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Open Spaces

A Talk on the Wild Side.

Birds and Battalions

War transformed the nature of farmlands of central Texas. What had been a checker-spotted landscape interspersed with mosaics of oak-juniper woodlands turned into a busy Camp Hood during World War II. The Soldiers from central Texas would end up in Europe to help bring the war against Germany to a close. The temporary military camp later became the permanent Fort Hood, the largest U.S. Army facility in the nation encompassing over 218,000 acres and supporting more than 371,000 people including some 50,000 well-trained Soldiers.

Then and Now
Today, the sounds of live weapons fire from helicopters, the roar of mechanized combat vehicles, the clomp of metal-tracked tanks rumbling like massive bulldozers with cannons cruising over the terrain are all common sights and sounds at Fort Hood.

And as of late, so are two songbirds: the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo. In seemingly incongruent fashion, the wispy songs of these two federally endangered birds embalm the springtime air of Fort Hood.

Golden-cheeked WarblerThe golden-cheeked warbler has been considered endangered since 1990. Scientific research and conservation work on Ft. Hood has improved its lot. USFWS


Securing the Future of Elephants in Sri Lanka

Shining Light on Black Market Ivory

Last week, giant green stone crushers crunched and pulverized contraband ivory at a high-profile public awareness event set in the capital city of Sri Lanka, Colombo. At ivory crush events such as this one, energies are high and the ivory crushing is as loud as the statement it is making-- illegal killing of elephants for ivory will not be tolerated.

However, this time, afterwards the atmosphere quieted as it shifted into a religious ceremony honoring the deceased elephants, the first ceremony of its kind at an ivory crush event. Ministers of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity offered prayers at the ceremony as the different faiths found common ground in standing against illegal wildlife trade, making the event truly remarkable.

This expression of unity is not the only valuable example Sri Lanka’s ivory crush offered for the future fight against the illegal trade in ivory. Government officials ensured that forensic investigations of the confiscated stockpile were complete before the destruction, providing detailed insight into the trade route that will help combat trafficking activities. Criminal networks behind this trade are complex, covered over by corruption and black market-operated. It will take a combination of collaborative investigations and intelligence sharing between countries and organizations to disband these networks.

Sri Lanka is now the first South Asian country to join the growing list of nations that have destroyed their ivory stockpiles. High rates of poaching have not been observed on the island; however, it serves as a transit hub for ivory from other countries. Sri Lanka’s public statement against the trade will serve as a warning against the black market in ivory conducted through its ports. Every nexus of the black market trade shut down is a step towards healthy elephant populations.

Regarding the ivory crush, Dr. Shermin de Silva, long-time grantee through the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund, remarked, “It is very heartening that after a long period of uncertainty about the future of the confiscated tusks, they have been put to rest in a most fitting way. I commend the Sri Lankan authorities, religious leaders, and public for demonstrating empathy for elephants and showing the world that such crimes will not be tolerated.

We’ve supported Dr. Shermin de Silva in her committed, long-term work studying the social habits, demographics, and ecological behavior of wild, free-ranging elephants in Udawalawe National Park (UWNP), Sri Lanka. Dr. de Silva and her team are intimately familiar with the herd of 600 elephants they study, following some of them from birth to adulthood and identifying each by attributes as specific as the grooves and notches in their ears.

Asian ElephantAsian elephant by Dr. Shermin de Silva.

The Udawalawe Elephant Research Project is the longest-running research effort for Asian elephants and provides an in-depth understanding of the status and health of the elephant population and the effects different mortality rates can have on future generations. The project provides vital insight for the design and application of evidence-based conservation in Sri Lanka and the world.

Along with leading this project, Dr. De Silva has served as a steady voice of hope and awareness-raising for Asian elephants globally, inspiring positive action on behalf of this species to ensure its survival.

Sri Lankan ElephantsSri Lankan elephants in Udawalawe National Parkby Cory Brown, USFWS.

The role humanity has played in the unsustainable destruction of wild elephant populations casts a shadow on the environmental history of our planet; however, public awareness events such as ivory crushes, research and conservation efforts by people such as Dr. de Silva, as well as forensic investigations and law enforcement tactics, shine a light on the situation and offer hope and guidance for the future fight against the illegal wildlife trade.  We will continue to work together and support all nations in our common purpose of protecting elephant populations around the world.

Photos from the Sri Lanka ivory crush event can be found in this CITES Flickr album.


-- Betsy Painter, International Affairs

Hunting for an Elusive Orchid

Open Spaces is featuring posts by Student Conservation Association (SCA) interns working to promote, protect and study wildlife on public lands all over the United States. Since 1957, SCA has been connecting young people from all backgrounds with life-changing, career-making conservation service opportunities. Learn how you can get involved at www.thesca.org. Today, Claire Ellwanger checks in from the Chicago Ecological Services Office.

The search for orchids had begun. We were crouched on our hands and knees one day last summer, enveloped in humidity and prairie grasses. As we rustled the sedges and grasses, the mosquitoes floated up to surround us. We searched exhaustively on the ground where orchids had been seen in the last couple of years, sadly to no avail.

