NC’s First Wildlife Refuge Was in Black Mountains


Early in the summer of 1927 four men walked into the Black Mountain Hardware Company and bought five sticks of dynamite and 15 feet of fuse. Telling a suspicious clerk that they planned to blow up some stumps, the men climbed into a green sedan and drove up the Swannanoa’s North Fork to the boundary of the Asheville watershed.

A few minutes later nearby residents reported a thunderous blast near one of river’s larger pools. That afternoon patrons at a local filling station again saw the green sedan. Two of the occupants, still “wet to their belt[s]” had a long stringer of trout that they proudly held up for passersby to inspect.

A decade earlier such an incident might have gone unnoticed. Dynamiting streams had long been common practice in western North Carolina. Loggers working along the Cane and the South Toe probably lobbed explosives into likely-looking holes whenever they craved a meal of fresh trout.

But by 1927 things were different. When Colonel Nelson Mease, a local man recently appointed game warden for the region, learned of the dynamiting on the North Fork, he launched a full-scale investigation, interviewing witnesses, collecting affidavits, and seeking advice from lawyers. When he could not find enough reliable eyewitnesses to identify “the ones who did the crime,” he took his case to the newspapers.”The person who dynamites a stream,” he told a local reporter, “is the enemy of all true sportsmen, lovers of outdoor life and the general public.”

Mease’s comments reflected a recent sea change in attitudes toward fish and game in North Carolina. For much of its history the state had no comprehensive wildlife laws. Indeed, in the first decades of the 20th century many rural folk annually participated in communal spring hunts for robins, blackbirds, bobolinks, meadow larks, flickers, and other songbirds, all of which made passable table fare.

Likewise commercial hunters, primarily “from New York and New England,” slaughtered Carolina shore birds, deer, and other game “in untold numbers, and packing their bodies in barrels of ice, shipped them to Northern markets.” Though the general assembly had the power to curb such practices, state legislators had traditionally allowed county governments to set their own closed seasons and bag limits on various species. Most hunters simply ignored those regulations.

No Robin Eating!

In the early 1900s, as concern for diminishing wildlife mounted across the nation, North Carolina took its first halting steps toward game conservation. The General Assembly officially recognized the state Audubon Society and empowered it to regulate “the taking of game birds and animals.” With meager funds provided by the legislature, the society issued hunting licenses and used volunteer wardens to enforce closed seasons and bag limits. But in a state where rural folk still relished a spring repast of robins, the society often found itself at odds with local authorities. State officials abandoned the program in 1909 due to a lack of funding and popular support.

It took another decade and a half of lobbying by sportsmen, the Audubon Society, and other conservationists (as well as considerable political maneuvering by Governor Angus W. McClean) before North Carolina’s irresolute lawmakers finally passed a state game law in 1927. The legislation distinguished between game animals (deer, bears, rabbits, squirrels, opossums, quail, doves, and wild turkeys), which could be legally hunted, and protected species (robins and other songbirds), which were not to be taken.

It also set seasons and bag limits for every county. Similar regulations for fishing prohibited dynamiting, trapping, and other destructive methods and established size and creel limits for various species, including brook and rainbow trout. To facilitate enforcement the legislature created the Game Commission within the Board of Conservation and Development. The commission, in turn, hired regional wardens such as Mease to apply the law “without fear or favor.”

The state also made it clear that its chief concern was protection of game and fish for sportsmen. In a long pamphlet describing the new regulations, the Game Commission explained that hunting and “out-of-doors life” provided “the farmer, the professional man, the business man, and the worker” with “means for soothing their over-wrought nerves and diversions from their daily tasks.” Noting that the nation’s 7 million hunters spent more than $50 apiece annually on their sport, the Game Commission boldly predicted that the state might easily attract thousands of affluent sport hunters from across the South.

However, when the new law went into effect, anyone visiting the Black Mountains might have been hard pressed to find any game worth taking. Years of intensive logging and habitat destruction had devastated local wildlife populations. In 1919 [state forester] John Simcox Holmes noted that black bears, once so important to local hunters, had been driven out of the Blacks by the lumbermen. Deer, too, had vanished from the higher ridges. As white-tail populations waned, predators faced a critical food shortage. In 1917 an Eskota farmer killed the last mountain lion seen in the Blacks when it attacked one of his cows. One of the last confirmed sightings of a gray wolf occurred that same year.

