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McCURTAIN COUNTY, Okla. -- Little River National Wildlife Refuge has added 160 acres of protected forest and wetlands, a move that for the first time will make a large area of the refuge usable for visitors.

Surrounded by the refuge, the land is now protected from development and will be available for activities including big- and small-game hunting, bird-watching and hiking, according to a news release from The Conservation Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Because the property includes a major access road to the refuge, users will be able to explore nearly 1,000 acres of refuge lands that were previously inaccessible.

Less than 100 miles from Texarkana, the 15,000-acre Little River National Wildlife Refuge protects one of the largest remaining bottomland hardwood forests that can be found in Oklahoma. Most of Little River National Wildlife Refuge is forested with bottomland plant species such as willow oak, sweetgum, cypress, white oak and holly, which thrive in the refuge's low, wet habitat. Higher-ground areas support species such as loblolly pine, hickory and walnut.

The forest is bisected by an intricate system of creeks, sloughs, and oxbow lakes that create a wetland forest environment that is rich in wildlife diversity and abundance.

Neotropical migrant songbirds fill the treetops of the refuge in the springtime. Migratory waterfowl flock to the sloughs and oxbow lakes in the winter. Little River National Wildlife Refuge is one of the few places in Oklahoma where the Swainson's warbler has been known to nest. The Swainson's warbler breeds in southern forests with thick undergrowth, especially in canebrakes and floodplain forests in lowlands and in rhododendron-mountain laurel in the Appalachians.

The refuge's abundance of bottomland hardwood forests also provides habitat for squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, waterfowl, white-tailed deer and turkeys, which make it a popular hunting and wildlife viewing destination.

The Conservation Fund purchased the property in 2017 and has transferred it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund specifically targeted for priority recreational access projects.

Little River National Wildlife Refuge Manager David Weaver had identified this land as the "most important acquisition" for the refuge. The Conservation Fund's purchase of the tract helped expedite the protection process and bought time for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to obtain the necessary funds to acquire the property for long-term ownership.

Amy Lueders, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director, said, "This acquisition ... greatly increases public access to a large part of the refuge that was unreachable."

Established in 1987, Little River National Wildlife Refuge is one of more than 565 national wildlife refuges throughout the United States managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For centuries, the land was occupied by Caddoan tribes.

In 1830, the Choctaw Indians arrived at the end of the Trail of Tears when thousands of American Indians were forcibly removed from their homelands in Alabama and Mississippi and were relocated to southeast Oklahoma.

By the mid-1900s, major timber companies arrived to log forests and eventually start loblolly pine plantations. Little River National Wildlife Refuge was established to preserve the bottomland hardwood forests and act as an unharmed sanctuary for migratory birds.

Metro on 11/27/2019

Print Headline: 160 acres of land added to wildlife refuge

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