I kept seeing orchid leaves out of the corners of my eyes— smooth oval blades with parallel veins, a trademark of the eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea). But a closer look always proved me wrong. Sweat trickled and the mosquitoes’ incessant whine seemed to elevate into a jeering pitch. I was growing tired but pushed on, moving more sedges aside, widening my search.

Eastern prairie fringed orchidEastern Prairie Fringed Orchid

Slightly disgruntled, we did not want to give up. We decided to search the rest of the prairie for blooming plants instead of just the ground-hugging leaves. We spread out, and walked slowly through the waist-high grasses. Continuous plumes of mosquitoes rose as we parted the vegetation, passing dogbane and showy pink phlox, but there were still no orchids.

Why search for this orchid?
As a master’s student and a SCA intern with the Service, I have spent the past year finding any information I can on the eastern prairie fringed orchid. When I joined the Plant Biology and Conservation Program at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden, I knew I wanted to study plant conservation, but did not realize how quickly I would become so intimately involved in the conservation of this threatened species.


Connect the Connecticut

Connecticut R
Connecticut River. Photo by Al Braden/albradenphoto.com

Bridget Macdonald of our 
Science Applications Program in our Northeast Region tells us about a landscape conservation design for the Connecticut River watershed. 

Connecticut R 

Encompassing New England’s largest river system, the Connecticut River watershed provides important habitat for a diversity of fish, wildlife and plants from such well-known species as the bald eagle and the black bear to threatened and endangered species such as the piping plover and the dwarf wedgemussel.

The watershed is also a source of clean water, recreation, food, jobs and more for millions of people living in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. 

The best long-term strategy for sustaining natural resources across this kind of large landscape is to keep vital parts of it intact and connected. Connect the Connecticut is a collaborative effort to identify the best places to start—the areas within the watershed that partners agree should be priorities to ensure that important species, habitats and natural processes will be sustained into the future, even in the face of climate change and land alteration.


Behind the Lens with Wildlife Photographer Steve Gifford

Bobcat walking the tracks.
Bobcat walking the tracks. Photo by Steve Gifford

Ever since photographer Steve Gifford was a kid, he has enjoyed being outdoors. His parents were college professors, and summers were spent at their family cottage in Michigan or traveling to see relatives in Arizona, Colorado and Texas. Steve thinks that the priority his parents placed on enjoying the natural beauty of our country shaped his appreciation for public spaces and wildlife. His interest in photography developed as a way to share memories of family adventures.


It’s Time to Fall in Love All Over Again!

Our parent, the Department of the Interior, is getting ready for its annual Valentine’s Day video and needs your help. Please share your love story. Send in your videos and photos of your weddings or proposals in national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands to newmedia@ios.doi.gov. Please submit videos and photos no later than Friday, February 5, for a chance to be in DOI's special Valentine’s Day video.

The Next Generation of Wildlife Conservation: Broadening our Perspective

 Lake Superior. CREDIT: Courtney Celley/USFWS
Lake Superior. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS

Paul Souza is the Assistant Director of Science Applications. Tom Melius is the Regional Director of the Midwest Region. Here, they talk about the value and importance of Strategic Habitat Conservation.

 Paul Souza
Paul Souza  

The Fish and Wildlife Service has worked tirelessly for generations to conserve both celebrated locations and species and those that are less known but just as important.  We know we are at our best when we work with states, tribes, private landowners and a multitude of diverse interests to set and achieve shared conservation priorities.  History shows the amazing results we get when we work with others to clearly define goals, build and implement strong conservation plans, and then refine the plans to get better every day.

 Tom Melius
  Tom Melius

Some successes have been truly continental in scale, such as waterfowl conservation through the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.  They also include conservation of some of the nation’s crown jewels such as the Great Lakes, Arctic, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, Everglades, Great Basin and Gulf of Mexico.  Conservation successes have also been demonstrated for wide ranging species from wolves to sea turtles.  By investing in science and defining up front what success looks like for these species, we are able to concentrate the efforts inside and outside our agency to make conservation happen.

The legacy of conservation for wildlife continues to evolve and our agency has new success stories to share.  We continue to use a broad, landscape-scale perspective to find success.  The recent and ongoing effort for the greater sage-grouse is one example.  Working hand-in-hand with state wildlife agencies, we first defined our goal as conserving the greater sage-grouse now and over the long term.  This goal drove the identification of Priority Areas for Conservation, representing the amount and configuration of habitat across 11 states needed to conserve the species.  With a common purpose, we worked with others on species conservation, eventually eliminating the need to give the bird the protections of the Endangered Species Act.


The Not-so Typical Way to Spend Your Summer

Intern at a National Wildlife Refuge

Do you ever see photos on Facebook of someone with a big grin and wide eyes, holding a recently banded bird? And you get an ache in your heart, inspiration to get out there and do a similar project. Well, then you’re going to love these opportunities. Some might even set you on the path to a career in wildlife conservation.