Things were no better on the lower slopes. There logging of oaks, hickories, and chestnuts had led to a sharp decline in wild turkeys and other birds that depended on mast. Fish suffered, too. Removing the trees along rivers and creeks caused water temperatures to fluctuate wildly. Silt from denuded hillsides built up in the Cane, the South Toe, and their tributaries, killing aquatic insects that had once flourished on the rocky stream bottoms. By the early 1920s eastern brook trout had diminished noticeably in several Black Mountain streams.

Last Ditch Effort

Well aware that without drastic measures North Carolina might soon have no animals to protect, the Board of Conservation and Development made sure that the 1927 bill carried a provision authorizing state-run refuges and preserves for wildlife. Before the law was two months old, the Game Commission announced plans to create the first such refuge near Mount Mitchell. To many it seemed an ideal locale. Most of the land in the region was now controlled by the Forest Service and the city of Asheville, meaning that animals could roam vast areas of contiguous woodland without straying onto private property where they might be killed.

The idea of a safe haven for wild animals was hardly new. The federal government had outlawed hunting in Yellowstone Park in 1894, and by the time North Carolina got serious about wildlife management, game refuges had become prominent features in many of America’s national forests. Indeed, in 1916 the Forest Service had established its own animal sanctuary on the old Vanderbilt property not far from Asheville. Known as the Pisgah Preserve, it spanned some 90,000 acres and provided protection for deer and other big game.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Forest Service interest in wildlife management owed much to the work of one man: an Iowa-born hunter and conservationist named Aldo Leopold. Today most Americans know Leopold as a founding member of the Wilderness Society and the author of A Sand County Almanac, a classic collection of conservation essays that championed a new “land ethic” based on a deep appreciation of nature and its complexities… In the early 1930s, after leaving the Forest Service, he [authored] Game Management, a text that for more than a generation served as a handbook for anyone interested in wildlife restoration.

Refuges Spawned Game

Refuges were vital to such efforts, especially in areas where game had been seriously depleted. “A game refuge,” Leopold wrote, “is an area closed to hunting in order that its excess population [of animals] may flow out and restock surrounding areas. A refuge is at all times a sanctuary, and the two terms are synonymous.” Properly placed, Leopold believed, a refuge could “prevent the extermination” of a declining species until it “recuperated sufficiently” to sustain itself over its normal range.

For 40 years, Game Management was a bible for those who worked at Mount Mitchell. “Oh yes, we read it,” recalled A. E. Ammons, retired supervising biologist for Western North Carolina. “It was the premiere textbook. Every wildlife biologist in the state had studied it. In fact, we still relied on it in the early [19]60s when I started to work.”

Following Leopold’s advice, the state temporarily outlawed hunting throughout the Mount Mitchell Game Refuge and Wildlife Management Area, a 22,000-acre tract that stretched from the upper South Toe in Yancey County across the southern end of the Blacks and down Curtis Creek in McDowell County. Officials placed gates on all roads leading into the area and threatened trespassers with fines and jail sentences. To enforce the regulations, the Game Commission hired Colonel Nelson Mease, the well-known Black Mountain warden whose relentless pursuit of Swannanoa dynamiters (and other similar heroics) had earned him a solid reputation for upholding the new game laws. Mease lived on-site in a newly constructed warden’s cabin along Neals Creek.

At first, though, neither the state presence nor the new policies had much effect. The resident deer population had fallen so low that Mease and others believed the animals might be extinct in the wild. Fortunately, not far away on the federally run Pisgah Preserve, white-tails were thriving. Vanderbilt’s foresters had stocked nine deer on the property sometime between 1890 and 1900, and by the late 1920s the Biltmore herd, as it was commonly called, comprised some 3,000 animals.

In 1930, starting with six fawns, Mease began transplanting animals from Pisgah to Mount Mitchell. It was slow and often frustrating work. Deer had to be trapped at the preserve, taken by truck to the refuge, placed in holding pens (along Neals Creek and atop Bald Knob Ridge), and fed until they adapted to their new surroundings. Over the next four years Mease (now serving as supervisor for all the state’s western game refuges) and his fellow managers released about 85 deer at Mount Mitchell.

