts, whether it’s their homes, docks or boats. Some marinas are not capable of putting boats in the water. Some of the dry storage facilities are damaged. Wet slips are not available. The two hurricanes are playing a factor in the reduced effort. I think it will be a while before the Gulf Coast is back up to full fishing force.”

Bannon said the best way to manage the season was to leave it open on weekends until the quota is met.

“This time of year, we will continue to have challenges with the weather,” he said. “People will have multiple conflicts with their schedules based on kids being in school and hunting seasons. We know the weekend effort won’t be like summertime weekends. We will keep up with the harvest through Snapper Check and post it on our webpage. We will try to give people as much notice as we can about when the quota is anticipated to be met. But I think it will take several weekends now.”

As with any hurricane makes landfall along the Alabama coast, the storm can cause artificial reefs to be displaced, which was the case with Sally.

“We are already aware that some lighter-weight material, like the chicken transport devices, were moved,” Bannon said. “Some of the state’s nearshore reefs have been moved. But they are relatively close to where they were deployed. The Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) has identified some spots that have moved. We’re doing some surveys in our nearshore reef zones to determine the impact, and we’ll do some checks of offshore reefs later. Pyramids and larger items that have been there for a while and are planted in the bottom, they’re not going to move. Some items have turned over, but that’s fine. They still provide structure. We don’t think it will negatively impact the fish. I’ve also seen some social media posts where people have been looking for spots and located them nearby.”

More good news for red snapper anglers came recently when preliminary results from the Great Red Snapper Count were presented to the U.S. Congress. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby was among the legislators who pushed a $10 million appropriation through Congress to fund the research.

“I have not seen the full report, but the estimate from the Great Red Snapper Count is that the snapper population is about three times larger than what was previously thought,” Bannon said. “One of the interesting portions of the report is the number of red snapper that are not on natural or artificial reefs. The number of snapper that are out on the flat areas, so to speak, are much higher than previously thought. Those fish are not accessed by anglers, so those fish will continue to be there based on the current fishing methods.”

Bannon said the Great Red Snapper Count information will be used by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to create an interim stock assessment for red snapper. The Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University was the lead for the Great Red Snapper Count. The work off the coast of Alabama was led by Dr. Sean Powers of the University of South Alabama.

“We’re anticipating hearing about the interim assessment in the near future, and that will impact the 2021 season for all sectors – commercial, for-hire and private anglers,” he said. “But this will not mean a three-time increase in the quota. The data from the red snapper count isn’t the only factor that goes into an interim analysis. It’s an important factor but only one source of data that goes into the analysis. However, this is excellent news. It is something we had anticipated. We expected the method used would reveal there were more snapper in the Gulf. It was a very important study, and Senator Shelby’s office was instrumental in providing funding for that.”

Bannon said the results of the Great Red Snapper Count may relate to a number of other fish species in the Gulf as well.

“What we learned from this is whether we need to change some of the analysis methods for all species – the way we conduct stock assessments,” he said. “Do we need to continue to adjust our assessments closer to this model to ensure we’re getting accurate stock assessments.”

Bannon said the research that MRD and The University of South Alabama conducts in Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zones, which cover more than 1,000 square miles in the Gulf, was the genesis of the methods used in the Great Red Snapper Count.

“Because of the research done in our reef zones, we have said for the last eight years hat we had a very good understanding of the abundance of fish off of Alabama,” he said. “Now that we have that information from across the Gulf, it is good to know that the snapper stock is in better condition than some people anticipated. It’s a very positive outcome for red snapper anglers.”

Bannon said private recreational anglers can pick the days best for them to take advantage of the red snapper weekend extensions.

“We’re fishing to the quota,” he said. “If it’s not comfortable or safe to go, don’t go. The fish are still in the bank, so to speak. We will keep Saturdays and Sundays open until we anticipate the quota being met, and that could be as soon as the end of this next weekend.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

1 month ago

Sec. of Interior Bernhardt adds handicap accessible path in Cheaha State Park to National Trails System

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has added the Bald Rock Boardwalk in Alabama’s Cheaha State Park to the National Trail System.

The Department of the Interior made the announcement Thursday in a press release. The Bald Rock Boardwalk, also known as the Doug Ghee accessible trail, is one of several dozen additions to the National Trails System made public this week.

“I encourage Americans to get outside, enjoy our incredible public lands and visit a nearby national recreation trail. Spanning more than 83,000 miles, larger than the interstate highway system, the National Trails System provides easy access to a wide variety of outdoor experiences,” Bernhardt said in a release.

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The Trump administration has now added 49 trails to the national system, totaling 1,645 miles of space for Americans to enjoy the outdoors.

The National Trails System was created by Congress in 1968. It aims to establish “trails in both urban and rural settings for people of all ages, interests, skills, and physical abilities,” according to its website.

“American Hiking Society welcomes the designation of 30 new National Recreation Trails that will create enhanced recreational opportunities for hikers and all types of trail users,” remarked American Hiking Society executive director Kate Van Waes in a statement.

“Each trail selected to receive this honor must support a diversity of users, reflect its region, and be among America’s best trails, all qualities that benefit the hiking community,” she added.

The Department of the Interior described the newly designated Alabama trail as:

Located in Cheaha State Park, the Doug Ghee Accessible Trail (Bald Rock Boardwalk) is a 0.3-mile boardwalk trail that allows users of all abilities to journey through the enchanted hardwood forested foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Interpretive signs along the accessible boardwalk unfold the history, culture, and natural history of Cheaha Mountain. This unique boardwalk invites and enables all guest to embrace the natural wonder and beauty of the Bald Rock Overlook located at the end of the boardwalk.

The official state website for Cheaha state park and its offerings for hikers can be accessed here.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

1 month ago

New pavilion at Alabama’s Turkey Creek Nature Preserve expands education options

(Turkey Creek Nature Preserve/Contributed)

Turkey Creek in north Jefferson County is home to not only one, but three endangered species of fish, including one found nowhere else on the planet.

Meanwhile, the nature preserve just north of Birmingham that bears the same name is drawing ever-larger crowds who come to enjoy the creek’s pristine waters, the preserve’s hiking and biking trails and the popular swimming hole that stays refreshingly cool on even the hottest summer days.

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New pavilion coming to Turkey Creek from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Protecting the preserve’s delicate and important habitat while accommodating people who want to enjoy its natural beauty is a delicate balance. So is finding ways to cover the ongoing costs of maintaining the preserve.

A new classroom pavilion under construction at the 466-acre Turkey Creek Nature Preserve will hopefully provide a revenue source sustaining the preserve while also offering an eco-friendly amenity to further the preserve’s education mission. A recent grant under the public-private Five Star program will support the project in a way that protects the preserve – and the rare creatures that inhabit it.

“The new pavilion – we are calling it an Alabama forest classroom,” said Roald Hazelhoff, director of the nonprofit Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College, which has been managing Turkey Creek Nature Preserve for more than a decade.

“The pavilion will allow us to educate more people about why this place is so special – and so deserving of ongoing protection and conservation,” Hazelhoff said. “And the Five Star grant will help us ensure the pavilion not only enhances the experience of people coming here, but that the project doesn’t adversely affect what we are trying to protect.”

The preserve, near Pinson, opened in 2009 following a community effort to protect the area. For decades, the creek and its natural waterfall was a party spot for locals. Later on, Jefferson County considered building a new jail at the site, which sparked community protest and efforts to save the nature area. Local activists proposed that the land be purchased by the state’s Forever Wild Land Trust, as other organizations, including the nonprofit Freshwater Land Trust and the Southern Environmental Center joined the effort.

The preserve protects one of the most biologically diverse habitats in the region, with the creek supporting three tiny, federally endangered fish species: The Vermillion Darter, Watercress Darter and Rush Darter. The Vermillion Darter is found only at Turkey Creek.

In addition, the preserve is home to a protected species of turtle; two protected species of bats; and the rare eared coneflower.

Alabama Power and its parent, Southern Company, are partners in the Five Star program, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Five Star grants support projects that help protect and improve urban and coastal waterway habitats, and the animals and plants that rely on them.

Construction is underway on the multipurpose pavilion, which will accommodate up to 120 people. The project required clearing roughly 2 acres at the site, which will include an entrance and parking for people with disabilities. The Five Star grant will offset the environmental impacts of the project by helping pay for plantings of native trees and shrubs, installation of a rainwater harvesting system, and the creation of a 0.3-mile “Return of the Natives” trail. The trail will feature native plants and interpretative signage, and connect the pavilion to an existing outdoor amphitheater on the banks of Turkey Creek.

