The Hatchie River is remarkable for a number of reasons. It is the longest free-flowing tributary of the lower Mississippi River, beginning in northern Mississippi and traveling northward more than 200 miles through western Tennessee. Because it has never been impounded or channelized, natural floods still sustain the river and wetland habitats along its course. The Hatchie is also unique in that its riparian bottomland hardwood forests are relatively undisturbed.
The rich ecological diversity supported by those habitats includes more than 100 species of fish, 35 species of mussels, 50 species of mammals and many reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. Among these are a suite of rare species, such as the blue sucker, northern madtom, naked sand darter, alligator snapping turtle and the endemic Hatchie burrowing crayfish, that have declined elsewhere in their ranges. The Hatchie may contain more species of catfishes—eleven—than any other North American river. Annually, some 250 species of birds, including the rare cerulean and Swainson's warblers, along with myriad waterfowl, use the Hatchie's forests in varying seasons for migration, breeding and wintering.
The Nature Conservancy has designated approximately 1.5 million acres along the Hatchie's length as a priority conservation site. Substantial lands currently under public ownership include the Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge (11,556 acres located south of Brownsville, Tennessee), the Lower Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge (9,451 acres conserving much of the remaining bottomland hardwood forests along the Hatchie's last 17 miles), Fort Pillow State Park at the mouth of the Hatchie River and the John Tully Wildlife Management Area.
Contaminants and considerable amounts of sediment enter the meandering Hatchie from most of its 36 tributaries primarily during and following major rainfall events. Many of the tributaries have been channelized and are no longer bordered by forested wetlands sufficient to filter the sediments from surface flows entering the streams. The tributary channelizations have also altered water flow patterns in the Hatchie's basin, and habitat fragmentation is occurring as wild lands are converted to other uses.
The Nature Conservancy has created a five-year plan designed to reduce the sediments flowing into the river and to protect key bottomland forest habitat. Building on recent success in restoring stream sections, the Conservancy, working with a coalition of partners, is embarking on even more ambitious stream restoration to reduce sedimentation of the Hatchie.
In 2003, the Conservancy purchased 11,800 acres of bottomland hardwood forest from the Anderson-Tully Corporation to create the John Tully Wildlife Management Area. We continue to look for ways to work with state and federal partners to increase protected lands and promote habitat connectivity across West Tennessee.
Other Conservancy strategies being pursued with regard to the Hatchie include the implementation of sustainable water management practices and scientific research to monitor species populations and better understand the Hatchie ecosystem, thereby ensuring the effectiveness of conservation measures.
Because of good stewardship by local landowners, citizen conservationists and its two national wildlife refuges, the Hatchie River, along with its associated habitats, remains an ecological treasure sheltering exceptional biodiversity. Its conservation will ensure the survival of approximately 60 species that are considered globally rare.