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hired more than 1,500 interns, ages 15 and older. This year, one of those could be you!

Some national wildlife refuges are already looking for 2016 summer interns, including: Chincoteague (VA), Rachel Carson (ME), Iroquois/Erie (NY/PA), Neal Smith (IA) and Santee (SC).

We’re sharing some of the most common tasks that summer interns get assigned and a translation of what assignments REALLY mean.

Fins and Feathers

  • Band birds  (Coldwater River Refuge, MS) → Help scientists track birds' health and numbers.
    Summer Intern Stories about Bird Banding.

  • Monitor shorebirds and search for nests (Chincoteague) → Watch birds and figure out their nesting behavior.

  • Mist-net birds (Parker River, MA) → To band them, you have to catch them. Learn to do it safely for both you and the birds.

  • Rescue fish from a dried pond (Hagerman, TX) → Get that fish to water to help it survive.

Digging in the Dirt

  • Control invasive plants (William L. Finley, OR) → Rescue native plants from the grips of invasive bullies.

  • Propagate native plants  (Neal Smith) → Steward awesome plant growth that helps many animals.

  • Map problem spots using GPS  (Chincoteague, Neal Smith) → Make yourself a private investigator of criminal plants.

Welcoming Others and Teaching About the Natural World

Manual Labor in the Glorious Outdoors

  • Maintain trails  (Santee, William L. Finley) → Clear a natural path through woods, mountains and valleys.

  • Maintain wood duck boxes  (Santee) → Give the ducks a safe place to nest.

  • Cut trees (Neal Smith)  → Flex those muscles and down woody invaders that don’t belong.

  • Help conduct prescribed burns (Neal Smith) → Fire up for conservation.

Collecting Data for Science:

We all know someone who would be a perfect fit for a summer internship at a national wildlife refuge. Whether that’s you or someone you know, find your local refuge or connect with Student Conservation Association and locate an internship near you.

Learn more about internships and how to apply here.

If You Build It, They Will Come: A Field of Dreams for Endangered Bats

Indiana bats  Credit: Andrew King/USFWS

The Indiana bat was first listed as endangered in 1967, under the precursor to the Endangered Species Act due to population declines associated with disturbance during hibernation and changes to the hibernacula (where bats spend winter hibernating like caves and mines). However, protection of hibernacula solely did not lead to species recovery.  Consequently, bat biologists began to focus on other habitat needs, including summer maternity habitat.  During the summer months, Indiana bat maternity colonies roost under the exfoliating bark of large dead and/or dying trees.

Read about how our Kentucky Field Office worked with Fort Knox and others to monitor and protect the maternity colonies there and support the Army’s mission.

Join Us For A Live Broadcast About Manatees and Monarchs

We just celebrated a major success in the conservation of the West Indian manatee, determining that it was no longer endangered but should be listed as threatened. “It's like taking manatees out of intensive care and putting them in a regular care facility," said Jim Valade, our Florida Manatee Recovery Coordinator. "They still need our attention without a doubt, but they are no longer in intensive care per se." We believe that the monarch is a success story in the making as people all over the continent work to conserve the butterfly. We take a closer look at these interesting species on the next episode of conservation connect.

Chat with Monarch and Manatee Experts

On January 20 at 2 pm EST conservation experts will talk about manatees and monarchs LIVE! Students have the opportunity to chat with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Visitor Service Specialist Ivan Vicente from Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and our Monarch Butterfly Biologist Tracy McCleaf from our National Conservation Training Center. Tune in to ask questions about wildlife species, careers and new technology being used to study our natural world.

Mark your calendars and join us at nctc.fws.gov/broadcasts

More Information on Manatees:
The West Indian manatee is a fascinating mammal that is sometimes referred to as a “sea cow.” They live off the coast of Florida and the Caribbean and have been spotted on the following National Wildlife Refuges. 

Manatees have been seen on these National Wildlife Refuges:

Download the Manatee Activity Book
Become a Fan of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Download the Manatee Educator Guide
See how you can help through the manatee photo identification program.
Download the Lesson Plan
Live Manatee Cam (Available Nov 1 - March 31 only)

More on Monarchs:
Monarch butterflies are in trouble, they are threatened by a loss of native milkweed on which they lay their eggs and feed their caterpillars. In an effort to save the monarch butterfly, many are getting involved with ensuring that they have a place to live and food to eat by planting native plants such as milkweed and goldenrod. As an insect, they undertake one of the world’s most remarkable and fascinating migrations, traveling thousands of miles over many generations from Mexico, across the United States, to Canada.  Learn more about monarchs and what you can do to help them.

Check out the Monarch Larva Monitoring Citizen Science Project

More on Conservation Connect
Conservation Connect is a new web-based video series, in partnership with the National Science Teachers Association, that aims to connect youth, ages 9-14, with the great outdoors & conservation careers. To check out other episodes, resources, and lesson plans, visit http://nctc.fws.gov/conservationconnect/.

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