Brent Womack has roots in Raccoon Creek. He grew up in Paulding County and occasionally fished the creek. Now, as a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, he is helping conserve and restore it as part of a State Wildlife Grants project.
“I kind of have a vested interest in working on protecting it,” Womack said.
He isn’t alone. DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s Game Management and Nongame Conservation sections are part of a team committed to conserving the northwest Georgia stream and its watershed, the most biologically diverse in the Etowah River basin below Lake Allatoona. Partners include The Nature Conservancy, Paulding County, Georgia Power Co., the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others.
The State Wildlife Grants program is the main federal funding source to help states keep common species common and protect other species from becoming imperiled and more costly to recover.
Raccoon Creek is home to some 45 fishes and rated critical for the long-term survival of federally endangered Etowah and threatened Cherokee darters. Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy guiding DNR conservation efforts, lists the stream as one of the best sites for protecting Cherokee darters.
Adding to the promise, 27 percent of the 35,000-acre watershed is protected on public lands or through easements. “This is one of the few places where we have the opportunity to achieve watershed-level conservation,” said Brett Albanese, senior aquatic zoologist with the Nongame Conservation Section.
The challenges are significant. Although the stream winds through Paulding Forest and Sheffield wildlife management areas, land clearing in the watershed has degraded some stretches through loss of stream buffers, increased sedimentation and altered flows. Metro Atlanta’s growth also looms. The Raccoon Creek watershed is mostly in Paulding County, long one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties.
The partnership provides a needed counter-balance. Three years ago, the state and county bought 6,500 acres of Paulding Forest WMA, including much of Raccoon Creek’s headwaters. The Nature Conservancy then led development of a watershed plan that prioritizes conservation actions and properties, and syncs with conservation planning for the larger Etowah basin. Work in the field has varied from monitoring rare fish populations to restoring a mile-long stretch of the stream under a Georgia Power transmission line.
Here, a 30-foot buffer along the creek has been planted with low-growing trees and other vegetation to provide shade and stem erosion. Steep banks as tall as 15 feet have been re-contoured, allowing the mid-sized stream to spill into the floodplain when levels surge, according to Katie Owens, Upper Coosa River Program director for The Nature Conservancy. Boulders have been placed to shore up streambanks. Cobbled streambeds have been restored to provide riffles needed by darters and other fishes.
“Our main goals were to stabilize the stream and reach, and create more habitat,” Owens said.
She realized the partnership had at least partially succeeded in March when heavy rains pushed the creek into the floodplain, as they would naturally. Impacts to fish populations may take years to register. Yet, seining of Raccoon Creek’s darter populations already shows what Albanese calls a “robust” pattern.
Grants are helping fund the work. The latest, a Recovery Land Acquisition Grant announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in August, awards the DNR $656,000 from the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund to acquire property along a tributary. Such buffers are vital to watershed protection.
Paulding Forest and Sheffield WMAs are managed primarily for public hunting and secondarily for other outdoor recreation. Some funds for land acquisition and recurring maintenance costs at these WMAs are made possible through the purchase of hunting licenses by Georgia’s sportsmen and women.
Brent Womack knows the conservation needs at Raccoon Creek. Though the recession has slowed growth in the watershed, “It’s not a question of if it’s going to get developed,” he said.
Help conserve rare, endangered and other nongame wildlife in Georgia. Buy or renew a bald eagle or hummingbird license plate, contribute to the Wildlife Conservation Fund state income tax checkoff or donate directly to the fund. All support DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state general funds for its mission to conserve wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as Georgia’s rare plants and natural habitats.
Details at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation.
Raccoon Creek at a glance
- Raccoon Creek is a tributary to the Etowah River, downstream of Lake Allatoona. This creek, which flows south to north, is well known by hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts because a large part of the watershed occurs within Paulding Forest WMA.
- Although the watershed is relatively small, more than 40 native fish species have been recorded from the creek and its tributaries. This represents more than half of the native fishes known from the Etowah watershed.
- Several fishes known from Raccoon Creek are endemic to the Etowah system, including the federally threatened Cherokee darter and the federally endangered Etowah darter. Raccoon Creek is one of five population areas for the Etowah darter and has the only significant population known downstream from Lake Allatoona.