To some people, the Hullett Provincial Wildlife Area (HPWA) is considered to be the crown jewel. Perhaps this can be attributed to the scale of the project, some 2100 acres of wetlands in a wildlife management landscape of over 5000 acres. Perhaps it is the number of independently managed and diverse wetlands surrounded by an even more diverse upland landscape. The origins of the Hullett PWA and the recognition of some of the key people that made it happen are an interesting recollection.
The HPWA is situated on the South Maitland River just east of the town of Clinton in the Municipality of Huron County, in the midst of some of the finest farming country in southern Ontario. The South Maitland’s broad floodplain in this area was very prone to flooding---some 2000 acres were inundated each spring and occasionally, pending a heavy rainstorm event, in the late summer or fall of any given year. Immediately downstream of the broad floodplain, the river passed through a natural constriction with high hills on each side. As the extensive watershed above this restriction was increasingly cleared and drained over time, the resulting increases in runoff led to more regular flood events of longer duration.
Though much of this floodplain had been cleared and was farmed with some success in the days of smaller farm operations: with the advent of larger equipment and correspondingly larger viable land units, this flooding put much of the floodplain at an annual risk that exceeded the expectations of dependable cropland. The cost of modifying the natural barrier in order to safely and effectively convey flood events was deemed prohibitive in spite of the lands’ Class 2 agricultural capability rating. Hundreds of acres of the most flood prone land reverted to rough pastureland and second growth forest. Many of the smaller farm units were no longer viable and where put up for sale. But what prompted this area’s consideration as a wildlife area based on a large permanent wetland in the first place?
The loss, via agricultural drainage, of the extensive and strategic Lake Smith wetlands near Grand Bend motivated some resource agency staff to think about a replacement wetland in South Western Ontario. Lake Smith was an important regional staging area for waterfowl and other migratory birds moving along the eastern Lake Huron shoreline. It was also considered an important stopover for birds travelling from the south end of Arran Lake and other important wetlands in central and northern Bruce County to the continentally important Lake St. Clair wetlands.
During the early 1960’s the Department of Lands and Forests was looking for Wildlife Management Areas. Lands and Forests staff members Larry Scales (Zone Foresters) and Roy Bellinger (Conservation Officer) were aware of the area that flooded regularly along the South Mailand River. Dan Mansell. The District Biologist
investigated the flood area with summer student Doug Meeking and the initial plan for a Wildlife Management Area near Clinton was born.
Many other Lands and Forests (now restructured into the Ministry of Natural Resources) staff where heavily involved in the formation of the Hullett WMA. With Dan Mansell appointed MNR District Manager; Bill Creighton (Fish and Wildlife Supervisor) Herb Clark (Recreation Supervisor), Rene Jones (Biologist), John Dobell (Biologist), and Wendy McNabb (Planning Coordinator) can be credited with the vision, planning and initiation of the Hullett WMA. Later, as the project evolved to completion, Mike Malhoit (Area Supervisor), Ken Maronettes and Bill Flynn were other resource agency staff that worked to make the Hullett WMA a reality. Huron County Council was supportive, as was Hullett Township Council.
There seems to be a notion among many conservationists and naturalists that wildlife and resource management areas just miraculously appear, or have always been there for their use and enjoyment. I can assure you that a lot of dedication, commitment, public consultation, hard work and planning over a period of years go into the creation of any significant wildlife area.
Initially there was some community opposition to the Hullett WMA proposal, but many of the local farmers who owned land in the flood zone came forth to sell. An active land acquisition program was underway during the 1960’s much of the flood plain lands had been assembled into a cohesive unit. Now it was time to consider the means of establishing a permanently flooded and managed wetland. The basic concept was to simply create and maintain a large flooded pool reminiscent of the annually flooded area. A second, smaller flooded area was proposed on a drain that fed into the flood plain from the northeast. The MNR had invested a considerable sum of money in assembling the land for the Hullett WMA. When it was time to finance the infrastructure that would control and manage the extensive, permanent wetland that was to be the centerpiece of, indeed the primary reason for, the wildlife area, the MNR was running short of adequate funding.
