"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." - Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This past week, Monday through Wednesday, I had the opportunity to walk around in the skin of Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFW) Director, Dr. Jon Gassett.
Jon is currently also serving as President of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA). He had the idea that we should shadow one another, to hopefully better understand and appreciate what each of us, and our respective agencies, do day-in-and-day-out.
Project Leader James Gray, Director Ashe, KDFWR Commissioner Jon Gassett, KDFWR Deputy Commissioner Benjy Kinman, KDFWR Fisheries Director Ron Brooks. Photo: USFWS
It was a wonderful experience. I visited an outstanding KDFW team that is working to culture and restore endangered fresh water mollusks. On a shoestring budget, they are doing cutting edge science, like designing technology to culture mussels without fish as intermediate hosts.
They are monitoring reintroductions and adapting as they learn from failure and success. Without State Wildlife Grant funding, this work would not be possible.
I visited another state facility, being renovated with the help of Sport Fish Restoration (Dingell-Johnson) funding, where catfish and sauger are raised for recreational fishing enhancements alongside alligator gar and ESA-listed sturgeon.
I sat in on a KDFW Commission meeting to finalize new regulations for black bear hunting. The state's growing bear population now supports a very short, 3-day season with maximum, 10-bear harvest. The new regulations deal with training seasons and limited harvest for chase with dogs.
It was a meeting marked by strongly diverse public opinions, but all were expressed, and received, with a refreshing sense of respect and dignity.
We had the blessing of a helicopter for two days, which allowed us to travel from Frankfort, KY, along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, to the farthest western reaches of the state. Along the way we flew over and stopped at several wildlife management areas.
View from the helicopter of Wolf Creek NFH
We saw sand bars where KDFW and FWS are working to recover Least tern. High waters prevented a boat trip to see invasive Asian carp. We spent a night at a Kentucky Lake state park facility, landing after dark. The pilot was nervous about the tightness of the proposed landing zone, and we circled like ducks around a spread of decoys. As so often happens with ducks, the pilot decided discretion was the better part of valor, and we retreated to another site with better spacing.
At the head of Kentucky Lake is Wolf Creek Dam, a U.S. Corps of Engineers' facility. Below the dam is USFWS's Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery. We had breakfast with the hatchery staff, and a quick tour from Manager James Gray. It's a beautiful facility, and one that clearly works as well as it looks.
While we were touring, no fewer than 5 KDFW trucks were loading up trout for KDFW's Fishing in Neighborhoods (FINS) program, which is helping urban youth connect to the outdoors. The Wolf Creek hatchery is right in the middle of our ongoing effort to find alternative funding for "mitigation" hatcheries, and seeing the facility made me feel good about the $4.3 million that we have secured in the USCOE budget for FY 2013.
We flew east along the spectacularly mountainous border with Tennessee to the coal country of eastern KY, where KDFW has reintroduced elk. The elk are thriving among the grasslands of reclaimed mines, along with Grasshopper sparrow and those previously mentioned Black bear. Along this route, we flew over Harland, KY, the home town of former FWS Director and friend, Dale Hall.
Bull Elk, Photo: Erwin and Peggy Bauer/USFWS
We saw mountaintop removal and valley fills, sobering reminders of the immensity and impact of our dependence on fossil fuels. It made me proud of the work we have done to produce guidelines for wind energy that will hopefully work to lessen that dependence.
We released the final guidelines on Thursday, to strong accolades from the American Wind Energy Association and the Audubon Society. Another job well-done, and one well-worth the hard work and commitment required to get it done.
Outside of Hazard, KY, I sat in on a meeting with KDFW employees from that region, met with coal company officials, and that evening, attended a public "Town Hall" meeting. Director Gassett and his staff sat with their constituents, well into the night, dutifully and professionally answering their questions and respectfully listening to their concerns and criticisms.
It was a great and memorable trip. An important reminder of the crucial relationship we have with our state agency partners. A reminder of why I tell people that when our state agency partners are strong, the USFWS is strong; when they are successful, we are successful.
In the end, "we" are like the left- and right-hands of conservation; important and unique in ourselves, but when held palm-to-palm, like mirror images. I saw those reflections, clearly and powerfully, this past week.