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Director's Corner

Meet Service Director Dan Ashe.

Conservation’s Next Challenges

Last month, I had the great pleasure of addressing attendees at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. 

This annual gathering is significant because of both the number and breadth of conservation and wildlife management professionals who attend – from scientists of myriad specialties to policy-makers, advocates and legal experts representing federal, state, non-profit, for-profit and academic institutions.  This year, I used it as  an opportunity to talk boldly about what I believe are the paramount issues facing the conservation community today – not global warming or the sixth extinction wave, but our internal struggles to unite and to make the idea of conservation relevant to future generations of Americans. 

I have reproduced that speech here in the hope it will provoke thoughtful discourse and positive action. 

It begins with a simple math problem. In a world where our biggest challenge in conserving wild creatures is human ecology, we are faced with a human population that now numbers 7.3 billion. By mid-century, we will be approaching 10 billion! 

And it's not just our growing numbers, but our expanding affluence. More of the world's population will be more like us in America, with increasing access to things like electricity, education, transportation and health care. 

We will demand more fuel, more fiber, more food, and we will consume more of the planet's ecological space. 

Though we would wish it were not so, that means less and less for the rest of what we collectively call biodiversity.  

So, continued success will require that we be smarter, faster and stronger. Better focused. More unified. Collectively determined. 

But as a conservation community, we have a significant and growing dysfunction. We seem to be armoring ourselves against momentous tides of change. 

We are reflexive and defensive and increasingly angry at the growing proportion of the population that we think just doesn't get it.

Easy things are hard. Hard things are impossible.

Case-in-point is what we call a federal Sportsmen's Bill. And this is not a criticism of the congressional sponsors, because they are responding to us. We are the problem. This is our dysfunction. 

Rome burns ... prairies are in crisis ... Asian carp assault the Great Lakes ... Burmese pythons strangle the Everglades ... Elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife are decimated by a global epidemic in trafficking ... state and federal refuges in California (anchors of the Pacific Flyway) are starved of water ... mule deer are disappearing from large expanses in the west ... every native trout species is imperiled ... grassland birds are declining precipitously ... and on, and on. 

And yet we ask Congress to address the import of 41 polar bear trophies, killed in 2008, in the name of Sportsmen.  

The Land and Water Conservation Fund expires. 

But, in the name of Sportsmen, we ask Congress to exempt lead bullets from Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulation, well knowing that lead bullets are not being regulated by TSCA. 

And early this year, we witnessed the armed, illegal occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by extremists who deny the legitimacy of federal and state government, and the entire concept of public lands held in trust for the American people.  All American people. 

Some ideologues, while not agreeing with the tactics used at Malheur, continue to want the federal government to divest hundreds of millions of acres of public land – not for sportsmen or women – but for economic development, private use and corporate profit. 

My heartfelt thanks to the organizations that stood up and spoke out publicly against the occupation at Malheur: the National Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Defenders of Wildlife, the Audubon Society and others. 

And we will need more strong voices calling for unity, as we see our ability to conserve and protect our public lands and native wildlife steadily undercut by those in positions of power and influence who are hostile to the very idea of public trust.

Sadly, the public doesn’t seem to realize the stakes – nothing less than conservation of wildlife and public lands for current and future generations of Americans. And all the while, conservation is increasingly irrelevant in today's changing American society. 

To us and our predecessors – anglers, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts – conservation has been relevant because it sustains the things we care about. But fewer and fewer people are fishing, hunting and spending time outdoors. 

More than eight in 10 Americans live in urban and suburban environments. And urbanization is accelerating. 

The nation will soon be made up of a majority of minorities.

Most of us in conservation do not look like America. We do not, therefore, adequately represent America. 

This is a crisis for conservation that we simply must address. 

The solution?  I believe it is that we must change and change rapidly. 

And yes, change comes hard. But, as General Eric Shinseki teaches us, if you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less.  

We are already seeing the early stages of irrelevance. 

So, we're facing big challenges. 

Here's what I believe we need to do: 

We have to break out of the disciplinary silos that we built and that served us so well, in the 20th century. We can't do 21st century conservation if we see the world divided into fish, wildlife, range and forestry. We have to unite these great disciplines and see conservation in a larger context, and design conservation on a larger scale. 

We have to have zero tolerance for those who support divestiture of public lands. No one should be able to call themselves a sportsman or sportswoman unless they defend, loudly and at every turn, the benefits and importance of public land ownership and professional stewardship. And we need people in positions of power who will stand up for clean air and water, for protection of habitat, and stand behind the professional public servants – local, tribal, state and federal – who dedicate their lives to conserving wild places and wild creatures. 

We also need a professional ethic that unites us as a community. Something like: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow conservationist. Sure, we may disagree from time to time, but these should be professional, courteous and respectful differences. How can we expect the faith and confidence of the public if we do not reflect faith and confidence in one another? 

We must diversify our organizations, our profession and our community.

