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Conservation efforts highlighted during World Wetlands Day

 

February 7, 2020

Cody Dixon, director of general rangers, oversees more than 35 acres of wetlands located at Kullihoma Reservation. With more than 75 percent of Oklahoma's wetlands in private hands, Kullihoma is one of the few areas where wetlands are managed by professional land managers.

ALLEN, Okla. – On the nearly 2,000 acres known as Kullihoma, the land and its maintenance comes first.

Kullihoma, which is Chickasaw for red springs, is currently cared for by a group of dedicated Chickasaw Nation Rangers. Approximately 8 miles east of Ada, Oklahoma, this acreage has been set aside and put into federal trust to be managed by the rangers. Rangers maintain Kullihoma's rustic landscape and fragile ecosystem, allowing modern Chickasaws a glimpse of their ancestors' lives before statehood.

"Aside from the few acres where limited improvements have occurred for outdoor cultural events, flood control and fire management, Kullihoma has seen little change since the few original Chickasaw families settled the area generations ago," Chickasaw Regional Manager Rick Carson said.

To balance human outdoor activities with the needs of the surrounding ecosystem, rangers monitor local wildlife populations, floodwaters and overall environmental quality of the land. Game animals located at Kullihoma include whitetail deer, many species of waterfowl, rabbits, squirrels and wild turkeys. Chickasaw citizens have the opportunity to enjoy hunting and fishing in a natural environment that remains pristine.

Larger, unique animals that have been reported within Kullihoma include mountain lions, bobcats and an occasional black bear.

Animal populations at Kullihoma are monitored and managed by the rangers. Based on an annual wildlife census, animal populations are maintained at an equilibrium the land can support.

"We manage game populations at Kullihoma," Carson said. "We don't want their numbers to get so large that the land can't support them. We also don't want to harvest game animals to the point that it takes years for the population to recover."

One of the few managed wetlands in Oklahoma

World Wetlands Day, Feb. 2, celebrated the benefit of wetlands to the planet and its inhabitants.

Kullihoma includes 35-acres classified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as wetlands. With soil saturated with water throughout the year, the wetlands at Kullihoma provide a water and food source for the local ecosystem as well as migrating waterfowl.

"The wetlands are a valuable resource. They help in drought years when many of our ponds become low or dry up. The wetlands store much of the floodwaters from previous years' rains. The area provides much of the water needs for the local ecosystem," Carson said.

Wetlands serve as a natural water filtration system. They are described as nature's "kidneys," removing suspended sediments and other pollutants as water flows through them. They also provide Kullihoma with natural flood control. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one-acre of wetland has the potential to store up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater.

In addition to the natural wetlands occurring at Kullihoma, a system of dykes and water release valves has been built to control water levels. Rangers try to keep the wetlands about 2 or 3 feet deep, providing food, nesting areas and cover for waterfowl and other animals.

Information provided by the United States Geological Survey and Oklahoma Conservation Commission indicates that nearly two-thirds of vital wetland habitat has been lost in Oklahoma, and more than half has disappeared nationally since the mid-1800s. With nearly 75 percent of Oklahoma's wetlands privately owned, Kullihoma is one of the few locations preserved by professional land managers.

Migratory birds use Kullihoma as a "way station." As birds fly from summer breeding grounds to winter feeding grounds and back again, Kullihoma wetlands provide important temporary habitat and food resources.

Management philosophy based on common sense

Kullihoma was not always the preserve it is today. Much of the land bought by the Chickasaw Nation at Kullihoma was initially leased to cattle ranchers. While the majority of the ranchers were good stewards, some overgrazed the land and did not maintain the delicate balance between farming and wildlife.

Managing Kullihoma is hard work. Most days are filled with backbreaking manual labor. Trails are cleared; brush burned, dead trees and underbrush removed. Some days require wading waist deep in water to clear tin horns, while others are spent digging with picks and shovels to shore up dykes for erosion control. All this work is accomplished even under Oklahoma's baking summer sun or bitterly harsh winters.

Rangers do not keep normal business hours. They are on call day and night. During deer, turkey and duck hunting seasons, rangers report to work as early as 5 a.m., often returning to the station well after dark.

Lightning strikes, which can start fires, are common on the high ridges overlooking Kullihoma. To combat this natural disaster, rangers become state certified wildfire firefighters. Rangers receive training through the Pontotoc Technology Center, located in Ada, Oklahoma, and participate in wildfire firefighting courses offered through Oklahoma State University.

Prevention and preparation are key to fire safety. Fire-breaks are maintained throughout Kullihoma, and rangers have custom-crafted firefighting trailers capable of holding up to 200 gallons of water. Towed by small all-terrain vehicles, the trailers allow rangers access to areas larger trucks can't get into.

Rangers deal with more than wildlife. They are in constant contact with the public. While not law enforcement officers, each ranger is state certified through Oklahoma's CLEET program as an armed security officer.

A location with heritage

Rangers are just one part of the puzzle that completes the care and management of Kullihoma. They work within a tribal committee consisting of the Chickasaw Rangers, Tribal Properties and Cultural Resources Department.

"The three departments work together in keeping Kullihoma a special place for the Chickasaw people," Carson said. "(We) rangers provide information to the group regarding wildlife and land management and oversee day-to-day patrols, all special hunts and camping reservations on the grounds."

Tribal Properties personnel maintain public areas, campgrounds and assist with the upkeep of fences and other infrastructure. With the rich history of the area, the cultural resources department provides input on the cultural needs of Chickasaw citizens and how future projects at Kullihoma could affect them.

Limited outdoor amenities have been developed for educational and cultural resources. These include a shooting range for traditional archery games, a stickball field (a traditional game similar to lacrosse) and a contemporary baseball field.

Primitive campgrounds and RV slips with electrical outlets are available for extended stays in Kullihoma. The Chickasaw Nation has built a re-creation of a Chickasaw village pre-European contact. The village is complete with traditional summer and winter homes, corncrib and a large council house.

 

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