The Southern Environmental Center previously partnered with Five Star at the nature preserve to install permeable parking and a bioswale at the entrance to Turkey Creek Falls, located adjacent to the popular swimming hole. The permeable parking and bioswale help slow and filter rainwater from the road and parking area before it reaches the creek. The previous Five Star grant also paid for the removal of about 9 acres of invasive plants – part of a project to improve habitat for native bats.

In addition to being able to accommodate up to 120 students for educational programs, the new pavilion will be an event space. Proceeds from rentals will bolster the nature preserve’s finances.
As part of the pavilion project, another bioswale – essentially a natural area designed to retain and filter rainwater – will be constructed, while the new rainwater harvesting system will gather runoff from the pavilion’s roof in a 1,400-gallon cistern. The captured water will be reused at the pavilion and supply a new drip-irrigation system for native plants.

he pavilion project is expected to be completed by year’s end.

Like many outdoor parks and greenspaces, Turkey Creek Nature Preserve experienced a surge in visitors at the onset of the pandemic, forcing new restrictions at the site. As cooler autumn weather sets in, safety precautions remain in place for visitors. And while it is free to visit the preserve, donations to the Southern Environmental Center are encouraged to help pay for upkeep, security and other expenses.

To learn more about Turkey Creek Nature Preserve and to support its continued operation, visit https://turkeycreeknp.com/.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 month ago

Researchers helping Alabama oyster farmers survive COVID-19 setbacks

(CORE/Contributed)

A new program is helping oyster farmers hurt financially by the COVID-19 pandemic while simultaneously improving oyster reefs on the Gulf Coast.

The Concerned Oystermen Restoring Estuaries (CORE) program buys surplus, oversized oysters from farmers and redeploys them in wild reef habitats in need of restoration. LaDon Swann, director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium (MASGC), said the pandemic-related closings of restaurants left Gulf Coast oyster farmers with thousands of unsold oysters and an immediate cash crisis.

“We feel bad for the farmers and wish we didn’t have to do this, but when you have farmers saying that they are going to go out of business, you got to do something,” Swann said. “That’s what Sea Grant is all about.”

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CORE program helping oyster farmers survive COVID-19 from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

By the time restaurants started opening back up, many of the oysters had grown too big for restaurants to serve. That’s where MASGC stepped in, buying the “big uglies” and then placing them in areas needing more oysters.

“We’re doing restoration but at the same time we’re helping farmers,” Swann said. “It’s truly been one of those win-win type opportunities where the farmers win, the resource wins – everyone wins here.”

The first pickup happened Aug. 4 when more than 22,000 oversized oysters were purchased from four Alabama farmers and deployed on a Gulf Coast fishing reef just south of Coden. Rusty Grice, an oyster aquaculture business specialist at Auburn University’s Shellfish Lab at Dauphin Island, said the Alabama Marine Resources Division (AMRD) picked the spot because it is one of several locations AMRD is trying to rehabilitate.

“The wild reefs in Alabama have struggled for a variety of environmental reasons over the past few years, so just having more animals in the water and more shell in the water gives them an opportunity to recover,” Grice said. “It’s a little bit painful for the farmers to deploy oysters, but it’s farming, and any crop you grow, there are often challenges, such as what to do if you have excess production, so this was a nice fit for that.”

The AMRD, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (MDMR) and the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) helped MASGC get the program launched. Grice said the partnerships are critical to the program’s success.

“Oysters are among the most highly regulated food products,” Grice said. “The coordination between the Alabama Marine Resources Division – what you’re doing with the oysters and where you’re putting them, has to be documented. They were very helpful.”

The program was initially funded by MASGC but received a boost when the Alabama Power Foundation supplied additional funding to support participating Alabama farmers.

“It’s allowed us to expand this opportunity beyond what we initially had planned to do,” Swann said. “I can’t thank the Alabama Power Foundation enough for the support they have provided. It’s just great.”

Grice said more oyster deployments are planned in October or November.

“Since those initial deployments, we’ve had communications from those farmers and others who are looking forward to having another round of deployments,” Grice said. “It won’t be too long from now, because of the immediate needs of the farmers.”

Swann believes the program will be a long-term success because of the farmers.

“I’ve always found that if you want to take a research idea and see it improved, put it in the hands of farmers,” Swann said. “A lot of the innovation occurs at the farm level. They’re really smart people and they’re really innovative. We’re going to adapt and a lot of how we go forward will probably be based on input from the farmers.”

To learn more about oyster farming in Alabama, visit alaquaculture.com.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

1 month ago

Wood duck mates determine migration routes

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama, YHN)

In the waterfowl world, Alabama’s most abundant species, the wood duck, is not known for migrating long distances.

It turns out, the wood duck migration patterns follow a “boy meets girl” scenario. Boy meets girl; girl flies home; boy follows.

When the Minnesota waterfowl season opened, four wood ducks that were banded in Alabama were harvested more than 1,000 miles from home.

Seth Maddox, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Migratory Bird Coordinator, said one of the birds harvested in Minnesota was 6 years old, banded in 2014 as a hatch-year male. The other three were banded in recent years.

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“What is interesting in our data is that our males, especially juvenile males, will pair up with migrant females and follow them back to their natal nesting ground,” Maddox said. “Our females tend to hang around where they were hatched. Whatever female a male pairs up with, he follows her.”

Alabama has been banding wood ducks since 1956. During that time, WFF has banded about 28,000 wood ducks. The band recovery rate is about 7.7 percent, which may seem low, but Maddox said that is about the national average for all banded waterfowl.

“We have recovered a little more than 2,100 bands,” Maddox said. “If you look at waterfowl overall, the band recovery is between four and five percent. Some birds are smarter than others, and others die before they are harvested. Recovery rate is pretty low for most species. About 50 percent of the wood duck bands are recovered in Alabama.”

Although the aforementioned birds traveled as far as Minnesota, Maddox said most wood ducks don’t make such a long journey.

“The states next to or near us harvest more than any other states,” he said. “We do get a good bit of band recovery in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi.”

While it’s fairly rare to have bands recovered as far away as Minnesota, Maddox said bands have been recovered in 30 different states since the program’s inception.

“We’ve had bands recovered from Maine to Florida, in Texas, North Dakota and three Canadian provinces – Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec,” he said. “More males are harvested out of state, which goes back to our males pairing up with migrant females. The males likely get killed near where the female is from or on the way back south during the next winter.”

Getting a firm count on the wood duck population is difficult for waterfowl managers because of the bird’s habitat preferences.

“We can’t count wood ducks from a plane like we do with other species,” Maddox said. “Wood ducks live in beaver swamps and wetlands. That’s why we have a banding program, so we can track harvest rates and survival and look at age ratios. With this data, we can assess what the population is doing so we can set seasons and bag limits because we can’t count them from the air.”

WFF’s banding work is conducted during the heat of the summer. Maddox said biologists look for a suitable clear spot on the edge of a pond or river. The ducks are baited with grain, and game cameras are erected to monitor the activity at the bait site over a two-week period.

A 30-foot by 60-foot rocket net is then set up and fired when the ducks congregate at the bait site. WFF officials remove the ducks as quickly as possible from the net and put them in crates before they start banding the birds.

“Our banding runs from July until the end of September each year,” Maddox said. “It’s a hot job, but it provides significant data. We age and sex the birds before we band them. We’re getting different ages because wood ducks in Alabama will nest up to three times a year. We’re getting adult males, adult females and three different ages of hatch-year birds.”

Maddox said mature wood duck hens will nest in February or March. The clutch of eggs will hatch in about 30 days.

“It takes about 45 days for those juveniles to fledge out and reach flight stage,” he said. “Then the hen will let that first clutch go, and she’s back on the nest.”

After WFF is finished with the banding efforts each September, the data is sent to the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Bird Banding Laboratory.

When hunters harvest a banded bird, the information should be reported to www.reportband.gov and it will enter the USGS’s band repository. The hunter will then receive a certificate of appreciation and information on where the bird was banded. WFF will receive a report from the USGS about where the bird was harvested.

“Overall, mallards are the most banded waterfowl species,” Maddox said. “You’re most likely to kill a banded mallard. Second most likely would be a banded wood duck.”

