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Johnson Witnessed Change in Wildlife Attitudes

By DAVID RAINER 

Kenneth Johnson has seen the world of wildlife conservation change dramatically since he walked off the stage with his diploma at Auburn and into the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

That transition was literally continuous.

“I graduated from Auburn on March 18, 1974 and came down here on March 19,” Johnson said of his assignment as manager of Blue Springs Wildlife Management Area near Andalusia. “I put in my application and was interviewed before I graduated. Originally, they wanted me to come to work on the 18th, so I called Bill Holland (Chief of Wildlife) and asked him if I could come on the 19th. But I told him that if made the difference of me getting or not getting the job, I’d be there on the 18th. I told him I had family coming to watch me graduate, so he told me the 19th was fine.”

A native of Aliceville, Johnson is now firmly entrenched in the Andalusia area. During those 34-plus years in south Alabama, he has witnessed quite a transformation in attitudes concerning wildlife, especially when it comes to deer hunting.

“When I came to work, shooting does was taboo,” Johnson said. “I remember some of the opposition when we had the first doe hunts at Blue Springs. They said we were going to destroy the herd by shooting the does. That didn’t happen. When I came to work, I knew we needed to harvest both bucks and does. But the job of convincing the people was a different story. Now that attitude has changed. Now it’s open season for both sexes, and we still can’t shoot enough in some areas.

“We’ve gone from protection to an open season on does to a restriction on bucks. That’s a big change. When I came to work, we were beating our heads against the wall trying to get people to shoot does, and you could shoot a buck a day with antlers visible above the natural hairline. Now look at it today. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Johnson served as District Supervisor for District VI, which encompasses a good bit of southeast Alabama, for 24 years. In 2004, he was chosen to head the Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Unit, which was developed to provide technical assistance to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for implementation of certain aspects of the Farm Bill.

“At that time, the Farm Bill had a lot of wildlife and forestry implications,” he said. “The NRCS didn’t have adequate staff to work with wildlife, so we provided technical assistance. We were working with landowners who signed up for WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program) and EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program). We would meet with the landowner. If they qualified and got funded, we would do a complete conservation plan for that landownershare to do the work. Funding was provided through the Farm Bill, and the landowner had to put up some money, too.”

Johnson and his fellow wildlife biologists would provide the landowner with a digitized map on all the practices and provide a narrative explaining the plan and the time period laid out to do the work. It would also outline the costs and show how much the landowner would have to pay.

“Some of the practices included site-preparation, planting trees and prescribed fire,” he said. “We also could do shallow-water duck ponds, wetlands restoration and early successional habitat work. We could work on hedge rows and strip disking. We could put in wildlife openings. Those are just a few of the things we could do. We always used all the money we were allocated. There were plenty of landowners who wanted the assistance.”

Johnson said he gained great satisfaction in helping landowners improve their wildlife habitat.

“I enjoyed being district supervisor, but I’m really glad I went into the wildlife habitat work the last five years,” he said. “The landowners are really putting the work into wildlife now. I think the future is working with private landowners and improving the wildlife habitat.

“For so many years, our agency stressed protection. Protection is what we needed when we were stocking deer.

When deer got to multiplying, we were late in coming out of the protection stage. Our agency sees the need to work with private landowners. And the attitude of the landowners has changed. Back early on, the landowners thought all they had to do was protect this resource. Now, their attitude is they want to do all the on-the-ground stuff, like burn and all the other practices I mentioned earlier. Overall, that’s going to really going to enhance the habitat for wildlife.”

Johnson’s work has not gone unnoticed. He was named the 2008 Wildlife Biologist of the Year by the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (SEAFWA). The Wildlife Biologist of the Year award is the organization’s most prestigious wildlife award.

Kenneth has led by example, and our wildlife resources have benefited greatly from his efforts,” said Corky Pugh, Director of the ADCNR’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division.

A decorated Marine Corps veteran who served 13 months in Viet Nam, Johnson has also served many community organizations including Kiwanis, the Covington County Fair, Babe Ruth Baseball, the Andalusia Recreation Board and Andalusia First Baptist Church. Johnson was named Kiwanis Club Citizen of the Year in 2004 and Citizen of the Year by the Andalusia Chamber of Commerce in 2005. Both citations were for his work related to raising funds for a Veterans Memorial Park.

On Jan. 1, 2009, Johnson will transition into the world of retirement, which will give him more time to contribute to the community.

“I’m real active in the Kiwanis Club,” he said. “I’ve agreed to be secretary again, which takes a lot of work. I plan to become more involved in the community.

“I also have some hunting land I lease at Loango. I plan to spend a lot more time up there. I love to disk, bushhog and manage that land. I’m going to continue to work with wildlife, but I’m going to it on that land more intensively than I’ve done in the past. Managing that land is going to be my satisfaction.”

PHOTO: Kenneth Johnson of Andalusia, who will retire on Jan. 1 after a 34-plus-year career with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, received the 2008 Wildlife Biologist of the Year award from the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

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