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Pooler Magazine

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge: A National Treasure

Story by Cindy Reid 

One of our true local treasures is right at our doorstep. Our Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is home to an incredible amount of wildlife, plant diversity and local history within its 30,000 acres, and it is convenient and free to visit! Spread across two states—Chatham and Effingham counties in Georgia and Jasper County in South Carolina—the refuge is a popular spot for hikers, bird watchers and nature photographers.

The Savannah NWR contains a multitude of habitats such as freshwater marshes, tidal rivers and creeks, and bottomland hardwoods. The hardwood trees are primarily cypress, gum, and maple—trees not found in most areas anymore.

Because the Savannah River and other smaller rivers run through the refuge, it is able to support an enormous array of wildlife. Deer, bobcats, fox, otters and alligators all make it their home. Birders come from far and wide to catch sight of the huge variety of resident and migratory birds that populate the refuge.

In addition to being a wildlife habitat, the Savannah NWR is a significant historical location with 36 historic and prehistoric archeological sites that have been located and inventoried. For thousands of years, Native Americans both occupied and passed through the area and by the mid-18th century, rice planters were farming much of the land. The old rice levees—built by hand—form the basis for the current impoundment dikes that are an important part of the eco system today. Remnants of the original structures can still be seen in some places.

National Wildlife Refuge Designation

The Savannah NWR was originally established in 1927 as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. In 1931, another 207 acres were added to the refuge and it was named the Savannah River Wildlife Refuge. In 1936 an additional 6,527 acres were added to the refuge and on July 25, 1940, it was renamed the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.

As with the National Park system, the first National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt. An ardent conservationist, he would go on to create 50 more federal bird reserves and four national game preserves within the refuge system.

Refuges are not the same as national or state parks. They are designated conservation areas with minimal development used mainly for wildlife observation, photography, education, hunting and fishing. Camping is not permitted at refuges. Although refuges are primarily ‘left alone’ refuge management will step in to help restore natural habitats if necessary.

The Savannah NWR is one of seven refuges administered by the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex, headquartered in Hardeeville SC. The seven refuges span a 100-mile stretch of coastline and total 57,226 acres.

Wildlife Abound

The Savannah NWR is birders paradise. As a safe fly-over and rest stop during spring and fall bird migration, the Savannah NWR is an important link in the chain of wildlife refuges along the Atlantic Flyway. It provides nesting habitat for wood ducks, purple gallinules, bald eagles, anhingas, and swallow-tailed kites, among many others. Wood Storks, federally endangered, forage here. Red-coakaded Woodpeckers and Least Terns, also endangered, nest here. Thousands of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and colonial waterbirds use the refuge year-round and seasonally. You truly never know what bird you may see here!

The American alligator lives in the refuge wetlands and although they are considered dangerous, they typically pose no serious threat if left alone. It is a violation of state and federal law to feed or harass alligators in any way.

Bobcats have been spotted throughout the year at various spots along the refuge's wildlife drive and adjacent trails. Bobcats are elusive and nocturnal and therefore rarely spotted by humans.

Impoundment Improvement

Managed freshwater impoundments are tidal freshwater marshes that have been diked and "impounded" in order to grow vegetation through water control. The impoundments at Savannah NWR are maintained for the purpose of providing habitats for waterfowl through the winter as they migrate.

At the refuge, phase one of the repair and renovation of the 3,000-acre freshwater impoundment system is reaching completion, and in September 2021, the second and more extensive part will begin. Specific improvements include elevating all dikes/levees surrounding the impoundments, deepening the perimeter and interior ditches within the impoundments, and replacing water control structures.

These measures are necessary to continue to provide vital habitat for birds and the other species that benefit from the impoundments. The elevated dikes and deeper ditches also will also provide better wildlife viewing for visitors.

Upcoming Closures

Due to phase 2 of the repair and renovation plan, the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive and all trails adjacent to the freshwater impoundment system that runs along both sides of SC 170 will be closed beginning September 8, 2021, until further notice. Visitors should expect closures for a period of not less than one year, and maybe two. Closed areas will be completely off-limits to all visitors (no foot, bicycle, or vehicle traffic).

As of this time, the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Hardeeville, SC, is closed due to the COVID-19 health emergency. However, many other areas on the refuge remain open, such as Kingfisher Pond and adjacent trails, the Solomon Tract, and the Visitor Center trails. In addition, Pinckney Island and Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuges are open for normal visitation.  n

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 Fast Facts

  • The National Wildlife Refuge System is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, along Florida's Atlantic coast, was the first unit of what would become the National Wildlife Refuge System.
  • At the Savannah NWR, 15,395 acres are in Georgia and 15,263 acres are in South Carolina.
  • The recreational activities at Savannah NWR include hiking, bicycling, wildlife viewing, photography, fishing, and hunting.
  • There are two primary public use areas of the refuge that visitors can drive to: The Visitor Center, located on U.S. Hwy 17, approximately 7 miles north of downtown Savannah, GA, and 7 miles south of Hardeeville, SC, and the Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive, located on GA-25/SC-170, approximately one mile east of Port Wentworth, GA.
  • Open during daylight hours 7 days a week