Alabama hunters will again have a daily bag limit of 6 ducks for the 2020-2021 season. That daily bag limit may include no more than 3 wood ducks, 4 mallards (no more than 2 of which may be females), 1 mottled duck, 2 black ducks, 1 pintail, 2 canvasbacks, 1 scaup, and 2 redheads. The daily bag limit for coots is 15 per day. The daily bag limit for mergansers is 5, only 2 of which can be hooded mergansers. The aggregate bag limit of 5 dark geese (Canada, White-Fronted and Brant) shall not include more than 3 Canada geese or 1 Brant. For light geese (Snow, Blue, Ross’s) the aggregate bag limit is 5. Possession limit is three times the daily bag limit.

Regular season dates for ducks, coots, mergansers and geese are November 27-28, 2020, and December 5-January 31, 2021. The Youth, Veterans and Active Duty Military Special Waterfowl Days are set for November 21, 2020, and February 6, 2021.

“Habitat conditions are looking good,” Maddox said. “It’s been a fairly wet spring and summer for us. There should be lots of water on the landscape and lots of food available. The hatch should have been good this year, so I think we’ll see plenty of wood ducks on Black Friday when the season opens this year.”

With the help of Ducks Unlimited (DU), Maddox said WFF is in the middle of a huge waterfowl habitat enhancement effort.

“This is the biggest undertaking of waterfowl projects the state’s ever done,” he said. “We started in 2019 and put together a list of 15 projects across the state. We’re going to put a little more than $1 million into habitat and restoration work on the wetland landscape in Alabama, from the Tennessee Valley all the way to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. A lot of the projects involve replacing or restoring the water control infrastructure on some of our WMAs (wildlife management areas). We will restore some habitats that have been degraded over the years and putting that back in higher productivity for waterfowl. We will create a couple of new SOAs (Special Opportunity Areas) that will be available for limited-quota hunts for waterfowl in the future in Jackson County and Dallas County.”

Maddox said new pumps and water control gates are being installed at the Jackson County waterfowl area. New water control structures and levees are also under construction at the David K. Nelson WMA near Demopolis.

Survey work will be conducted for the projects that will begin next year at Swan Creek, Swan Creek Greentree Reservoir and in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. The work includes replacing dilapidated water control structures as well as aerial spraying of herbicides in the Delta to control non-native invasive species like Chinese tallow (popcorn) trees and giant cut grass to restore historical open wetlands.

“DU has assisted us with previous projects and is a long-term cooperative partner in conservation,” Maddox said. “In addition, a lot of this would not be possible if hunters weren’t purchasing state duck stamps over the years. We don’t get any General Fund tax dollars, so all of this work is paid for through license sales, duck stamps, Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration funds and partners like DU.”

“It’s good to see work being put on the ground through the use of these funds for the future of waterfowl in Alabama and waterfowl hunters across the state.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

2 months ago

Don’t get complacent about hunter safety

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Although the number of hunting accidents has held steady for the last several years, Captain Marisa Futral doesn’t want Alabama’s hunters to take anything for granted during the state’s lengthy hunting seasons.

Futral, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Hunter Education Coordinator, said accidents for the past five years have averaged about 20 per hunting season, which she considers encouraging but not the ultimate goal.

Of the 22 accidents during the 2019-2020 season, WFF staff had reports of eight non-fatal firearms accidents, one fatal firearms accident, 10 non-fatal treestand accidents and three fatal treestand accidents.

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“Of our non-fatal firearms accidents, half of them were self-inflicted,” Futral said. “The other half was failure to properly identify the target. The one fatality was failure to identify the target during turkey season. We really need to emphasize properly identifying the target before you put your finger on the trigger. And don’t get complacent. One of the non-fatal firearms accidents occurred when the hunter tripped and shot himself in the foot. Hunters need to be constantly aware of the muzzle direction of their firearm. Of the 13 treestand accidents, the victims either weren’t wearing safety harnesses or they weren’t attached to the tree. You need to be attached to the tree the entire time you’re off the ground.”

Futral said she can’t stress that last statement enough about being attached to the tree with a safety line from the time your feet leave the ground climbing until your feet touch the ground descending.

“A wide variety of accessories is available to ensure you are attached to the tree at all times,” she said. “Harnesses are much more comfortable than they were 10 years ago. They are easy to put on and are lightweight.”

Of the three treestand fatalities, Futral said the cause of one accident in Jackson County could not be determined. One fatal accident occurred in Fayette County when the victim fell out of his stand, and the other fatality occurred as the hunter was climbing down out of the stand.

Several non-fatal treestand accidents involved failures of straps or other parts of the treestand.

“Always check the condition of your treestands before you attempt to climb,” Futral said. “Treestands left out in the weather can deteriorate quickly.”

WFF Hunter Education urges all hunters to follow 11 guidelines for using a treestand safely:

  1. Always wear a safety harness, also known as a fall-arrest system, when you are in a treestand, as well as when climbing into or out of a treestand. Statistics show that the majority of treestand incidents occur while climbing in and out of a stand.
  2. A safety strap should be attached to the tree to prevent you from falling more than 12 inches.
  3. Always inspect the safety harness for signs of wear or damage before each use.
  4. Follow all manufacturer’s instructions for use of a safety harness and stand.
  5. Follow the three-point rule of treestand safety. Always have three points of contact to the steps or ladder before moving. This could be two arms and one leg holding and stepping on the ladder or one arm and two legs in contact with the ladder before moving. Be cautious that rain, frost, ice or snow can cause steps to become extremely slippery. Check the security of the step before placing your weight on it.
  6. Always hunt with a plan and, if possible, a buddy. Before you leave home, let others know your exact hunting location, when you plan to return and who is with you.
  7. Always carry emergency signal devices such as a cell phone, walkie-talkie, whistle, signal flare, PLD (personal locator device) and flashlight at all times and within reach even while you are suspended in your fall-arrest system. Watch for changing weather conditions. In the event of an incident, remain calm and seek help immediately.
  8. Always select the proper tree for use with your treestand. Select a live, straight tree that fits within the size limits recommended in your treestand’s instructions. Do not climb or place a treestand against a leaning tree.
  9. Never leave a treestand installed for more than two weeks since damage could result from changing weather conditions and/or from other factors not obvious with a visual inspection.
  10. Always use a haul line to pull up your gear and (unloaded) firearm or bow to your treestand once you have reached your desired hunting height. Never climb with anything in your hands or on your back. Prior to descending, lower your equipment on the opposite side of the tree.
  11. Always know your physical limitations. Don’t take chances. Do not climb when impaired by drugs, alcohol or if you’re sick or fatigued. If you start thinking about how high you are, stop climbing.

“It’s so easy to get complacent,” Futral said. “Your family wants you to come home from the hunt safely. Even if you’ve been doing this your whole life, take that extra minute to be safe. Make sure you’re hooked to the tree. Unload your firearm when you cross the fence. If you think it’ll be okay, ‘just this once.’ Don’t do it.”

The one firearm fatality occurred in Jefferson County when the hunter failed to properly identify the target during turkey season and shot a member of the hunting party.

Futral stresses the 10 commandments of firearms safety:

  1. Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.
  2. Control the muzzle of your firearm. Keep the barrel pointed in a safe direction. Never point a firearm at anything that you do not wish to shoot, and insist that your shooting and hunting companions do the same.
  3. Be sure of your target and beyond. Positively identify your target before you fire, and make sure no people, livestock, roads or buildings are beyond the target.
  4. Never shoot at water or a hard, flat surface. A ricocheting bullet cannot be controlled.
  5. Don’t use a scope for target identification; use binoculars.
  6. Never climb a tree, cross a fence or jump a ditch with a loaded firearm.
  7. Store guns and ammunition separately. Store firearms under lock and key, and use a gun case to transport firearms.
  8. Make sure your barrel and action are clear of all obstructions.
  9. Unload firearms when not in use. Never take someone else’s word that a firearm is unloaded. Check yourself.
  10. Avoid drugs and alcohol when hunting or shooting. Even some over-the-counter medicines can cause impairment.

Despite the accidents, hunting remains one of the safest recreational activities available. According to American Sports Data and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, hunting ranks lower than basketball, football, tennis, cheerleading, bicycling, golf and even bowling in the total number of injuries per 100 participants.

Responsible hunters who mentor others in the aspects of safety, as well as the many volunteer hunter safety instructors around the state, have contributed to the high safety record for those who enjoy the great outdoors during the hunting seasons in Alabama.
David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

2 months ago

Despite hurricane, October snapper extension still on

(Craig Newton/Contributed)

Despite the tumult caused by Hurricane Sally’s direct hit, the October 10-12 red snapper season is still on for Alabama’s private recreational anglers.

The hurdle for many of those private recreational anglers is finding a friend with a boat undamaged by Sally’s Category 2 winds and storm surge.