This must be a collective priority.  We need to better represent what America looks like. There's a new generation of conservationist out there. They're in cities; they're using smart phones; they don't hunt or fish; they've never spent a night outdoors; their skin is shades of red or brown; English may be their second language. We have to find them. We have to inspire and recruit them. They will become the best-and-brightest. They will make conservation relevant. 

We have to start today.

Science is All about the Data – and You

FWS Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius (from left), Senator Amy Klobuchar and Dan release monarchs after tagging at an event in Minnesota.
FWS Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius (from left), Senator Amy Klobuchar and Dan release monarchs after tagging at an event in Minnesota. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

When you think of “science,” what comes to mind? People in white lab coats in white rooms, surrounded by beakers and complicated instruments? Geniuses like Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking or Marie Curie in front of blackboards filled with complicated equations?

What if I told you that science is as much about you, and people like you, as it is them? That science is all around you, waiting to be discovered? And that you can play a critical role in increasing our scientific understanding of the world?

It’s true. And yesterday, the White House, in collaboration with the GSA and Wilson Center, launched www.citizenscience.gov to help federal agencies engage and connect millions of Americans in citizen science projects across the nation. I encourage you to visit www.citizenscience.gov to learn about all the incredible ways that the federal government is working to engage the public.

Our world is changing rapidly. So rapidly that any predictions we can make about the future are likely to be incomplete at best, or at worst, wildly inaccurate. Unless we have data. The best scientific minds in the world can only work with the data at hand, and having more available data helps them draw more accurate conclusions.

Data – which can be anything from a temperature reading to the number of birds observed on a pond to the date that your roses start blooming – are the lifeblood of science. And even in the era of Big Data, someone has to collect it.

Why can’t that someone be you, or your family?


National Black History Month

Today is the last day in our nation's month-long celebration of African American history. I want to share a few things, and issue a challenge. First, the sharing.

I would invite you to read two things. An opinion piece from Saturday's Washington Post, authored by Colbert King; and a message to southwest region employees, written by regional director, Dr. Benjamin Tuggle.

In his piece, Colbert King recalls and recounts the suffering oppressions of racial segregation as a child growing up in the Washington, DC of the 1960's. He says, he learned the Ten Commandments at Liberty Baptist Sunday School, but "the others" from the civil authority of that day:

"Among them: Thou shalt not attend Grant Elementary School on G Street NW, which was for white children only. Thou shalt not attempt to enter the Circle Theater at 21st and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where only whites were allowed. Thou shalt never think about dining downtown. Thou can purchase sodas and sandwiches at the drugstore at the corner of 25th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. But thou shalt not sit and eat. Thou must stand at the end of the counter and wait patiently to be recognized."

Dr. Tuggle recalls growing up in the Georgia of "Jim Crow" days:

"When I was scarcely a boy of 10, I was with my grandmother in Georgia at a restaurant. It had two drinking fountains, one labeled “White,” the other, “Colored.” Since I had never encountered this before, my curiosity got the best of me. In a moment of innocence that only a child can know, I tested each fountain and reported to my grandma that the “Colored” fountain was mislabeled. The water coming out of each of the fountains was clear, not “Colored” as the sign said. She reluctantly had to explain to me what the signs really meant, which confused me even further. That, I think, was among my earliest memories of being treated differently because of my skin color."

I also grew up in Georgia. Benjamin is a few years older than I, but probably around the same time as he joined his grandmother in that restaurant, I was watching minor league baseball in the days before the Braves migrated to Atlanta, from Milwaukee. The Atlanta Crackers were a fabled team, known as the "Yankees of the minor leagues." Their fans, black and white, were separated by seating, restrooms, and yes, water fountains. Thinking back on the injustices of those times, it seems improbable that Benjamin and I would become great colleagues and friends. But we are.

All that segregation was ended by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By great sacrifice. By long struggle. By inspiring leadership. By enlightened politics and a political system that held to Martin Luther King's theory that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. It was a hard fought and well deserved victory. A victory for African Americans, but for all of us. We are better as a nation and as a people. We are better as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We will be better yet, tomorrow, but only if each and all of us are committed to the goal of growing diversity within our ranks. I am proud that the Service has found and nutured leaders like Benjamin Tuggle, Hannibal Bolton, and Jerome Ford, and is nurturing a new generation represented by people like John Heinz NWR manager Lamar Gore, and in HQ Shannon Smith, Charisa Morris, and Megan Reed. But we can, and must, do better.

And that leads to the challenge. As we are passionate in conserving biological diversity, we must be passionate in building diversity within our agency and our profession. Each and all of us must constantly reflect commitment to this goal. All our actions must demonstrate tolerance of diverse views among culture, race, religion, age, gender, sexuality and ethnicity. We must find, recruit, hire and retain a workforce that mirrors America's expanding diversity.

Thank you, in advance, for accepting this challenge. Now, make it so!


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