Jan/Feb 2020Hard Work and a Long To-do ListBy David Lucas

Managing SCDNR’s Upper Coastal Waterfowl Project’s 24,000+ acres has always been a tough job. Beginning in 2015, it got even tougher.

Marshy area with a yellow crane sitting on a dike. Photo by Maria LaRocca

Citizen-led advisory committees for various S.C. Department of Natural Resources divisions meet regularly around the state to review progress on various programs and initiatives; it’s part of the normal course of business for any state agency.

It is, however, somewhat rare for the entire staff of a particular program to be given a rousing standing ovation by committee members and attendees. But that’s exactly what happened at the SCDNR’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division Advisory Committee meeting held at Samworth WMA in the late fall of 2018. Employees from the agency’s Upper Coastal Waterfowl Project, led by wildlife biologist and Project Manager Joachim “Achi” Treptow, lined up to shake hands with committee members following a presentation delivered by Treptow. It was a proud moment for the team, which includes wildlife biologists, technicians, heavy machine operators and support staff — one that represented years of hard work and no small amount of adversity.

For one thing, just four years ago, numerous impoundments on Santee Coastal Reserve WMA (SCR) were nearly covered in phragmites, an invasive species that is the bane of coastal waterfowl managers — “It looked like a Kansas cornfield,” says Treptow, “just dense vegetation as far as you could see.”

A bird flying over an area of dead phragmites.Phragmites has little value as a food source for waterfowl, and it outcompetes native saltmarsh vegetation. Left unchecked, the reed can also fill in small channels and pools that attract invertebrates and make them less attractive for ducks and other waterbirds. Today, phragmites has been pushed back extensively on large sections of SCR. “Vast areas of the Cape, Cedar Island and Murphy Island that used to be covered with dense growth are open water now, and you can see beneficial native vegetation slowly coming back,” says Treptow. “It’s just spectacular.”

Santee Coastal Reserve encompasses roughly 24,000 acres bisected north to south by the terminus of the South Santee River and east to west by the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. In the early decades of the 20th century, the former plantations and rice fields of the Santee Delta between Charleston and Georgetown were famous as a duck hunter’s paradise. Today, some critical pieces of this region are protected and managed by the SCDNR. Samworth, Santee Coastal Reserve and the Santee Delta WMAs are Category I Waterfowl Management Areas — intensely managed to provide habitat for ducks and other waterfowl and limited in the amount they are hunted via a lottery system.

Large maps of all three properties cover an entire wall of Achi Treptow’s spartan office inside the SCR headquarters, a historic building once the home of the storied Santee Gun Club. Each map denotes a different section of the various management units within the Upper Coastal Waterfowl project. Hand-drawn lines outline miles and miles of man-made dikes and other water control structures that form the heart of this region’s bountiful waterfowl habitat. These centuries-old rice field impoundments are what make these properties a key location for migratory waterfowl — ducks, for sure, but also numerous nongame wading birds as well — utilizing the Atlantic flyway. Managing the flow of water into, and out of, the impoundments is the name of the game.

Mother Nature has had something to say about that. The region has been hammered repeatedly with floods and hurricanes season after season. The toll these storms have taken on the water control infrastructure on these properties — some of it built hundreds of years ago during the heyday of coastal rice cultivation — has been heavy. Overtopped dikes and blown-out water control structures have made the basic function of raising and lowering water levels at the right times to promote the growth of waterfowl-friendly plants a challenge. Phragmites control was really just the beginning.

Joachim Treptow holding widgeon grass, smiling.On Treptow’s wall of maps, a system of colored lines and dots denotes the status of management goals and specific repair projects on the properties.

“Pink [highlighter] means there is an issue,” says Treptow with a slight smile. (There is quite a bit of pink on the maps.)

Treptow knew coming into the job that it would be tough. The need for more people and resources to do what needed to be done was discussed early on with senior staff in the SCDNR’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. Everyone was in agreement.

“The division leadership up the entire chain of command has been nothing but supportive since I have been here,” he says. On any given day on the properties, multiple trackhoes and other equipment are in use, maintaining water control infrastructure and manipulating habitat to maximize its potential for waterfowl.

But in year two of Treptow’s tenure, the challenges suddenly got bigger — much bigger. Mother Nature went on a tear, basically, and coastal South Carolina has been in the crosshairs for four years running. The impacts to the system of dikes on the Upper Coastal properties just kept piling on.

“I’ve been here for four years now, and every year, it’s like, ‘this is the worst hurricane season ever, and it’s the worst flooding ever,’” says Treptow. “Let’s face it, this is probably the new normal. We need to do what we can to prepare. We can’t just sit still and wait for it to get worse. In fact, we know that storms and coastal flooding will continue to get worse.”

Just upriver from Santee Coastal Reserve, at the SCDNR’s Santee Delta WMA, scheduled hunts for the 2018-2019 waterfowl season had to be cancelled due to extensive flooding and damage there.

“It was so deeply flooded at one point that you couldn’t even see the dike anymore,” says Treptow. “That’s huge.”

The exterior dikes controlling the flow of water into the Delta were overwhelmed. Even the parking lot was flooded. The SCDNR received a NAWCA (North American Wetlands Conservation Act) grant that will fund a large part of rebuilding the dikes. Lottery hunts are now resuming at the Delta.