“Our intention is to keep the three-day season in October open,” said Scott Bannon, Director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division (MRD). “If people have the opportunity to participate, they will. We’ll get the numbers through Snapper Check and our surveys after that. Our promise is that we want to use all of the quota we have. If the weather is bad or participation is extremely low, we could look at additional days. I think there will be enough people. Our concern is the south Baldwin folks who were on or near the water suffered an extreme amount of damage. The number of boats that are damaged is possibly in the thousands. That could have an impact on all fisheries. From a fish stock standpoint, we’re going to see the pressure off for a few weeks and that can have some benefits. For the anglers, it’s some lost opportunities.”

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For those boats that are seaworthy and return to Alabama’s unparalleled artificial reef zones, there’s no guarantee their favorite reefs will still be in the same location, according to Dr. Bob Shipp, professor emeritus at the University of South Alabama’s Marine Sciences Department, who has witnessed the destruction of hurricanes Frederic, Ivan and Katrina as well as Sally during his tenure.

“The impact of a storm like this goes surprisingly deep,” Shipp said. “Several studies have been done, and with a major hurricane like this, the impact is well over 100 feet deep. For fisheries, what we have is the ones really impacted are the reef species. We’ve been tagging red snapper and triggerfish for years. What we found is they stay put year after year. They don’t leave the reef until there’s a storm. Then they may show up 50 miles away to another reef. The (fish) movement is usually west to east, but I don’t know if that is something we can count on.”

Shipp said some of the reef structures in the 1,060-square-mile artificial reef zones were likely moved or covered with sand.

“The pyramids that David Walter (Reefmaker) puts down seem to be pretty stable, but the smaller reefs, like the chicken coops, get blown all over the place,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting when things settle down. There’s going to be lots and lots of reefs in different locations and nobody will have the numbers. People are going to be out running over these reefs and building new sets of numbers.”

Director Bannon agreed that reefs built of lighter material will likely be relocated.

“I saw some reports of wave heights of 30 feet,” Bannon said. “That’s a lot of energy dispersed in the nearshore zones. But the pyramids have proven to be pretty resilient. The shape helps keep them in place. If they have been there for any amount of time, they have subsided, or sunk into the bottom, and that helps keep them from rolling. We have seen them turn over before, but they stay in that area. They don’t disappear.”

Shipp wants boaters who venture out to be aware of potential hazards to navigation in displaced piers, pilings and other debris.

“There’s going to be an awful lot of floating debris for a while,” Shipp said. “It always concerns me that these boats with twins or triples (outboards) can go 50 knots. If you hit something going that fast, one can only guess the results. If you’re going to be extra careful, this is the time to do it.”

Bannon added, “Anytime we have a storm event or high-water event, all kinds of debris ends up in the water. You have material blown into the water from the hurricane, and the rain dumped on the rest of the state will cause all sorts of material to come down the high rivers. Boaters definitely need to be aware of this. This is going to be an ongoing concern, potentially for the next couple of years.”

As for the inshore fishing reefs, Bannon said MRD personnel are checking the reefs to make sure the pilings and lighting remain. Sonar surveys are also planned to check that the reef material is intact.

“Our current major concern is for the oyster reefs,” Bannon said. “We are going to try to open in October. Our surveys prior to the storm showed we were going to have a productive season, more than we did last season.”

Last oyster season, about 12,000 sacks of prime oysters came out of Alabama waters. Bannon said the estimate before Sally was an increase in harvest of about two-thirds.

“But with three days of heavy northeast winds and a lot of wave action, we have concerns about the oysters at Cedar Point East and each side of the Dauphin Island Bridge,” he said. “Those oysters may have been moved or potentially covered up. We will be conducting surveys over the next couple of weeks to evaluate that. We are still planning to open up. Additionally, 100 boats of harvesters will also let us know what they are finding after we open up.”

Bannon said a great deal of evaluation work is being done on MRD facilities and boat ramps to determine the repairs needed. The MRD office on Dauphin Island suffered roof and water damage, while the Enforcement Section boat docks were destroyed.

At the MRD Gulf Shores facilities, which include the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center, minor damage occurred with the exception of the loss of four greenhouse-type structures used by MRD and Auburn University. Bannon said the MRD staff is to be commended for ensuring the many brood fish housed in the main facilities were protected.

“The facility is designed to take a certain amount of wind load,” he said. “We have an emergency generator, and it stayed on the whole time. All of the fish in the facility are still intact. I’m very proud of our staff. They were able to go in at various times to make sure the fish were fed, and all the systems were running even though they were without power in their homes and the roads were covered in downed trees and power lines.”

One challenge for the Peteet facility is having access to water with proper salinity levels. Before the storm, a pipeline from the middle of Gulf State Park Pier fed saltwater to the spawning facility. With the tragic damage to the pier, Bannon said that pipeline intake will have to be inspected and repaired if damaged.

“We did store up some water prior to the storm,” he said. “It’s an invaluable asset to have that pipeline. It is extremely unfortunate that a section of the pier collapsed, which impacts so many anglers and tourists in addition to our pipeline.”

The good news is that most of the boat ramps that the state operates only had minor damage.

Bannon said he has major concerns for the status of Alabama’s for-hire fishing fleet (charter boats) because of two factors.

“I don’t know of any marina in south Alabama that was untouched,” he said. “Most were destroyed. This will have a major impact on both the inshore and offshore for-hire fishing. First we had the impact from COVID-19 and now Hurricane Sally. It’s a double whammy. But I would encourage anyone who had a trip booked or is planning a trip to find out if the boats are running. The captains are resilient and industrious, so they are working very hard to provide service to the public. Some charters are already running again, which is awesome.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

2 months ago

Byrne touts study showing ‘up to three times as many’ red snapper in Gulf than previously thought

(B. Byrne/Facebook)

A scientist in the federal government on Thursday summarized preliminary findings of the Great Red Snapper Count that indicate the famous fish species is much more numerous than previously believed.

U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) said in a statement that the data indicates Alabama “can increase opportunities for snapper fishermen without danger to the health of our fishery.”

Byrne represents Alabama’s First Congressional District in the southwest corner of the state, which includes all of Alabama’s coastline.

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The preliminary data from the Great Red Snapper Count was summarized by Chris Oliver, a fisheries assistant administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“[B]ased on this study, there are more red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico than previously thought, possibly up to three times as many,” Oliver wrote on Thursday.

Byrne believes that when the Great Red Snapper Count’s full results are published, it “will make clear what fishermen and scientists across the Gulf Coast have long known – federal data has consistently been wrong and undercounted the true snapper fishery.”

The congressman played an integral role in securing funding for the landmark study, which cost $10 million and took place over several years. The bulk of the scientific work is being done by the Harte Research Institute in Texas. Full results from the project are expected to be publicly available before the end of 2020.

“I am proud to continue fighting federal bureaucrats for Alabama to have the flexibility to make the best decisions to protect our fisheries, and it is now the responsibility of the Gulf Council to use this new and more accurate data to assure that everyone along the Gulf has a rational and appropriate season,” Byrne remarked Friday.

“There are plenty of fish for everyone,” he concluded.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

2 months ago

Racers coming to Alabama for world’s longest annual paddle race

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

Paddlers from across the United States will be racing each other down 650 miles of Alabama’s scenic rivers later this month in the Great Alabama 650, the world’s longest annual paddle race.

The second annual Great Alabama 650 begins Sept. 26 on Weiss Lake in Centre. Racers will have 10 days to reach Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay via the core section of the Alabama Scenic River Trail, the longest river trail in a single state. Laura Gaddy, communications director of the trail, said this year’s race will be different.

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“In 2019, racers with a wide range of skill level and paddling experience competed in the Great Alabama 650, but just three boats made it to the finish line,” Gaddy said. “Even advanced paddlers had to drop out of the race before finishing, underscoring that this race is best suited for paddlers with a proven record. Therefore, this year we limited registration to paddlers who have competed in previous races. As a result, this year’s class of entrants is even more competitive than the inaugural class.”

Paddlers compete in nation’s longest state river trail from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The field features 16 racers, including 2019 overall winner Bobby Johnson, as well as female solo winner Sallie O’Donnell and Alabama native Ryan Gillikin. Johnson covered more than 85 miles per day to finish the race in seven days, 8 hours, 1 minute and 55 seconds.

“Several of our racers have not only completed some of the toughest paddle races in the world, they have won them,” Gaddy said. “Some are or have been professional paddlers. Others have represented the United States in paddling competitions abroad.”

