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  • By Ken Perrotte

Virginia's Newest Wildlife Management Areas are Shining Examples of How/Where to Buy

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

The Board of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries dedicated its newest wildlife management area last month, naming it after its recently retired Executive Director Bob Duncan.

Duncan retired April 1 after a 41-year career with the department, the last 11 of which were spent leading the state agency that oversees and manages wildlife and inland fisheries.

The Robert W. Duncan WMA is 1,346.61 acres and located in the southern end of Caroline County near the small community of Frog Level, on the border with King William County. It was purchased for $3,260,000. Partnerships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, multiple families (including the Hopkins family, founders of the popular Green Top Sporting Goods in Ashland, Va.) and, of course, revenues from license sales to Virginia hunters and anglers made this deal possible. Lee Walker, DGIF's communications chief, said the main focus when purchasing WMAs is to develop, manage, and maintain habitat for wildlife. “The department also works hard to create public access for outdoor recreational activities that include hunting, fishing, boating and wildlife viewing,” he added. With the addition of the WMA and the nearby, smaller Mattaponi Bluffs WMA, the agency will now oversee 44 such areas spanning nearly 205,000 acres. The Mattaponi Bluffs WMA was purchased for $1,020,000, from Banbury Farm II, LLC, Walker said.

Virginia is taking a fresh approach to its land acquisition programs explained Joshua Saks, Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources. The recently launched ConserveVirginia program is touted as the nation's first data-driven effort that identifies millions of acres of high value lands and conservation sites across the commonwealth. This feeds into conservation strategies. A centerpiece of the program features a “smart map” that lets users click on mapped data inputs, divided into six categories, each representing a different overarching conservation value. The categories are: Agriculture & Forestry; Natural Habitat & Ecosystem Diversity; Floodplains & Flooding Resilience; Cultural & Historic Preservation; Scenic Preservation; and Protected Landscapes Resilience. The categories contain more than five million acres of agricultural and forest lands.

Now, here is why this is sorely needed. For too long, DGIF's WMA acquisitions seemed to be focused on getting the most land available for the price. That may be oversimplifying things, but that was perception, especially among people living in the Tidewater, Northern Virginia and some of the Piedmont areas. Some huge tracts were purchased, mostly west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sometimes these great deals were on properties owners were simply trying to dump, mountain ridge tops and some places with marginal wildlife habitat and access. Plus, many purchases were in close proximity to the Washington and Jefferson National Forests, which also offered abundant public access and recreation potential. Many people shared with me, and I concurred, that there wasn't a pressing need for new WMAs on somewhat marginal land next to more than a million acres of Forest Service public land. No, the issue is that people in the eastern part of Virginia - the place with the greatest population - are running out of quality places to access, especially for hunting. Buying land that is more easily accessible to this pool of license holders and potential license holders makes eminent sense, especially when the land is already prime wildlife habitat. It may cost more than a rocky mountaintop but the net yield in terms of serving the interests of both conservation and the agency's core constituency should be apparent.

When Governor Ralph Northam announced ConserveVirginia in April of 2019, he said, “When Virginians invest their tax dollars in conservation projects, we have an obligation to ensure those efforts yield the greatest benefits in the most cost-effective manner for the Commonwealth.” For the near term, at least, these mapped acres will help guide a long-term land conservation strategy for Virginia. Everyone with a dog in the conservation hunt, including the many land trusts, people looking at environmental mitigation projects, and more should find the mapping useful.You can see Virginia's current conservation map here. The smart map also has an online tool to facilitate exploring.

Back to the new WMAs, the hunting seasons cycle around the calendar. Others, especially smaller properties, often offer limited hunting on a special draw or permit basis. Rick Busch, DGIF’s superintendent of lands and facilities, said current plans for the new WMAs include deer, turkey small game hunting. Both sites have river frontage, which may allow some waterfowl hunting. Organized hunts aren’t in the plans at this time, he said. I took a tour of the property during the dedication ceremony and it has a "wow" factor in terms of diversity of mixed upland habitat, with trees in various states of growth,

meadows, wetlands and more. It is classic upper coastal plain wildlife habitat. The property borders the Mattaponi River for approximately 3 miles and has a small interior lake that';s loaded with fish. DGIF touts

the site, especially the water frontage, as a haven for bald eagles, osprey and blue herons. The forests support many migratory warblers. Deer, turkey and squirrel populations are thriving. Woodcock are also found in the tracts bottomlands and wetter forested sites.

Another new addition to the WMA lineup is just a few miles from the Duncan WMA. The 470-acre Mattaponi Bluffs property is located in the north-central portion of Caroline County, in the Upper Coastal Plain and located between Athens and Penola. The land is a contiguous tract of steep bluffs and wetlands, somewhat typical of the surrounding topography adjacent to the Mattaponi River. The forests there are also predominantly mixed upland hardwoods with some wetland and bottomland forests. The property borders the Mattaponi River for approximately 1.5 miles. The Mattaponi River throughout this area can be a good fishery. The river is narrow and slow flowing in this area and lends itself to canoes and kayaks. Anglers can catch bluegill and redbreast sunfish, chain pickerel, bowfin,and brown bullheads as well as smaller-sized largemouth bass. Some spring spawning runs of white and yellow perch can also make for some fun trips.

For more about DGIF-managed WMAs, see Note: DGIF's Lynda Richardson provided some of the photographs for this page.

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