Considered one of the most outstanding gifts to wildlife conservation in North America, the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center was bequeathed by Tom Yawkey to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in 1976. The land that was once 20,000 acres along the South Carolina shore is now 24,000 acres and home to hundreds of species of wildlife, including migratory birds, eagles, alligators, and loggerhead sea turtles.
The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center embraces North Island, South Island, and most of Cat Island, three coastal islands located at the mouth of Winyah Bay in Georgetown County, SC. Composed of approximately 31 square miles of marsh, managed wetlands, forest openings, ocean beach, longleaf pine forest, and maritime forest, the Center is principally dedicated as a wildlife preserve, research area, and waterfowl refuge.
Those familiar with the preserve's recent history know the present-day Wildlife Center has gradually changed from a hunting preserve purchased by Tom Yawkey’s uncle in 1914 to a waterfowl refuge over the years. Since post-Civil War Reconstruction, marshlands around Winyah Bay and the Santee Delta have been highly valued for waterfowl. Right before the land came into the Department's hands, Tom Yawkey, an avid outdoorsman and bird watcher, had managed it as a game preserve primarily for waterfowl. He also purchased properties in the surrounding areas and continued his mission to preserve the land for conservation.
Before Tom Yawkey donated the land in his will, the South Island preserve earned the reputation as one of the most outstanding waterfowl refuges on the Atlantic Flyway. To ensure his conservation practices would be advanced beyond his lifetime, Yawkey established the Yawkey Foundation, an organization dedicated to managing the funding of the wildlife refuge, and bequeathed the property to the SC DNR to be used for continual wildlife management, education, and research. A $10 million perpetual trust was left to the Yawkey Foundation to fund the ongoing preservation of the wildlife refuge.
Yawkey's donation is a tribute to his foresight as a conservationist, for the property's preservation not only cements the linkage among some 66 miles of publicly owned pristine beachfront stretching toward Charleston but also provides an excellent now 24,000- acre field laboratory where the potential for research is unlimited. The will stipulates that the islands will be used essentially as they were under Yawkey's stewardship. NOT OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.
The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center has a long history of waterfowl management.
Federally Endangered birds found at the Yawkey Wildlife Center are wood storks and red-cockaded woodpeckers, which reside here year-round. Piping plovers are found here except during breeding season. Least tern arrive during the summer and fall for their breeding season. Peregrine falcons are found here except during breeding seasons. WatchListed birds that make the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center their home all year-round include bald eagles, common ground-dove, black rail, black skimmer, barn owl, loggerhead shrike, and northern bobwhite. The America bittern is found here during the winter, summer, and fall. Wilson’s plover, painted bunting, and gull-billed tern are found here during their breeding seasons, which occur in the summer and fall. At least 1000 waterfowl, seabirds, and shorebirds and at least 500 colonial waterbirds flock here every year. This includes 28 species of waterfowl, 16 species of seabirds, 33 species of shorebirds, and 16 species of waders.
The Yawkey Center is used by a wide diversity of birds all year.
Fortunately, the human imposed threats are minimal.
Hurricanes occasionally do major damage.
The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center is owned by the SC Department of Natural Resources.
Tom Yawkey was a longtime Boston Red Sox owner and one of the largest land donors in South Carolina history, where he spent much of his childhood and his baseball offseasons. Tom Yawkey’s uncle purchased the land in 1914. Yawkey ultimately inherited the land that would become the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center from his uncle in 1925. After purchasing the surrounding properties, Yawkey maintained the land as a wildlife preserve and sought to keep it as natural and undisturbed as possible. His wife, Jean Yawkey, added to the land after Tom’s death, expanding his initial gift from 20,000 to 24,000 acres.
The Tom Yawkey Center has a diverse habitat. It is primarily coniferous woods (mostly pine), pine savannah, tidal wetland, non-tidal wetland, mudflats, and littoral and secondarily southern mixed hardwood forest, bottomland hardwood forest, shrub-scrub, grassland, cultivated field, bald cypress-tupelo gum swamp, and riparian.
A large population of American alligator also live in the center. The beach is a nesting site for endangered loggerhead sea turtles.
There are 66 miles of pristine beach and 24,000 acres of field laboratory.
The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center is a 24,000-acre field laboratory where the potential for research is unlimited. North Island is designated a barrier island wilderness where no activities detrimental to its primitive character are permitted. South Island is held for the protection of waterfowl, and no duck hunting is permitted. The remainder of the property is held as a wildlife management area for migratory birds, native game, and other wild species.
After the property's transfer to SC DNR, it was dedicated as a Heritage Preserve by the SC Heritage Trust, a departmental program established to preserve natural diversity in SC.