Alabama’s diverse habitats are on full display during the race as competitors experience rushing whitewater, ambling river delta and everything in between. The course includes portages around several Alabama Power dams.

“The Great Alabama 650 elevates our state to the international stage and points to the 600-plus-mile Alabama Scenic River Trail as one of the premiere paddle destinations in the United States,” Gaddy said. “Even the most competitive athletes can be encumbered by the unpredictable challenges presented by the natural world. This is a race to watch.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced race organizers to restrict portages to race staff, crews and racers. Gaddy said there are still plenty of ways for fans to cheer on the racers.

“There are several ways to track the progress of the competitors without leaving your home,” Gaddy said. “Race updates are reported on our Facebook and Instagram accounts, and viewers can visit AL650.com to see our live map, which is updated at least every 2 minutes.”

Viewers can also track the race on social media using the race hashtag #AL650, which may link viewers to behind-the-scene photos posted by racers and their crew members.

“Last year several people with a waterfront property also stood out on their piers to cheer the racers,” Gaddy said. “Some even made signs. When the racers made it to the finish line, they said that the support they received from these spectators helped them to keep going when the race got tough.”

The race, which is sponsored this year by Cahaba BrewingMustang SurvivalMammoth Clothing and Alabama Power, begins Sept. 26 on Weiss Lake in Centre. The prize purse will be awarded across three categories: Male Solo, Female Solo and Team. To follow the progress of the competition or to learn more, visit al650.com.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Pandemic forces changes for Alabama Coastal Cleanup

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

Alabama’s largest one-day volunteer event will be spread out over an entire week this year thanks to the pandemic.

The 33rd annual Alabama Coastal Cleanup will begin Saturday, Sept. 19 and continue through Sunday, Sept. 27. Angela Underwood with the State Lands Division’s Coastal Section of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) said spreading the event out over eight days gives volunteers and staff the space and time they need to stay safe from COVID-19.

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“The biggest adjustment is giving people more time to get out and participate in the cleanup so everybody is not necessarily crowded in one space at one time,” Underwood said. “On the 19th, we are asking groups to send one representative from their group to pick up supplies and wear face coverings while picking up those supplies, then practice safe social distancing while cleaning up, especially if they are around people not from their household.”

2020 Alabama Coastal Cleanup will have a few changes from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The Alabama Coastal Cleanup is part of the International Coastal Cleanup, an annual effort to remove marine debris from coastal waters around the world. In 2019, approximately 5,000 volunteers removed more than 30,000 pounds of trash from Alabama’s coastline and waterways.

“I want to keep seeing people get involved every year and understand the problems we have with marine debris,” Underwood said. “I would love to see some of our volunteers get more involved in the educational aspect of teaching people why marine debris is so detrimental to our natural resources and our economy.”

This year, ADCNR has partnered with Alabama People Against a Littered State (ALPALS) to organize the event. Spencer Ryan, executive director of ALPALS, is looking forward to the event despite changes brought by the pandemic.

“We’re excited about it,” Ryan said. “It’s going to be different. It’s going to be a challenge, but we met early enough to where a lot of good plans were put into effect.”

Ryan said volunteers are needed on land and on the water at cleanup sites in Mobile and Baldwin counties. Participants will receive a T-shirt and basic cleanup supplies. Event organizers will provide masks for up to 5,000 volunteers.

“I’m looking for a huge turnout,” Ryan said. “I think people have been shut up enough. I think they’re ready to do something positive. I think the coastal cleanup each year brings that out in people.”

Organizers are recommending participants use the Ocean Conservancy’s Clean Swell mobile app to tally their debris data. Underwood said this will allow them to receive data faster than in years past.

“We normally hand out close to 5,000 paper data cards each year so that people can take data on the things they are cleaning,” Underwood said. “We don’t want volunteers to handle data cards, and we don’t want to handle them as they come back in. It just seemed like the right thing to do. We still get the data and it’s better on our resources.”

The 2020 Alabama Coastal Cleanup is sponsored by Poarch Band of Creek IndiansAlabama People Against A Littered State (ALPALS)Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR)National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)Ike’s Beach ServiceBebo’sCoastal Conservation Association of Alabama (CCAA)Alabama PowerLulu’sCity of Gulf ShoresGulf Shores Utility BoardCity of Orange BeachRiveria UtilitiesBaldwin EMCFlora-BamaEvonikCompass MediaCoast 360Baldwin County Sewer ServiceAlabama Department of TransportationALFACoca-ColaVulcan MaterialsHonda Manufacturing of AlabamaAlabama Farmers CooperativeAssociation of County Commissions of AlabamaThe Ocean ConservancyGulf Shores/Orange Beach TourismOsprey InitiativeThompson EngineeringWeeks Bay FoundationWeeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and Paddle the Gulf.

“We’re the only state that does it with corporate sponsorship money,” Ryan said. “I think that’s the reason why we continue to be one of the most successful coastal cleanups in the country. Our corporate sponsors make that possible.”

For more information about the coastal zones, zone captains, start times and safety tips, visit AlabamaCoastalCleanup.com or call 251-928-9792. You can also follow the Alabama Coastal Cleanup on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AlabamaCoastalCleanup.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

New deer zones, Hunting 101 and transfer of possession requirement

(Gary Mitchell/Outdoor Alabama, YHN)

Deer hunters will find two new zones in the 2020-2021 Alabama Deer Zones map with season dates that better coincide with deer rutting activity in those areas.

Chuck Sykes, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director, said studies have confirmed that deer in Zone D in northwest Alabama and Zone E in southeast Alabama rut significantly earlier than deer in most of the state.

“We have been conducting annual herd health checks for the past 15 years. Part of the data gathered was the reproductive status of the animal. That data is what helped us move the season into February. We also determined we had deer that rutted early.” Sykes said. “We already knew this from historical stocking data, but it took us a little more time to determine some clear-cut boundaries that would take in those areas. It was pretty easy to set up Zone A and Zone B. We basically just divided the state. But D and E are isolated pockets with early rutting deer, so it took a little more time to get those boundaries defined. Once we got the boundaries defined, it was a logical step to make those new zones.”

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Sykes said in the majority of the state the deer rut considerably later, and it was reasonable to move the season dates to close on February 10. The seasons in Zone D and Zone E start early and end early.

“Because of the early rut in Zone E, some of those deer were already casting (shedding) their antlers,” he said. “So, people who were trying to fill their freezers later in the year ended up shooting 2- and 3-year-old bucks that had cast their antlers, thinking they were just shooting a big, old doe. The season comes in early to cover the rut, but it also goes out early to try to protect those bucks that had already shed.”

Newcomers to hunting or those with little experience can take advantage of the WFF’s Adult Mentored Hunts (AMH), which Sykes said has been tweaked for the 2020-2021 season. Last year, a requirement to take a one-day workshop to be eligible for an AMH event was implemented. This year, potential participants can take a Hunting 101 or Introduction to Deer or Turkey to meet the requirement.

“What we found was we had too many people backing out at the last minute,” he said. “Now, with the introductory courses or Hunting 101, people have to have a little skin in the game. Once you complete the one-day workshop, you will be eligible for one of the three-day, full-blown Adult Mentored Hunts. Last year, our participation rates went through the roof on our three-day hunts. The people who were eligible had already been to the one-day workshop, and they had figured out if they wanted to participate. Our staff puts in a lot of work and effort to make these hunts happen, and to have somebody cancel at the last minute was taxing on us. Plus, I’m sure there would have been a lot of people willing to take that slot on one of the best hunting areas in the state.”

WFF’s Justin Grider, who has been in charge of the AMH events since their inception four years ago, said the new format has achieved positive results in terms of hunter recruitment.

“We’re finding that people who are self-motivated are signing up for the Hunting 101 workshop,” Grider said. “If they are willing to give up a Saturday and learn about hunting and firearms safety at one of our public shooting ranges, we’re finding they are more likely to continue hunting as a result. Whereas, our previous format was come one, come all. Whoever wanted to apply could, and the participants were randomly selected from that pool. But we ended up with attrition rates above 50 percent. We had people who accepted a spot and then backed out. That was very frustrating and a waste of state resources.”

Grider said the new workshops not only confirmed participants’ commitments, they also reached a broader audience.

“With the AMH events, we could only accommodate a few people at a time,” he said. “With the one-day workshops, we can accommodate as many people as want to come. Last year, we had about 40 people at the workshop outside of Birmingham.”

Grider said new this year is an option to attend a species-specific workshop that focuses on deer or turkey.

