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Canaan Valley refuge a growing haven for wildlife

by Vicki Smith

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

DAVIS -- The picture window in Jeff Shryer's office lives up to its name: In the foreground, a deer grazes in tall grass. Birds soar overhead. A mountain range lies in the distance.

Where others see a pretty landscape, Shryer sees the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, home to 290 species of animals, reptiles, amphibians and fish, including the threatened Cheat Mountain salamander and the endangered West Virginia northern flying squirrel.

"This valley is unusual," says Shryer, who manages the refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It has at least 40 plant communities, with 580 species. And that's what we know of. There's never been a full inventory."

Since the nation's 500th refuge opened in August 1994, it has grown from 86 acres to nearly 3,300. And with another $7.8 million in federal funding that Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., secured in June, the purchase of more than 12,000 acres is on the horizon.

Some say the refuge is big enough.

Already, it has cost Tucker County the 24 Hours of Canaan, a bike race that was staged here for nine years. When a 12-mile section of the course was sold to the federal government, the race moved to Pocahontas County and became the 24 Hours of Snowshoe.

In June, the race that enthusiasts call the greatest mountain biking event east of the Mississippi drew more than 500 racers and nearly 14,000 tourists to Snowshoe Mountain resort.

Last year, about 6,000 people visited the refuge.

"If they eliminate biking, if they limit the access to people during deer season, if they effectively eliminate access ... people are going to quit coming," says Roger Lilly, who owns a mountain bike shop in Davis.

"People don't just go out walking through Canaan Valley. There's no better way to see the valley than bicycle."

Shryer concedes some residents have concerns.

"But the community is gradually accepting the refuge," he says. "We offer recreational opportunities that complement other offerings in Tucker County."

Hunting, fishing, birdwatching, nature photography and environmental education are allowed. Biking, horseback riding and other historical uses are not.

In 2003, refuge staff will start drafting a master plan for the refuge's projected growth over the next 10 to 15 years. That will mean public meetings to determine how the land can best be used.

"We don't duplicate what the state parks do," Shryer says. "Our priority is wildlife preservation and habitat conservation.

"People thought they would see ATV races here. How compatible is that with preservation?"

Canaan Valley is rare among refuges because it focuses as much on plants as animals. At least 109 distinctively northern plants like red spruce and balsam fir grow here, much farther south than normal.

Glade spurge, a plant born of the last ice age, thrives here as well, along with a carnivorous plant called the sundew.

"It's a botanist's dream," says biologist Ken Sturm. "Canaan Valley is different from other refuges. It's more of a watershed refuge. It has no real poster child."

Fourteen miles long, 3 miles wide and 3,200 feet high, the valley is the highest of its size east of the Rockies. It's also home to the third-largest shrub swamp in the eastern United States.

Drained by the Blackwater River and its tributaries, Canaan Valley contains the largest freshwater wetland area in the central and southern Appalachians.

It's because of those wetlands, a natural erosion-control and water-filtration system, that the valley was named a National Natural Landmark in 1974.

"Most folks don't know how much the quality of their water is affected by wetlands," Shryer says as he looks over a marshy area where water that can't percolate through the hardpan appears to boil up from the mud.

The nearby grasslands -- vast meadows that appear to be little more than waist-high weeds -- are another treasured component of the refuge: In early and midsummer, they become home to nesting meadowlarks, bobolinks and grasshopper sparrows.

Grassland birds are the fastest-declining bird species in North America because their habitat is vanishing. Grasslands appeal to developers because it's already cleared, saving them the cost of cutting trees.

Farmers also inadvertently make things worse for the birds by switching from hay and other field crops to crops that grow in rows, such as corn or barley.

This year, farmers were allowed to continue cutting hay on refuge land. The hitch: they had to wait until August, when the birds were no longer nesting, to make the first cut.

Canaan Valley and 12 other refuges from Virginia to Maine are participating in a three-year project aimed at stabilizing grassland habitat and reversing the decline of the songbirds.

The effort includes controlled burns, mowing and removing tree rows that divide fields and give larger, predatory birds a perfect perch. Canaan created a single 47-acre field by eliminating one tree line.

Now it's offering 200 black cherry trees, 70 serviceberry trees and 14 sugar maples to any logger who will remove the trees before mid-October's deer archery season. More than half of the trees are 3 to 7 feet in diameter.

As Shryer drives down an old logging road that cuts through one of the meadows, four white-tailed deer leap from the tree line, bound through the grass and jump a rusted, barbed-wire fence that volunteers will soon tear down.

Seconds later, the deer vanish into a thicket.

"We can't do everything," Shryer says, "but there's so much we can do to remove the hand of man."

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