Ecology

 

The Wolf River watershed is home to many plant and animal species, most notably in the Wolf's floodplain and its bottomland hardwood forests. Bottomland hardwood forests are river swamps found along the broad floodplains of the rivers and streams of the southeast and south central United States, wherever streams or rivers at least occasionally cause flooding beyond their channel confines. Bottomland hardwood forests are deciduous forested wetlands, dominated by different species of gum (Nyssa sp.) and oak (Quercus sp.) and by Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) which have the ability to survive in areas that are either seasonally flooded or covered with water much of the year. Identifying features of these wetland systems are the fluted or flaring trunks that develop in several species, and the presence of knees, or aerial roots.

Two hundred years ago, magnificent bottomland forests covered almost thirty million acres across the Southeastern United States. Today, only about forty percent of that area still supports these productive and unique ecosystems. It is estimated that losses of these swamps reached rates as high as 431,000 acres per year from 1965 to 1975, largely due to conversion to croplands, particularly for soybeans. In some regions of the lower Mississippi floodplain, only a very small percentage of original bottomland hardwood forests remain.

Bottomland hardwood forests serve a critical role in the watershed by reducing the risk and severity of flooding to downstream communities by providing areas to store floodwater. In addition, these wetlands improve water quality by filtering and flushing nutrients, processing organic wastes, and reducing sediment before it reaches open water. They are also extraordinarily rich in wildlife, more so than most other forest types, due to abundant cover and leaf litter, structurally complex and diverse vegetation, and alternating wet and dry periods.

Channelization of the urban Wolf River in the 1960's disrupted the natural hydrology of the bottomland hardwood wetlands, which, along with increasing development and habitat loss in the watershed and industrial and storm water pollution, negatively affected wildlife along this section of the river. Relative to the surrounding city, however, many species continue to survive and even thrive along the urban Wolf: Great Blue Herons, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, and other waterfowl, Red-shouldered Hawks and Mississippi Kites, foxes, beavers, bobcats, raccoons, opossums, and coyotes, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and many other animals. In spite of the abuse the urban Wolf River has suffered over the years, its floodplain corridor is still rich habitat for plants and animals.

The upper or rural Wolf River in Fayette County and beyond is the second longest unchannelized river section in West Tennessee; the difference between it and the urban Wolf River is striking. Although the channelization of tributary streams has led to some degradation of the upper Wolf River, the natural hydrogical regime of wet and dry periods persists through most of the floodplain and plant and wildlife diversity is consequently greater. Species more sensitive to changes in water quality or more specialized in their habitat requirements - bald eagles, river otters, minks, darters, mussels, and many others - are more likely to be found here, as are the more common species mentioned above.

 

Useful Links

Tennessee Ornithological Society

Tennessee Native Plant Society

North American Butterfly Association

Freshwater Mollusk Conservation Society

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

Tennessee Wildlife Federation

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation

Ducks Unlimited

Mississippi Audubon

Lichterman Nature Center

Tennessee Exotic Pest Plant Council