“When we polled our participants in hunter education, 90 percent said they wanted to hunt either deer or turkey,” he said. “We created those Learn-to-Hunt workshops to satisfy that demand. With that, we cast a really big net to reach a lot of folks.”

The Hunting 101 workshop covers the basics on hunting safety and is geared to small game, like rabbit hunting, squirrel hunting and dove hunting.

“If you come to one of these Learn-to-Hunt workshops, we will obviously focus on the safety components of firearms and treestand safety, and then we will really drill down on the hunting of a specific species. If it’s turkey, we will go into the different turkey calls, the gear we use, patterning shotguns, how to find birds, setting up for a hunt, everything you need to know to hunt turkeys.

“With Hunting 101, you’ll have a chance to shoot a .22 and a shotgun. You’ll learn about what is good squirrel habitat or where you can find some rabbits. Then later in the day, you will have the opportunity to do a little small-game hunting or become familiar with the habitat.”

Either workshop meets the requirement to apply for the three-day AMH events. Grider also said people can come to as many of the workshops as they want.

“These are great opportunities to meet additional staff members, additional mentors and new hunters,” Grider said. “That’s the other component of the one-day workshops – it’s a great opportunity to socialize with other hunters, mentors and staff. And it’s not based on previous hunting experience. If you’ve been an avid deer hunter for 20 years and are interested in turkey hunting, come to that turkey workshop. It’s a great networking tool.”

Anyone interested in one of the workshops or an AMH event can visit www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/adult-mentored-hunting-program and use the interactive map to find a Hunting 101 or Learn-to-Hunt event.

Although there has been little mention of chronic wasting disease (CWD) during the COVID-19 outbreak, Sykes said WFF still needs the assistance of hunters to properly monitor the state’s deer herd.

“We still need people to help us collect samples,” he said. “Just because COVID hit, CWD didn’t miraculously go away. We’re still collecting samples. We’re still doing all of our surveillance. And we need people to participate. We installed those self-check freezers around the state for people to drop off samples. The response from the public was less than desirable. Just because we’re not talking about it every day like we have been for the past couple of years, CWD didn’t go anywhere. There’s still the threat. The numbers in Mississippi and Tennessee are still growing. We have to be diligent in doing our part so if it does hit, we can react swiftly.”

Locations of the self-service freezers are available at https://www.outdooralabama.com/cwd-sampling.

Sykes also wants to remind deer and turkey hunters about the changes to the possession regulation for the upcoming seasons.

Hunters who harvest deer and turkeys must maintain proper paperwork when transferring possession of that animal to a processor, taxidermist or any other individual.

According to WFF’s Law Enforcement Section, the recording and reporting requirements remain the same in Game Check. The update concerns possession of the game by someone other than the hunter.

Whoever is in possession of all or part of a deer or turkey that is not their own must retain written documentation with the name of the hunter, the hunter’s Conservation ID number, the date of the harvest and Game Check confirmation number. The information can be documented on a piece of paper, or a transfer of possession certificate is available in the Alabama Hunting & Fishing Digest or online at outdooralabama.com.

The documentation must be kept as long as that person is in possession of that deer or turkey. The hunter who harvests the deer or turkey is required to enter that animal into the Game Check system and maintain in his or her possession a valid confirmation number for that animal.

Hunters still have 48 hours to report the harvest through Game Check to attain a confirmation number. However, the game cannot be transferred to another individual until a valid Game Check confirmation number has been acquired.

The easiest way to comply with the requirements is to download the Outdoor AL smartphone app. The other is to go to outdooralabama.com and click on “Game Check.” For those who don’t have internet access, WFF has self-service kiosks at all district offices. The 1-800 number is no longer in effect. Visit www.outdooralabama.com/transfer-possession for more information.

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

2 months ago

State Parks online campground reservations system goes live

(Billy Pope/Outdoor Alabama)

Ready for a camping trip to one – or several – of the beautiful Alabama State Parks? Ensuring you’ll have a site for your RV, travel trailer or tent just became much easier when the new online campground reservation system (www.reservealapark.com) went live.

When ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship was appointed by Governor Kay Ivey in 2017, one of his first initiatives was to connect all Alabama State Parks to broadband internet service and to implement an online reservation system for Alabama State Parks. Parks officials spent months integrating the technology into the 17 parks the system will serve, and the new online tool will include a variety of features that park visitors have requested.

“One of the things we were intentional about providing to the customer was to look at a site’s availability for the whole year instead of one specific date range,” said Emily Vanderford, Natural Resources Planner with the State Parks Division. “This new system gives them a longer date range. If they have a favorite campsite, they can look at availability and book it. That is something customers asked for – being able to look at that site’s availability across the year.”

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Another feature of the new reservations system is the ability to book at multiple parks during one online visit.

“If someone is making a road trip and they want to book several parks along the journey, they can do that in one booking,” Vanderford said. “There are some specific features that people have wanted, like saving their bookings into their account to know which sites they’ve stayed on in the past. Also, now you can purchase a gift card and use a gift card in that same system.”

Vanderford thinks people are really going to appreciate this tool with the user-friendly online system.

“But we also want people to know that if they have questions, they can call us, and we will be happy to help,” she said.

State Parks Assistant Director Rob Grant started the work on the new online system with a Request for Proposals (RFP) last fall. After Parks officials selected a vendor, Vanderford took the lead.

“We really appreciate the hard work Emily has done since she took on the role,” Grant said. “After the RFP was finally issued, Emily joined in and ran with it. And our staff has been fantastic in navigating the new system.”

Prior to the new system, nine parks had campground reservations on an online system, but that system linked to each park separately and did not include many features.

“Before, all our parks on the online system, ran their own system,” Vanderford said. “So, if you wanted to make a booking at Cheaha, you had to go to a Cheaha-specific booking link. If you wanted to make a reservation at Lake Lurleen, you had to call that park. With the new system, we have all of the parks we operate on the online reservation system. There were multiple pieces to the puzzle. One was to transfer the old reservation system into the new system. Then we had to prepare all of the campgrounds that had been in the old system for the new system. The challenging part was to do that in a way that provided some uniformity. With this system, everything comes into one centralized source that can make a booking for any and all of our camping parks. That was one of the bigger challenges, making sure we could bring everything into one system and make it work so the customers could pull up the sites and see all of our parks.”

With the new campground reservation tool, campers can go online and find numerous options to plan a trip to Alabama’s most scenic destinations, from the Appalachian Mountains to Mobile Bay.

“Visitors may not know which park they want to go to,” Vanderford said. “With the new system, they might want to camp in central Alabama. They could type in Birmingham, and the system will pull up a list of parks in the area. Then they can book any or all of those parks from the same place. Starting last fall, there was a lot of detailed setup work for pricing and availability. All of those things have to be ready to go so the customers can book online and avoid issues for them or Parks operations. We don’t want customers showing up to campgrounds they’ve made a booking for and the site not be available.”

The 17 parks included in the online booking system had to have upgrades to internet service to ensure the parks’ offices had the computing power to integrate into the new system.

Vanderford said now that parks’ offices have upgraded internet service, the plan is to add more internet access for park users as soon as possible.

“High-speed internet is definitely something we are working towards for the campers, but it may not be distributed throughout the parks for the campers at this time,” she said. “That’s a totally different challenge – making sure there is secure Wi-Fi. We had park offices that did not have enough internet service to run the system, so we had to upgrade those first.”

Grant added, “We have been redoubling our efforts to expand the Wi-Fi access now that we have fiber to each park and the online booking system launched. This continues to be one of Commissioner Blankenship’s top priorities.”

The new campground reservations system has been online since August 19, and it appears there are many happy campers.

“A lot of bookings have been made since the system went live,” Vanderford said. “When you launch a system of this magnitude, there are always some things you have to work out. I’m invested in making sure the customers have the best experience they can. All in all, I think it has gone really smoothly. Customers have been asking for some features for a long time that we can now provide. We have staff all across the state who have done a great job of learning the new system. We will be able to answer questions people may have.”

Grant said the feedback he’s received has been positive.

“We have had some rave reviews from guests who have accessed the new system,” Grant said. “They’ve had some great comments and some suggestions. We’re still tweaking it and making adjustments. We’re adding in more and more functionality, but we’re pleased with the system and the progress we’ve made.”

Currently, the new online system includes campsites and camping cabins. Chalets, cabins and hotel rooms at the parks will remain in the legacy system for the time being.

“We are working to put everything in one system,” Vanderford said. “That’s something we will be working on this fall.”