Duck Unlimited Canada (DUC), a newcomer to the province of Ontario at the time, was asked to partner into the financing and development of the wetland aspect of the WMA. To the consternation of few of the MNR staff that had been behind the land assembly and the original flood different wetland development concept. Rather than one large flood created by a major water control and conveyance structure across the South Maitland River, DUC proposed a series of independently managed cells adjacent to both sides of the river. The advantages of this concept were two-fold.
When fully conceptualized, the Hullett wetlands involved seven large wetland habitat cells ranging from 100 to well over 500 acres in size. Ten satellite ponds, ranging from 1 to 26 acres in size, were scattered throughout the rolling uplands to the southwest of the flood plain zone. In time, additional works including a 125-acre sub-cell and many habitats within the WMA to more than 2000 acres.
Numerous water conveyance and management structures incorporated into more than 21 kilometres of earthworks, including some of the largest dykes ever built by DUC, rounded out the Hullett wetlands. In a strange twist, the largest dykes that parallel the river for several kilometres, have been built high and wide; not just to hold the relatively shallow waters within the wetlands, but to keep the annual flood crests on the river from ravaging those same wetlands.
In overall scope, the Hullett project rivals some of the major UDC projects in western Canada. The project was built in stages, the satellite ponds and major works commencing in 1979 and finishing up in 1983. I remember sitting down for a day with the DUC Eastern Region Manager, Mr. John Waigh, to estimate the cost of construction materials, contractor’s charges, miscellaneous construction supplies and construction supervision for the primary stages of the project. We came up with a figure of $1.6 million. Whether by good luck or by good management, the project came in at this figure some five years later. A lot of credit can be attributed to Jim Potter (Construction Supervisor) and Calvin Lovett, a local boy who worked on the project and rose through the DUC ranks to later become one of the organization’s finest Construction Supervisors. Roger Madill, the Ontario Provincial Engineer of DUC, also played a pivotal role in the development of Hullett.
The additional works, as mentioned above, were constructed in 1991 and brought the complete project’s total capital constructions costs to about $2 million. Hullett, as it is now affectionately called, rapidly evolved into a variety of diverse wetland and upland habitats. When only some 800 acres of the project were under early flood management, aerial brood surveys conducted by helicopter gave waterfowl brood counts in the order of two and one half times that of anticipated production estimates. The fact that a regional distemper outbreak the year prior to the surveys had decimated local raccoon populations no doubt had something to do with the high waterfowl counts. The Pied-Billed Grebe, a regionally significant species, began nesting on the project in significant numbers. Waterfowl like Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks and Redheads, typically species of more western longitudes, were recorded as nesting on the project.
The extensive uplands of the Hullett WMA, some 3000 acres, have seen a range of enhancement and management actions. Some reforestation had been carried out in strategic locations. Hedgerows and habitat connection corridors have been planted. About 60 acres of an originally intended 200 acres of native grassland have been planted by DUC. Several hundred acres consisting of the best agricultural land is still cropped on a rotational, and as much as possible, minimum tillage basis. The strategic location of these crop fields is part of the overall long-term management strategy for the area. Rental income and services-in-kind for this cropland helps with the maintenance of the WMA.
There is still opportunity for additional wetland habitat work at Hullett. The potential for division and expansion of two of the three largest cells would result in increased aquatic habitat and more optimal depths throughout both wetland units. However, probably the biggest challenge facing Hullett these days is to maintain what has already been achieved as functional, high quality wetlands. The commitment and the resources on the part of both primary partner agencies for this have been waning in recent years. It would be a shame should this fine area, the result of such early commitment and dedication on the part of many; and in view of the significant financial investment already made, be allowed to fall below its great value to wildlife and society.
Named after John Hullett, a member of Hullett Bros. and Co., Hullett Marsh was historically moulded by the movement of a vast glacier which covered the area approximately 10,000 years ago. It was bounded by a kame moraine on the west and south, and a till plain and esker to the east. Now it has been moulded again by the hands and minds of humans to create a home for hundreds of species, diverse habitats,
recreational activities, educational opportunities and, of course, a Provincial Treasure.