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SC NRCS Showcases Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Practices in Darlington County

By: Amy O. Maxwell, USDA-NRCS, Public Affairs Specialist

In Darlington County, South Carolina, numerous wildlife species are getting first-class treatment at Clemson University’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center. The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) is providing financial and technical assistance to establish habitat enhancements as demonstration and research sites. The project is a collaboration of efforts by numerous local, state, and federal agencies to illustrate integrated land management for wildlife, agriculture, and forestry in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner. The project will target a wide audience, including farmers and landowners, as well as school children and the general public.

Pee Dee Research and Education Center Director George Askew spearheaded the project when he called a meeting of various agencies to discuss establishment of a wildlife habitat demonstration site. “We set out to show the economic and environmental value of wildlife beneficial practices and how they can be incorporated into existing farming practices,” he explained. “The idea that supporting and maintaining wildlife alongside farming practices has not been widely accepted by many farmers because they did not understand the vast benefits of it, particularly the immediate advantages to their operations.” Establishment of wildlife habitat practices naturally increases wildlife populations which can allow farmers to lease their land for hunting, therefore adding economic value to their operations. “This project is a big step in changing some negative ideas about providing food and shelter for wildlife alongside farming practices,” said Askew.

The project was implemented through WHIP, which helps landowners develop habitat for upland wildlife, wetland wildlife, threatened and endangered species, fish, and other wildlife in South Carolina. The bobwhite quail, wintering waterfowl and shorebird habitat, and threatened and endangered plant and animal species have been identified as the “priority conservation concern” in the state. WHIP is a voluntary program for people who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat primarily on private land. The program offers both technical assistance and up to 75 percent cost-share assistance to establish and improve fish and wildlife habitat. WHIP agreements between NRCS and participants generally last from 5 to 10 years from the date the agreement is signed. This project between NRCS and the Center is contracted for 5 years.

NRCS Wildlife Biologist Jim Lewis said that he hopes to add to the initial $50,000 of funding the Center received to begin the project. The Clemson University Board of Directors also showed their support for the project by putting additional funds into the project, allowing them to hire a full-time wildlife biologist to coordinate the initiative. T.J. Savereno provides on-the-ground oversight of the project, assisting Clemson PhD. Candidate Laura Knipp. The research is serving as Knipp’s dissertation project. Together, they are managing the WHIP project on a day-to-day basis and will observe the practices over the length of the 5-year contract. Greg Yarrow, Clemson Professor of Wildlife, was responsible for writing up the proposal to fund the WHIP project, as well as securing the assistance of Knipp, which is being funded by the Wildlife Habitat Management Institute (WHMI).

Lewis emphasized the importance of this project in educating both land users and the general public. “It’s one thing to tell people about wildlife habitat enhancement, but when you can actually show them the practice on the land, and show them the benefits first-hand—that’s where the real impact happens.” NRCS conservationists Wayne Cowell and John Bennett of Darlington County were also instrumental in helping to plan and implement the project, which began last January.

The project consists of illustrating and evaluating WHIP and other USDA conservation practices for wildlife including agricultural filter strips, hedgerow plantings, field borders, native warm season grasses, forest stand improvements, forest openings, riparian forest buffers, and prescribed burning. Field borders are particularly beneficial to wildlife because they promote vegetation that harbors insect species eaten by wildlife, provide seed and soft mast that also serve as food sources, and provide important escape and nesting cover. They can also cut down on populations of harmful insects which can affect crop productivity by increasing their natural predators. Additional work in the future will also include enhancing wetland areas for wildlife.

Project highlights also include establishing new and expanding existing hedgerows by planting a variety of native hardwood species and shrubs. The hedgerows and field borders, along with filter strips and riparian buffers, provide multiple benefits including food and shelter for wildlife, but they also help filter out harmful pollutants that may run off from crops and other agricultural uses. The project is enhanced by signage which explains to viewers the purpose of each practice area.

As part of the project, Savereno and Knipp will evaluate the effectiveness of the WHIP prescribed practices and their specifications. “We will be able to look at the results such as increase of certain wildlife species to see what’s working and what can be improved,” explained Knipp. The results will be compiled at the end of the WHIP contract and submitted to NRCS as suggestions for fine tuning the program.

Lewis added, “This project is a great way to begin changing the mindset of many farmers when in comes to integrating farming practices with wildlife habitat.” The demonstration site will also be used to train USDA agency personnel. “I think when the five year contract is completed, and the plantings and practices have really been established, it will be a great teaching tool for a wide audience.”

For more information, contact the Center at (843) 662-3526, ext. 250.