About the same time, the wardens also liberated seven black bears imported from Pisgah and other locales. Game birds, too, were important to the stocking program. Using eggs acquired from eastern North Carolina and elsewhere in the Southeast, the state set loose 110 wild turkeys (16 gobblers and 94 hens) and 58 bobwhite quail between 1928 and 1933. Like the foresters who replanted the Blacks’ upper slopes, wildlife managers also experimented with exotic species, releasing 59 ringneck and golden pheasants (birds native to Europe and Asia) into the hardwood forests.

Restoring Elk

Some of the most publicized early game restoration work involved elk. Whether elk had ever lived in the region was (and is) a matter of considerable debate among wildlife experts. But restoring the stately animals had been a long-standing dream in North Carolina…The managers at Pisgah imported a small herd of elk from Yellowstone National Park in 1917. Mease brought eleven of those Pisgah elk — four bulls and seven cows — to Mount Mitchell in 1932.

To ensure that elk and other animals had more than a fighting chance, North Carolina not only restricted human hunters but also declared an all-out war on nature’s predators. Strange as it seems today, most wardens once regarded elimination of “varmints and predatory’s” (as the state called them) as an essential part of game restoration, something as crucial to effective wildlife policy as good habitat and an adequate food supply. Early in his career Aldo Leopold advocated such tactics.

By the early 1930s some wildlife biologists had already begun to question such practices. Indeed, in Game Management Leopold readily acknowledged that nature’s “great drama of tooth and claw” was highly complex and that in some cases killing off carnivores created more problems than it solved. Yet when it came to refuges, Leopold and most other experts still believed that controlling predators made sense…As the wardens at the Mount Mitchell refuge understood it, the message from the experts was clear: If turkeys, deer, and trout were to flourish, their natural enemies had to die.

Between 1928 and 1933 Mease and his colleagues killed 858 snakes, 127 skunks, 112 hawks and owls, 30 rats, 18 weasels, and 9 kingfishers (which threatened trout) at the refuge. So as not to make trouble with local residents, the wardens generally tried to capture stray dogs and return them to their owners. But free-roaming house cats got no such consideration. Officers simply shot them on sight. After the state established other refuges in western North Carolina, the wardens engaged in a friendly competition each year to see who could destroy the most vermin. Local newspapers took great delight in reporting the annual kills.

In 1933 and 1934, after more than a half-decade of stocking game, feeding wildlife, and shooting predators, the Mount Mitchell wardens took a census of various animals living on the refuge. The wardens discovered that once delivered from their enemies, native birds had multiplied rapidly. An estimated 875 ruffed grouse lived on the refuge in 1934 and, aside from squirrels (which numbered 1,300), had increased faster than any other species.

Exotic birds fared worse, though. Some 135 pheasants had survived at Mount Mitchell, but in keeping with their preference for open terrain, the birds clustered in fields and cutover areas instead of moving into the surrounding forests. The first wild turkeys, accustomed to warmer climes in the Piedmont and coastal plain, had difficulty coping with the harsh Black Mountain winters. Of the 110 birds set loose since 1928, only 16 remained.

Elk, too, never reestablished themselves in the Blacks, partly because the animals brought from Pisgah were half-tame. By 1934 only 6 of the original 11 elk remained, and they stuck close to refuge headquarters where wardens often fed them by hand. Black bears did better. Without harassment from hunters, the bear population increased from a half-dozen or so in 1928 to 42 by 1934.

When it came to judging the state’s new wildlife policies, however, the animals that mattered most to Mease and the Game Commission were white-tailed deer. Deer hunting was by far the most popular pastime for sportsmen, especially those from Piedmont cities and out of state. Visiting deer hunters bought more expensive, nonresident licenses and spent large sums on lodging and equipment, all of which generated state tax revenue. Providing deer for sport hunters became even more important in 1937 when Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Act.

The legislation placed a federal excise tax on the sale of firearms and other sporting goods; the money was earmarked to aid various states, including North Carolina, in “management and restoration of wildlife.” Joe Scarborough, an assistant warden who worked at the Mount Mitchell refuge in the mid-1960s, explained it this way: “You have to understand . . . back then [in the early days of wildlife management] deer paid for it all. That was where the money was at, that was where the interest was at. All the programs . . . federal money . . . everything that’s here today, deer and the people that hunted them paid for.”

