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Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge plans exhibit, special events

The Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge is a beautiful asset for the city of Suffolk, and officials there are working on a variety of plans to enhance the refuge and its offerings.

Refuge manager Suzanne Baird said the city is in the process of converting the old courthouse on Main Street into a new Suffolk Visitor Center, and the design calls for an exhibit about the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge.

Refuge officials are trying to garner some funds in grants through a Federal Challenge Cost Share Program with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, she said. The city’s match of about $50,000 is already included in the refuge’s comprehensive conservation plan, she said.

“It’s money they’re already spending.”

Refuge officials applied for the federal funding earlier this month, but won’t know until after the first of the year if they will receive any, Baird said. Still, she said chances are good they will get the money.

While they are working on funding for the exhibit, officials are not yet sure what it will include. They do know it will focus on the resources of the refuge, as well as tie in the history of the area, such as the role of the Underground Railroad, Baird said.

“I think it’s going to be pretty slick and very exciting.”

Another plan that has refuge officials geared up for spring is the creation of a Great Dismal Swamp Birding Festival. This event, developed in conjunction with the Suffolk Department of Tourism, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Great Dismal Swamp Coalition, will be funded through a similar cost share program.

“This is a new event that we’re all very excited about,” Baird said.

It is scheduled for May 11-13, 2007, and though officials still are in the early planning stages, they know it will entail guided bird walks, bus tours, orientation to the refuge and more.

Baird explained that in the spring, birders come from all over the world to see the rare species that migrate through the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge. Baird said she hopes this festival will attract even more people.

Another new event for the refuge, coming next week, is the first regulated black bear hunt. Nearly 350 people applied for the hunt, but only 100 names were drawn. Of those, 58 hunters completed their permits and paid the $50 fee, Baird said.

Approximately 21,000 acres in the Virginia portion of the 111,200 acre refuge will be open to bear hunting during the two day hunt Dec. 1 and 2. Hunters had a chance to scout the area last week. The refuge has an estimated black bear population of 260-350, which is “fairly stable,” Baird said. This will be the first time the refuge has been open for hunting bears since the 1970s.

“It’ll be an exciting opportunity for many of those hunters.”

ashley.taylor@suffolknewsherald.com