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Conservation tags help state buy land
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SOCIAL CIRCLE — Jason Wisniewski hopes to spend 40 days hunting deer and other game this season. In late November, however, the wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section was hunting for endangered mussels on Florida’s Apalachicola River, part of a federal survey spurred by drought and dropping lake levels upstream in Georgia.
Wisniewski, a specialist in freshwater mussels, sees no disconnect between his favored recreation and his beloved occupation. Mussels, which filter water and provide food for other species, are part of a foundation of life encompassing all creatures and habitats.
“They’re all really linked together,” he said.
The links are evident in Georgia, where projects led by the Nongame Conservation Section, which is charged with conserving nongame species as diverse as bald eagles and pitcherplants, also benefit game animals, habitats and the sportsmen who pursue them.
The section receives no general fund money from the state, depending on donations, grants and fund-raisers such as wildlife license plate sales. But ripples from the work spread wide.
Money from the nongame conservation fund and grants obtained by nongame staff have helped the DNR acquire more than 34,000 acres since 2002, all open to hunting and, where applicable, fishing. Another $2 million-plus is earmarked as partial payment for 3,900 acres of the Silver Lake Tract at Lake Seminole Wildlife Management Area and the 4,162-acre Fort  Barrington Tract at Townsend WMA in McIntosh County. A 20,000-acre, $35 million Georgia Land Conservation Program package announced by Gov. Sonny Perdue in December bundled those tracts with 6,900-acres added to Paulding Forest WMA.
Habitat management such as prescribed burning directly benefits game species like northern bobwhite quail, white-tailed deer and wild turkey. Also, conservation research spearheaded by Wildlife Resources’ diadromous fish coordinator bolsters management of striped bass.
Six regional education centers teach more than 50,000 Georgia children a year about wildlife, natural habitats and stewardship, topics that cross game-nongame boundaries.
Cash raised for the Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund is only part of the picture. Nongame Conservation Chief Mike Harris said employees also pull down grants and other funds. The long list of projects funded includes land acquisition, longleaf pine restoration on state property and work involving Alabama shad, an important forage for some gamefish.
Over the last five years, every $1 of Nongame Conservation money spent for conservation was matched with $1.90 from federal grants and other sources, Harris said.
Benefits flow both ways, with Game Management and Fisheries sections’ projects also boosting some nongame species.
And underlying all is an understanding that sizing up wildlife management and conservation is best done broadly.
Many sportsmen appreciate the contribution of nongame wildlife to their enjoyment of the outdoors, Harris said. For example, coastal anglers seeking king mackerel, redfish and tarpon rely on feeding brown pelicans and royal terns to find schools of pogies, or Atlantic menhaden, a popular baitfish.
“The presence of nongame wildlife enriches the experience for everyone,” Harris said.
Wisniewski would agree. His deer-stand highlights this season include seeing the biggest buck of his life and spotting his first fisher, a rare member of the weasel family making a comeback in Pennsylvania, where Wisniewski was hunting.
The fisher, he said, “was by far the highlight of my whole trip.”
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