OAKLAND CITY — Ducks Unlimited has been awarded a $1 million North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant for a significant expansion of the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge.

The Fish and Wildlife Service designated 22,083 acres for the Patoka refuge in September 1994. It lies north of State Road 64, stretching from near Velpen on the east to the Francisco area on the west, including the Winslow and Oakland City areas.

The refuge buys its land from willing sellers and is managing about 8,441 acres at the moment, according to refuge manager Bill McCoy. The entire $1 million grant will be used for land acquisition and any parcel within the 20-mile project area is fair game, though the focus will be on wetland areas, he said.

McCoy said the refuge, Ducks Unlimited and other partners had to come up with partner matches — money that had already been spent — to qualify for the NAWCA grant.

The NAWCA program requires at least a dollar-for-dollar match from applicants, McCoy said. The refuge’s application came with $2 million in partner funds, most of it in the form of court case mitigation settlements involving environmental issues elsewhere in the state.

 “It has been nearly a decade since a $1 million NAWCA grant has been secured for this region of the state,” said Michael Sertle, DU’s regional biologist. “Not only will it give us the ability to protect and improve thousands of acres of existing wetlands and adjacent uplands, but it will allow us to additionally restore hundreds of acres of wetlands and grasslands in future years.”

Emerging research indicates the importance of the refuge’s location to waterfowl populations, according to Ducks Unlimited, and DU and its partners have taken note by targeting important floodplain forests and marshes for long-term protection over the next three to four years throughout the Patoka River refuge’s acquisition boundary.

In addition to Ducks Unlimited, partners that were part of the NAWCA application included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sycamore Land Trust, Indiana Bicentennial Nature Trust, Peabody Energy Corp., Indiana Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife, Land, and Resource Management LLC, Izaak Walton League of America, Evansville Audubon Society, and the Friends of Patoka River NWR. Many of those groups were first-time NAWCA participants, according to Sertle.

McCoy said the grant program was very competitive. It was important to have a two-to-one match and as many partners as possible.

“There’s a scoring system for every grant and this one was (partly) based on the number of partners and how diverse those partners are,” McCoy said.

The Friends of Patoka River NWR group is introducing new people to the wonders of the refuge all the time, McCoy said. He refers to the group as the future of the refuge.

“They are the best thing that’s happened to the refuge in a long time,” McCoy said. “It belongs to the people and they represent the people. They are providing a lot of programs” like tours and nature hikes.

In 2012, the refuge added the 1,043-acre former Columbia Mine a mile east of Oakland City to the land it manages. The refuge could not buy the land outright from owner Peabody Energy because of an indemnity clause in the deed, so the nonprofit Sycamore Land Trust bought the land and the refuge purchased the conservation easements.

“The conservation easements gave us all the management rights on the property,” McCoy said. The Bloomington-based land trust is now listed as one of the refuge’s partners.

Of the more than 8,400 acres it manages, the refuge owns 7,398 acres outright at the moment.

“If you look at our refuge map now, it kind of looks like a checkerboard square,” McCoy said. “Each time now that we buy a tract, more times than not we’re buying a tract that touches on an existing tract.”

Almost all of the refuge’s land is open to hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography.

“We’re putting in more trails,” McCoy said.
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