University City

Park and Rec awarded grant to preserve wildlife habitat

During the next three years, Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation will use $25,000 in grant money to help preserve wildlife habitat along the Catawba River.

The grant was awarded this fall by Duke Energy’s Catawba-Wateree Habitat Enhancement Program, officials said, for grassland and shrub management on county-owned property next to and near the river.

The largest portions of wildlife habitat – which include native plant species, officials said – are found in northern Mecklenburg County’s Cowan’s Ford and Latta Plantation Nature Preserves, as well as the McDowell Nature Preserve in south Mecklenburg County.

The county owns nearly 7,200 acres of natural habitat, said Chris Matthews, director of Park and Recreation’s nature preserves and natural resources division.

Of that acreage, roughly 400 acres are classified as early succession habitat – the middle ground between forest and open, grass/shrub lands – Matthews said, noting the majority of the grant funding will go toward that kind of habitat.

“It continually has be to cut, managed and maintained.”

This is the third year the department has applied for this Duke grant, Matthews said, but the first time it’s been awarded funding. The department is currently waiting for approval of project specifics in order to receive the first year of funding, he said.

Once approved, the money will allow for removing invasive plant species – such as autumn olive – by hiring companies to clear unwanted plant material, supplying chemical treatments like herbicides where needed and buying equipment and safety gear for staff who administer controlled burns, Matthews said.

Duke Energy’s habitat enhancement program started in 2003, was restructured in 2007 and has since granted more than $1 million to community organizations, said spokeswoman Lisa Hoffmann.

The annual grant program is open to any group, agency or tax-exempt organization working to protect, create and/or improve fish and wildlife habitat along the Catawba-Wateree system in the Carolinas, Hoffmann said.

Typically, less than a dozen groups apply each grant cycle, Hoffman said. A lakes advisory and review committee each makes recommendations on which projects could have the most significant long-term benefits, have broad support through co-funding or are part of a larger program and could produce measurable results, she said.

Past projects have included building osprey platforms, wood duck boxes and fish attractors, as well as planting shoreline vegetation, Hoffmann said.

The $25,000 awarded to Mecklenburg County will be distributed during three years and will also help manage non-native animal species such as a wild boar that has been spotted in the Cowan’s Ford Wildlife Refuge, according to Matthews.

States such as Georgia and Texas are dealing with large populations of wild boar, Matthews said, which can cause tremendous habitat damage in a short amount of time. “They’re omnivorous, they eat any kind of plant,” he said.

“They eat food turkeys and other wildlife would eat and push out (or eat) other native wildlife,” Matthews said.

“They put their snouts in the soil and root around, it looks like someone plowed a garden. They root around in wetlands and create a lot of sedimentation, erosion and destroy that kind of habitat.”

Officials are only aware of one wild boar in the county’s nature preserves, Matthews said.

It’s against the law to capture and relocate wild boar, Matthews said, so county officials manage the population in the most humane way possible on a case-by-case basis. This typically involves capture and euthanasia, he said.

“Because all these properties are along the water, there are concerns about water quality … Fortunately the population is really small.”