Fortunately for workers in the Black Mountains, deer came back strong. The 1934 census placed the refuge herd at 343 animals, a threefold increase in just six years. By the late 1930s, as Pittman-Robertson went into effect, deer had multiplied so rapidly that the state decided to allow limited hunting of white-tails on certain refuge lands. For a small fee ($2.00 in 1941), hunters with valid North Carolina licenses (and who had not already taken their limit of deer) could secure a permit that allowed them to hunt at Mount Mitchell for one to three days in early November. During that time they could legally take one buck. Hunters had to check in and out of the area every day and record their kills with the local wardens.

Even with those restrictions the “managed deer hunts” at Mount Mitchell proved phenomenally popular. Before World War II, Mease had no trouble filling a quota of 200 permits per day during the short seasons. Indeed, the deer program worked so well that wildlife officials soon established similar short seasons for hunting black bear on the refuge.

When it came to fish, the managers had even greater success, at least in the short run. The Game Commission began restocking refuge waters in 1929 using trout raised in other mountain hatcheries. By 1933 wardens had planted 150,000 fingerlings in Black Mountain streams. Rainbow trout, better suited to survival in warmer water, were released into the South Toe, and hatchery-reared brook trout went into the tributaries.

Mease might also have brought in a few brown trout during his first years at Mount Mitchell, though the exact date those fish became established in the area remains an open question. Stocking efforts were so effective that during the early 1930s, well before hunting resumed, the state opened the streams to fishing for a few days each summer. Like deer hunters, anglers had to check in and out so that wardens could measure and weigh the daily catch.

Black Mountain fishing also received a huge boost in 1934 when Franklin Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration provided funds for a new hatchery on Neals Creek. Capable of producing 300,000 to 400,000 fish per season, the facility was soon supplying brook and rainbow trout for all refuge waters. Sometime around 1940, in what he later called “a sort of publicity gag,” Mease set aside Neals Creek as a stream “for women only.”

The special designation, apparently the first of its kind in the South, created an immediate sensation. On summer weekends when the stream was open, some 50 to 60 women lined its banks. A few years later Mease happily reported that “in spite of the large number of young men taken into the armed services,” the refuge, with its women-only waters, had “more mountain fishing fans than ever before.”

Amid all the good press, however, problems persisted. Due to continued logging on the lower slopes and the advancing chestnut blight (which further reduced the supply of seasonal mast), deer, bear, and other game were still scarce outside the refuge. Lured by rumors of abundant white-tails, docile elk, and streams teeming with trout, residents of nearby communities frequently ventured onto government lands in search of meat for the table.

During the first years of the Great Depression, when some mountain people began to rely more on wild game for sustenance, Mease’s monthly reports to the Game Commission often read like a local police blotter…Long accustomed to hunting and fishing as they pleased, many Black Mountain people saw no reason to comply with new rules written primarily for sportsmen and tourists. Illegal hunting and fishing remained serious problems at the refuge for years to come.

While local residents chafed under the new regulations, some conservationists raised other concerns. Starting in the mid-1930s, as ecologists began to unravel the mysteries of food webs and energy flow, the national parks “moved very slowly and erratically . . . toward a scientific understanding of predator and prey populations and the discontinuance of predator control.”

Aldo Leopold, too, began to advocate a more inclusive philosophy of wildlife management that stressed protection of predators and a balanced natural system. At Mount Mitchell, Leopold had a kindred spirit in fellow Yale alumnus J.S. Holmes. Much interested in ecology and apparently well aware of changing policies in the national parks, Holmes openly criticized state laws that favored “the group known as game” and suggested that “instead of killing one species to favor another, nature should be allowed to do her own regulation.”

Though Mount Mitchell State Park bordered the refuge, Holmes steadfastly refused to allow any hunting, for game or predators, on park lands.”The controlling principle of wildlife management,” he insisted, “should be to encourage the natural distribution of animal life.”

From Mt. Mitchell & The Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern North America, by Timothy Silver. Forthcoming from University of North Carolina Press in March 2003. Used by permission of the publisher. www.


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