State Parks Director Greg Lein said that this has truly been a team effort to improve services to park guests, and that the project especially benefitted from the dedication of two Parks employees over the last year.

“Rob Grant spent countless hours in 2019 researching companies and reservations systems to prepare our agency for the formal Request for Proposals and to develop the eventual contract,” Lein said. “Emily Vanderford led our efforts to review proposals and implement the transition process from the old system to the new system over the last 9 months. She has literally lived and breathed reservations over the summer to the point where they are probably part of her dreams. This work could have never been accomplished were it not for Rob and Emily’s leadership and commitment to the project and our park guests, and the support we received from Commissioner (Chris) Blankenship, Deputy Commissioner (Ed) Poolos, and our Information Technology staff.”

To look at the new online booking options, go to www.reservealapark.com. For more information on reservations, please visit www.alapark.com/reservations.

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

3 months ago

New Indiana bat hibernaculum discovered in Alabama

(Darwin Brack/Environmental Solutions and Innovations, YHN)

Biologists have recently discovered a new Indiana bat hibernaculum (a shelter occupied by hibernating bats) in Alabama, bringing the known number of active Indiana bat caves in the state to four. The location is the southernmost known hibernaculum for the species across its range that extends north to Canada.

“The Indiana bat is exceedingly rare in Alabama, and this new discovery continues to improve our understanding of this endangered species in the state,” said Nick Sharp, Nongame Wildlife Biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF). “In 2017, researchers also discovered the southernmost known Indiana bat summer maternity colonies in the forests of the Oakmulgee Ranger District (Talladega National Forest) near Tuscaloosa.”

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The newly identified hibernaculum is located in Shelby County, Alabama, and is closed to the public.

This is the same site where biologists identified a Southeastern bat infected by White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) in 2017. A specimen was collected at that time, and the infection was confirmed by the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center. An ADCNR press release later that year announced the first Southeastern bat confirmed with WNS in the U.S., adding the species to the list of 13 other bat species known to be susceptible to the disease.

A separate bat research project conducted by the USGS National Wildlife Health Center has discovered that the WNS infected bat from Shelby County was misidentified in 2017. It is now believed the WNS infected bat was an Indiana bat. Additional research also suggests the Southeastern bat may be resistant to WNS.

Dr. Jeff Lorch with the USGS National Wildlife Health Center has developed methods to identify North American bats based on their DNA. Many bat species, including the group to which the Indiana bat and Southeastern bat belong, are challenging to identify based on their outward appearance. The use of DNA sequencing helps distinguish between bat species that outwardly look very similar.

When Dr. Lorch examined the DNA of the bat identified as the first Southeastern bat infected with WNS, he discovered its DNA matched that of Indiana bats and not Southeastern bats. He consulted with the biologists who collected the bat, but a re-evaluation of the bat’s external characteristics could not confirm the identity of the species.

In March 2020, biologists returned to the Shelby County location to conduct a new survey of its bat population. To assist in identifying Indiana bats, Darwin Brack, a field biologist with Environmental Solutions and Innovations in Ohio, also took part in the survey due to his extensive experience with the species.

The new survey identified 70 Indiana bats in the cave, the largest concentration of Indiana bats now known in Alabama. The Indiana bats were found in the same location where the WNS infected specimen was taken, in a cold-air sink within the cave. Southeastern bats were also present in the cave, but only found in an upper, warmer part of the cave. Gray bats were also hibernating in the cave.

“We now believe the bat confirmed with WNS was an Indiana bat and not a Southeastern bat,” said WFF’s Nick Sharp. “At this time, there is little evidence to suggest Southeastern bats are susceptible to WNS.”

Since the Southeastern bat was misidentified in 2017, WFF biologists have collaborated with Dr. Joe Johnson of Ohio University and Dr. Andrew Edelman of the University of West Georgia to investigate the susceptibility of Southeastern bats to WNS. Some bats can carry Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), the fungus that causes WNS, but not become infected with the disease.

In 2018, 62 bats from the Shelby County location and one other cave in the region were examined for the presence of Pd and WNS infection. The bats’ wings were photographed under a UV light, which causes tissue infected with Pd to fluoresce. The wings were then swabbed to collect DNA evidence of the fungal pathogen. Lab results from the swabs showed 56 of the bats tested positive for the presence of Pd. However, no bats exhibited fluorescence indicating WNS infection when photographed under the UV light, suggesting Southeastern bats may be resilient to WNS.

WNS has killed more than 6 million bats in North America. Before WNS was discovered in Alabama, more than 300 Indiana bats were known to hibernate within the Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge in Jackson County. In 2019, only 19 Indiana bats were counted at Sauta Cave.

The continuing effort to monitor WNS in Alabama is conducted through a collaboration between WFF and its partners including the USGS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Solutions and Innovations, Southeastern Cave Conservancy, Copperhead Environmental Consulting, Ohio University and the University of West Georgia.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through four divisions: Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. To learn more about ADCNR, visit www.outdooralabama.com.

3 months ago

Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association names winner of 2020 Best Fish Photo Contest

(Black Belt Adventures/Contributed, YHN)

While Lake Eufaula is widely acclaimed as the “Bass Capitol of the World,” it was crappie that helped Blakely Sweatt reel in the winner for this year’s Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association “Best Fish Photo Contest.”

According to a recent release, Sweatt is a seven-year-old girl with special needs.

The winning photo came from Sweatt fishing with her grandparents on the Barbour County lake. She reportedly hauled in several crappie throughout the day, and Danny Waters, her grandfather, submitted the photo.

Waters described Blakely as an enthusiastic young girl who never meets a stranger and loves to be outdoors, especially with a fishing rod in her hand. Waters and his wife have a fishing camp on Lake Eufaula and often spend weekends in the Black Belt with their four grandchildren.

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“There is nothing better than being outdoors with family. These grandchildren are the light of our lives, and we love experiencing the bountiful beauty of nature with them whenever we can,” stated Waters. “Blakely does not allow her special needs to slow her down, she is active and passionate about life, and we were all thrilled when she won the contest.”

Sweatt won a half-day guided fishing trip on Lake Eufaula led by local expert Tony Adams of “Gone Fishing with Tony,” as well as a package of lures and hooks donated by Tru-Turn and Blakemore. The total value of the package was reportedly $350.

“We love seeing families and youngsters enjoying the vast recreational opportunities available within the Black Belt, especially during these times,” said Pam Swanner, director of the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association. “Spending time in the great outdoors is so important, and the Black Belt is the perfect place to encourage a love and appreciation for nature. ALBBAA thanks all of the contestants who entered photos this year and is pleased to honor Blakely for her fish!”

RELATED: ‘Flavors of the Black Belt Trail’ campaign to highlight some of Alabama’s local hidden gems

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 months ago

WFF cautiously optimistic about spread of silver carp

(USFWS/Contributed)

Chris Greene is cautiously optimistic that an invasive fish species that can wreak havoc on reservoir ecosystems has not expanded its range in Alabama’s waterways.

The silver carp, which has done noticeable damage in Kentucky and Tennessee waterways, has been found in Alabama’s Pickwick and Wheeler reservoirs.

Thankfully, the feared spread of the fish, highlighted in numerous YouTube videos for jumping when startled by boaters, has not materialized, said Greene, Chief of Fisheries for ADCNR’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division. Only Pickwick has a moderately abundant population of silver carp, and Greene hopes that population stays contained to that reservoir.

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“We’re relatively new to this situation,” said Greene. “Silver carp haven’t been in Alabama for very long. We’ve only had federal funding specific to Asian carp work since October of 2019, so we’re still in our first year of funding. So far, work has involved the acquisition of field gear, sampling equipment and staff training. We’re still awaiting our primary sampling boat, which we hope to get this fall and do more intense field sampling.”

When the new boat arrives, Greene said it will allow WFF personnel to target the collection of silver carp to determine population dynamics.

“We’ve been sampling with our standard shock boats,” he said. “The new boat will be more specialized with a rectangular frame and net attached to the front of the boat where you can actually trawl through the water. It will still have electrodes hanging down like a standard electrofishing boat. So, you’re moving through the water collecting carp in areas where they tend to congregate. It’s a learning experience. We’re learning from other states like Kentucky and Tennessee. They have been doing this a whole lot longer than us. Hopefully what we learn from them will make our sampling more effective.”

Because of the abundance of silver carp in their rivers and reservoirs, Kentucky and Tennessee rely heavily on commercial anglers to remove silver carp from their systems. Greene said those states even subsidize commercial anglers to remove silver carp to make it economically feasible.

