Some Amazing Conservation is Happening out West Despite Challenging Issues

I ventured down to Tucson, Arizona, for a few days recently for the winter meeting of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA).

Lee Metcalf NWR The landscape at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in western Montana is just one type we manage with WAFWA. Credit: Bob Danley/USFWS

WAFWA represents U.S. states from Alaska and Hawaii to Texas and the Dakotas. Several Canadian provinces are also members. That’s almost 4 million square miles, home to more than 1,500 wildlife species.

WAFWA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked, side-by-side, on a number of conservation successes last year.

Our announcement in August that the Wyoming population of gray wolves was recovered and no longer warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act will go down in the books as a conservation triumph. And it would not have been possible without the remarkable work of WAFWA member agencies and many partners dedicated to bringing the wolf to the Northern Rocky Mountains and back from the brink of extinction. Wolves were also declared recovered in the Western Great Lakes area in late 2011, and we’re working with WAFWA member states on a path forward for the still-endangered Mexican wolf.

In June, we determined that the dunes sagebrush lizard did not warrant protection under the ESA. State agencies in New Mexico and Texas worked with private landowners, including ranchers and oil industry giants, on voluntary conservation agreements that should ensure the long-term conservation of the lizard. The victory with the dunes sagebrush lizard showed the nation that species conservation and energy development can co-exist if both sides work together, toward shared objectives, in a spirit of shared sacrifice.

We established, in September, the first urban refuge in the Southwest – Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  A few weeks earlier, in Colorado the Sangre de Cristo Conservation Area came into being, thanks to Louis Bacon’s breathtaking act of generosity – a donation of an easement on about 170,000 acres.

The Service and our Western partners continue working toward recovery of the endangered black-footed ferret, one of North America’s most imperiled terrestrial species. The ferrets need prairie dogs to survive, and in 2012, we made progress toward creating incentives for landowners to conserve ferret and prairie dog populations, and developing an effective prairie dog vaccination for sylvatic plague.

The ferret will be a phenomenal recovery success when it happens. We are also well-positioned for more successes with WAFWA and its members.

We are all hard at work on strategies to ensure the conservation of the iconic greater sage-grouse and lesser prairie-chicken. We are getting a big assist with these two birds from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has included the two species in the Working Lands for Wildlife program. Working Lands for Wildlife provides technical and financial assistance to landowners interested in keeping lands working for both people and wildlife.

Along with states there, we are waging a key conservation battle in the Prairie Pothole Region to preserve its status as America’s Duck Factory – it produces 50 percent of the continent’s waterfowl in an average year.

Like we did with the dunes sagebrush lizard, we are working together to ensure that energy development out West – both traditional forms of energy and renewable – results in a landscape that still functions to support abundant, healthy and diverse populations of wild life. Over the past two years, for instance, our Pacific Southwest Region’s biologists have consulted or are consulting on 31 solar and wind energy projects that when completed, could produce more than 8 billion watts (8.246 gig watts) of electricity, enough to power more than 16 million homes in California and Nevada.  Through our hard work, this will be done in a way that also ensures a landscape that will support desert tortoise, golden eagle and other populations of wild life.

We are really working together, in our Pacific Region. Interagency Personnel Agreements have allowed the Service to fund four positions with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In tight budget times, these shared positions are invaluable, allowing work to get done and building relationships.

Wood bisonWood bison are the largest native land mammals in the Western Hemisphere. Credit: Laura Whitehouse/USFWS

In Alaska, we have been working closely with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to reintroduce wood bison to Alaska. It has been hundreds of years since the largest native land mammal in North America has roamed Alaskan land.

I could go on and on about our plans with the states out West. It is great to have such strong partners. As Winston Churchill said: “If we are together nothing is impossible. If we are divided all will fail.”

For sure, we have our difficult issues, challenges and disagreements with our state partners.  As I sat before the WAFWA Executive Committee, I took some very good and very hard questions.  That’s fair.  What’s better? We have a relationship where they feel comfortable raising difficult and challenging issues to me, and doing it directly.  This is essential if we are to achieve our goal of “no daylight” between us and our state partners.

No daylight doesn’t mean no disagreement, but it means to the greatest extent possible, we keep disagreement at a professional level and we keep it “in the family” whenever possible.

How invigorating to be in Tucson with all these smart and dedicated conservationists. What a great way to start a new year!

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Last updated: August 31, 2011