Located in extreme northwestern Tennessee near the Mississippi River, the 18,000-acre Reelfoot Lake was formed in the winter of 1811-12 when three of the most violent earthquakes in U.S. history shook the area where Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky come together. A few miles northwest of the lake, a sweeping bend in the Mississippi delineates a cape—known as Donaldson Point—on the river's Missouri side. The lake, cape and adjacent lands have been designated by The Nature Conservancy as a priority conservation site totaling approximately 273,000 acres.
More than a tenth of the site is publicly owned. Reelfoot Lake is home to the 10,428-acre Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge, which extends into southwestern Kentucky, and to Reelfoot Lake State Park and Reelfoot Lake State Wildlife Management Area. Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses 1,850 acres, is located three miles south of Reelfoot Lake, and the Missouri Department of Conservation's 5,785-acre Donaldson Point Conservation Area is located on the cape.
The site's variety of habitats, including rivers, lakes, ancient cypress swamps, marshes, sloughs and bluffs covered with upland oak and hickory forests, shelter 17 different plant communities, three rare plants and 13 rare animals, as well as large populations of waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors. Species recorded within the Reelfoot refuge alone include 239 birds, 52 mammals and 75 reptiles and amphibians.
Strategies and Progress
The Donaldson Point-Reelfoot Lake site contains stands of bottomland forest from 10,000 to 20,000 acres in size, which have become fragmented by changes in land use and which could be improved as wild habitat if reconnected. Reelfoot Lake has been clouded by decades of accelerated sedimentation brought on by the elimination of sufficient wetland buffers to filter erosive run-off from nearby agricultural lands. The lake has also suffered from invasive, non-native species and because its spillway no longer provides an adequate means of regulating the lake's water level.
The Conservancy supports expanding the Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge and other publicly-owned areas as a means of facilitating restoration of Reelfoot Lake and the forests within its designated conservation site. As part of this effort, the Conservancy has future plans to become involved in conservation planning for Reelfoot, first by seeking to build relationships with governmental entities and ensuring adequate appropriations are made for land acquisition and for maintenance of the lake's spillway structures. The Conservancy also plans to work to build a consensus among those with an interest in the lake to support collaborative conservation efforts, including improved management of the lake's water levels.
Conservation of the Donaldson Point-Reelfoot Lake site will protect an area of significant biodiversity, including more than 15 rare plant and animal species. In addition, it has been estimated that more than 400,000 mallards winter annually in the area. Reelfoot Lake hosts up to 200 wintering bald eagles, believed to be that species' largest wintering population in the 48 contiguous states.