The good news for Alabama is silver carp have had a limited range since the first one was detected in state waters about five years ago.

“Our limited field sampling has not yielded any silver carp outside of Pickwick Reservoir in Alabama,” Greene said. “From what we have been able to determine from angler catches, the farthest upstream location where silver carp have been confirmed by a commercial fisherman in Alabama is Wheeler Reservoir. Angler reports have been infrequent in Alabama. Most of those have come from Pickwick Reservoir. So, we believe the leading edge of where we have a moderately abundant population is Pickwick.”

Greene said WFF Fisheries encourages anglers to report any silver carp catches or sightings.

“We ask any anglers who are out on the water to let us know if they see a silver carp,” he said. “They are our eyes out there. We can’t always be on the water, so we ask anglers who see any silver carp or bighead carp, please report those to asiancarp@dcnr.alabama.gov.”

Greene asks that reports, locations and photos of silver and bighead carp be sent to that email address.

In an effort to deter the spread of the invasive fish, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) issued a new Wild Baitfish Regulation that deals with the capture of live bait in Alabama waters and restricts the movement of that bait to other water bodies.

“We enacted a regulation in Alabama to reduce the spread of Asian carp,” Greene said. “Young Asian carp closely resemble other live baitfish that are commonly used by anglers – skipjack herring, gizzard shad and threadfin shad. If we have anglers going out throwing cast nets and catching several species and taking these to other water bodies, it could increase the spread of Asian carp.”

The regulation states that if anglers catch bait on a specific body of water, that bait cannot be transported live to another body of water. It also restricts the import of live, wild-caught baitfish from other states.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is considering several methods to control the spread of Asian carp, including fish barriers at 10 locks controlled by the TVA. One type of fish barrier under consideration is a Bioacoustics Fish Fence (BAFF), which utilizes a combination of sound, light and air bubbles. This type of barrier is installed at Barkley Lock and Dam in Kentucky and is currently being studied for its effectiveness in deterring Asian carp. Other types of barriers used for Asian carp include the use of carbon dioxide or electricity. TVA is conducting environmental impacts on the deterrents to minimize the impact on native species.

TVA is also considering adjusting river flow rates during potential Asian carp spawning periods, which are usually during high-water events. Studies have shown that Asian carp eggs are only semi-buoyant and will sink to the bottom and die with low river flow.

“For those eggs to mature, there must be long stretches of flowing water from larger tributaries,” Greene said. “You have this series of dams on the Tennessee River, so it really doesn’t provide the habitat requirements for the eggs to mature and develop. But some of the major tributaries on the Tennessee River have long flowing stretches. The concern is if carp get up into these tributaries and we have a weather year with a good amount of rain, the potential does exist in certain places.”

Silver carp have been compared to feral hogs in the damage done to an ecosystem. Feral hogs outcompete native wildlife for food and habitat resources. When silver carp become established in an area, they interrupt the natural food chain and native species end up negatively impacted.

“Silver carp are filter feeders,” Greene said. “They are planktivores. They filter out plankton throughout the water column. This puts them in direct competition with baitfish and young game fish as species like bass and crappie are planktivores in their early life stages. There’s more competition at the base of the food chain. It also affects baitfish species as adults. You’ve only got so much biomass that particular water body can support. The more taken up by Asian carp, the less will be taken up by the native species. The problem with silver carp is once they come into a water body, it becomes a management issue. You never really get rid of them. It’s like feral hogs. You just have to manage them. You can never fully eradicate them.”

As the boaters and anglers saw in the aforementioned videos, silver carp also pose a safety issue for recreational activities on the waterways.

“Once silver carp get scared, they jump out of the water, which can be hazardous for someone in a bass boat or on a jet ski,” Greene said. “It’s definitely a safety concern.”

Alabama continues to work with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to collectively manage the spread of silver carp. Joining the fight on a larger scale is a multistate group called the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resources Association (MICRA), which includes the 28 states in the Mississippi River basin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Service, TVA, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and two Native American tribes are also members of the coalition.

Several years ago, Tennessee Tech received federal funding to monitor numerous lakes, including Pickwick, for silver carp. One of the goals has been to catch silver carp and insert sonic tags to allow tracking of the fish’s movements.

“Tennessee Tech is still doing the tagging studies, and they’ve even got detectors set up on some of the TVA locks in Alabama,” Greene said. “From my understanding, none of the silver carp they’ve tagged in Pickwick and other places have gone through any of the locks in Alabama. At least that was the case just a few weeks ago. To date, we have not had any confirmed reports of silver carp in Guntersville Reservoir or Wilson Reservoir. We certainly hope it stays that way.”

Greene said concerned anglers and those interested in mitigating the damage done by invasive species can help by purchasing the Alabama freshwater fishing distinctive license plates, which recently received a new design.

“Proceeds from the sales of this license plate are earmarked for specific purposes, and one of those is the control of aquatic invasive species, including Asian carp,” he said. “We’re excited about this.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

3 months ago

Alabama sandhill crane season returns for 2020-2021

(David Rainer/Outdoor Alabama)

Last year, Alabama saw its first sandhill crane hunting season in more than 100 years. The season returns for 2020-2021 with 400 permit holders having the opportunity to hunt sandhill cranes in north Alabama. Registration for the permits opens on September 8.

Norman Haley from Scottsboro, Alabama, has hunted sandhill cranes twice in Tennessee and was excited to have the opportunity to do so in his home state during the 2019-2020 season.

“Sandhill crane hunting is very unique,” Haley said. “The anticipation of seeing the birds approach from a distance is exciting. The slow and graceful circling as they land in a field is a sight to see.”

Today, that sight is more common in north Alabama thanks to the state’s conservation efforts and hunters who purchase their hunting licenses.

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In the early 2000s, sandhill crane seasons in the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways were under consideration by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). By 2010, USFWS approved a sandhill crane management plan that included a hunt plan for the Mississippi Flyway, which includes Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. Kentucky opened its season in 2011. Tennessee’s season soon followed in 2013. Alabama’s season opened in 2019.

“I’ve now been able to take part in the first modern day sandhill crane seasons in Tennessee and Alabama,” Haley said. “It’s nice to know that hunter dollars and conservation efforts have brought sandhill cranes to sustainable and harvestable levels in the state. Alabama’s sandhill crane season is just another example that conservation works.”

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) receives no funding from the state’s general fund. The WFF’s Wildlife Section is primarily funded through a portion of hunting license sales that is matched on a three-to-one basis by the USFWS through the federal Pittman-Robertson Act. Alabama State Duck Stamp sales are also matched through the same process, but earmarked by state law to be utilized for wetlands and waterfowl conservation.

“Monies from these two revenue sources directly benefit sandhill cranes by providing habitat protection, management and restoration work in the areas of Alabama that cranes utilize as migration routes and wintering habitat,” said Seth Maddox, WFF Migratory Game Bird Coordinator. “Over the long term, conservation of habitat has played an integral part in the population growth of sandhill cranes.”

Those conservation efforts have benefited both sandhill cranes and hunters in Alabama like Haley.

“There was a time I thought the only way I would be able to hunt sandhills was by taking a trip to Texas or Oklahoma,” Haley said. “Now that I can hunt them in my home state, I don’t ever see myself passing up the opportunity as long as it’s available.”

Registration for Alabama’s 2020-2021 sandhill crane hunting season will open at 8 a.m. on September 8 and run until 8 a.m. on September 29, 2020. The WFF will conduct a computer-controlled random draw of 400 sandhill crane hunting permits on Tuesday, September 29, 2020, at noon Central Time. To register, visit here during the dates listed above. A $10 registration fee applies.

Registration is limited to Alabama residents 16 or older or Alabama lifetime hunting license holders. Applicants must have their regular hunting license and a state waterfowl stamp to register.

If drawn, hunters must complete an online test that includes species identification and regulations. After passing the test, WFF will issue the permit and tags to the hunter. In addition to a hunting license and state duck stamp, hunters must also acquire a federal duck stamp and Harvest Information Program certification, and, if hunting on a Wildlife Management Area (WMA), a WMA license.

The season is restricted to north Alabama and consists of two segments. The first segment runs from December 4, 2020, to January 3, 2021. The second segment will be January 11-31, 2021. The daily, season and possession limit will be three birds per permit. Hunters can harvest all three birds in one day if they choose. Both state and federal wildlife refuges are closed to sandhill crane hunting.

For more information about Alabama’s 2020-2021 sandhill crane hunting season, click here.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through four divisions: Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. To learn more about ADCNR, visitwww.outdooralabama.com.

(Courtesy of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)