Treptow is justifiably proud of the crew he has put together. “Everyone who is here now, I hired,” he says. “It’s a rather young crew, and they are super-motivated. They love what they do.”

During waterfowl season, staff members regularly get up at 3:00 a.m. four to five days a week — no matter the weather conditions — to prepare for the lottery hunts. And it doesn’t stop there. During the rest of the year, they often come in early and stay late to accomplish tasks such as installing or repairing trunks. Such work has to be planned around the tides. Swarms of biting insects, inclement weather and remote conditions are a constant fact of life on this job, but they do the work with a real sense of pride. One upside is the amazing natural beauty they are surrounded by during much of the workday.

A man standing in front of a rice trunk tossing a wooden board over the trunk.The German-born Treptow earned both his undergraduate in forestry and graduate degree in wildlife management at the Technical University in Munich. Spend any amount of time talking with him, and it’s evident that he is mission-driven, organized and energetic in a way that makes him a terrific fit for this demanding job.

During an early-morning interview, his cell phone rings; it’s wildlife biologist Molly Kneece, a key member of the Upper Coastal crew who leads the effort at Samworth, which has experienced many of the same issues as SCR. The two talk on an almost daily basis, sharing equipment and staff and collaborating on management priorities and the tasks at hand.

Conditions are favorable for burning at Samworth today, while the crew at Santee Coastal Reserve is working on repairs to a critical piece of equipment. A quick confab over how to best allocate resources ensues; it’s a conversation they’ve had many times before, and the mutual respect and commitment to the work is evident in the easy camaraderie of their conversation. In just a few minutes, the plan for the day is mapped out.

“It’s [Samworth] not a particularly large property, but it has all those separate impoundments, which presents a challenge, because just about anything you do there involves putting equipment on a barge,” says Treptow. “There’s no bridges or anything, so it’s small, but labor intensive. The last three or four years have just hammered them, so we’ve had tons of dike breaches. Molly has been successful in encouraging the growth of a variety of natural foods, and we can only do that if our water control structures are functioning. For example, right now here [points at the Rabbit Island impoundment on the Samworth wall map] we have a contractor who is retopping all of the dikes and setting two new trunks.”

The management style at Samworth and the Santee Deltas (East and West) is called “moist soil management,” which means that, ideally, it should be basically dry for most of the year, except during the duck season. If the impoundments can’t be dried out and burned, vegetation such as giant cutgrass — plants with limited value to waterfowl — dominate. So, repeated flooding and the spectre of continued sea level rise have forced the issue, requiring retopping of all the main dikes at Samworth, the Deltas and SCR, all work that was pretty-much unforeseen prior to Hurricane Matthew and the flooding following Hurricane Irma.

“In the video [the one shown at the advisory committee meeting] you see the long-reach track hoe, and it’s reaching in and grabbing mud from the inside and placing it on the dike,” explains Treptow. “We are not allowed by the Corps of Engineers to dig on the outside, so we always have to dig on the inside, and so now we are slowly approaching the place — especially at Samworth — where the canals are just so deep there’s no more good material to work with left. So, one of the things that we’ve started doing now is we have to actually move some dikes further inward. We have breaches, for example, right here in Big Field [points again to the Samworth map] where we had to rebuild the entire dike on the inside of the impoundment because there’s just not enough material available.”

Later, driving down one of the main dikes at SCR, Treptow enthusiastically points out sections of the Cape where the removal of phragmites from impoundments has created large open areas that are teeming with birds — both ducks and many other nongame wading birds.

To anyone who viewed these areas before these efforts began, the results are breathtaking.

It’s a never-ending battle though. At each stop, Treptow writes down the locations where green patches are beginning to show that will need spot treatments over the course of the spring in a battered spiral notebook that looks like it’s seen a few miles. Those notes will eventually show up as pink dots on his wall of maps.

Driving across one of the exterior dikes on Cedar Island that separates the impoundments from the mighty South Santee River, over and over we see flocks of ducks taking flight in the distance — so abundant they cloud the sky in some spots.

In these old rice fields, controlling the flow of water is key to successful habitat management, but from the very beginning, the battle has been one of constant struggle. Control probably isn’t the right word. You don’t control the water, but with some luck and a tremendous amount of hard work, you can maybe bend it to your purpose. In the 1700s, that purpose was the cultivation of Carolina Gold Rice. In 2019, it’s all about creating habitat for migrating waterfowl and providing hunting opportunities. The 2018 hunts on SCR were a great success. The harvest rate for the draw hunts at SCR averaged four birds per participant in 2018, a number that has been trending upwards since the 2013 season. Harvest rates are just one measure of success and are influenced by many factors, such as hunter experience and harvest preferences, not to mention the weather, but nonetheless, it’s something people look at. What most people don’t get to see, unless they are here for a hunt, is the reality behind those numbers, which is simply that the habitat improvements are attracting tens of thousands of migrating or overwintering birds. Ducks, for sure, but nongame wading birds such as ibis, wood storks, roseate spoonbills and others crowd the edges of the impoundments as we ride through, sharing the bounty with the large flocks of ducks. Every so often, a large group will take flight in the distance, and it’s like watching a carpet of winged black dots roll and snap across the cloud-streaked sky. The abundance is amazing — and beautiful — but it’s no accident, just lots and lots of hard work, dedication and one really, really long to-do list.


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