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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Whipping Creek Road Fire in N.C. Shows Value of Established Partnerships

Whipping Creek Road Fire
The Whipping Creek Road Fire was declared controlled May 23. Photo by Corey Waters/USFWS

Ed Christopher, a fish and wildlife biologist with our Branch of Habitat Restoration, on the need to plan ahead, especially for wildfires.

The middle of a bona fide emergency is not the best time to formulate a plan. Certainly, some on-the-spot planning is always necessary, but forethought is the crucial key for success in a real emergency. This is especially true when describing wildlfire in the organic soils of eastern North Carolina. Not just knowing who has the knowledge, tools, skills and abilities to manage these wildlfires but establishing solid, well-defined partnerships with those parties must be high priority in planning for the inevitable.

Such was the case with the partnership among the North Carolina Coastal Refuges Complex, the North Carolina Forest Service and the U.S. Air Force in eastern North Carolina. This partnership came out of necessity. Historic, large, long-duration wildfires associated with vast tracts of pocosin habitat and limited local response capacity to respond to wildfire are simple facts of life in eastern North Carolina.

Pocosin is an Algonquin word for “swamp on a hill.” The “hill” is created over time with the deposition of plant materials that decompose and create peat soils. These soils can be as deep as 12 feet or more in some places and depend on staying hydrated to prevent catastrophic loss due to wildfire. If dry, this organic soil is readily consumed by fire, creating a change in the local topography and resulting in significant carbon loss.

The 15,453-acre Whipping Creek Road Fire in April on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Manteo, North Carolina, wasn’t a new occurrence for the refuge. Frequent small fires occur throughout the year, and large, long-duration fires happen every few years. Such large wildfires in the eastern United States typically are multi-jurisdictional, so they require a response from various agencies. In the case of the Whipping Creek Road Fire, the footprint included land managed or owned by the Service, U.S. Air Force, The Nature Conservancy, North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission and private landowners.

Whipping Creek Road Fire
Large fires like the Whipping Creek Road Fire occur every few years at Alligator River Refuge. Photo by Corey Waters/USFWS

The partnership among these agencies, and especially with the North Carolina Forest Service, stemmed from lessons learned during past wildfires. These wildfires helped build understanding about each other’s processes for wildfire response, as well as developing a relationship before meeting under duress. Although these lessons were learned during difficult circumstances, this foundation proved invaluable during the Whipping Creek Road wildfire response. Payment processes, a command structure, and proper protocols for community evacuations and endangered species fire suppression had already been established. Specific needs had been identified and understood. For example, one special aspect of wildfire response unique to coastal refuges is the avoidance of water with high salinity content to avoid environmental impacts from salt water use. For the Whipping Creek Road Fire, water-scooping aircraft were required to dip out of the freshest water source possible. Having these discussions before the wildfire helped pre-load the state’s Incident Command Team’s operation and management of this wildfire.

Although we cannot fully prepare for emergency response, if we fail to plan, then we plan to fail. Developing partnerships early among those that will be engaged in a natural emergency response will pay dividends by curtailing the amount of time consumed by attempting to figure out the players and processes when everyone is looking for and relying on leadership to bring order out of chaos. So the lesson learned from the latest large fire in the pocosin of eastern North Carolina is that through strong partnerships, we can achieve success.

Illegal Wildlife Smuggling Hits Home Following Hands-On Experience

orangutan skull

As I hold the skull of an orangutan in my hand, it’s simply overwhelming. Looking into the dark, empty eye sockets, I’m unable to find the proper words. The other skulls and animal body parts spread across the table in evidence bags add to my growing exasperation.

I’ve held dead animals before, from ducks and deer to my own dogs. Whether they’ve been harvested for food or were my four-legged friends, I had a bond when I touched its fur or feathers for a final time. But this was different.

Read more and learn about what you can do

A Seabird Rescue Takes Wing

Hawaiian petrel chick
A Hawaiian petrel chick in an old, pre-relocated, burrow. Photo by Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project

Susan Morse, a writer-editor for the Service's National Wildlife Refuge System, tells us about work out in Hawaii to recover the endangered Hawaiian petrel and the threatened
Newell’s shearwater.

KILAUEA, HAWAII — Coaxing rare seabirds to adopt a safer new nesting site on a steep sea-facing slope is a long process — and an exercise in hope. Just ask the folks at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge in Hawaii. I’m standing at their Crater Hill site now, shoes dusted in Kauai’s red dirt after a short scramble downhill, to hear about it.

albatrosses in front of predator proof fence
Albatrosses in front of predator-proof fence. Photo by Susan Morse/USFWS

First you erect half a mile of predator-proof fence around the new 7-acre nesting area. That’s to screen out the rats, mice, feral cats and pigs that are threatening the birds with extinction. Then you send a team to the mountains to retrieve 10 endangered Hawaiian petrel chicks when they’re a few weeks from fledging. You helicopter the chicks to the new site (known as Nihoku in Hawaiian) and place them in man-made burrows — one chick to a burrow. You hand-feed, weigh and monitor the young daily until they fledge. Phew.


The crossed-fingers part comes last: You watch the fledglings fly out to sea, hoping some will return in three or four years (!!!) to mate — and in five or six years to nest.

Biologist Eric Vanderwerf (left) and Deputy Project Leader Mike Mitchell, Photo by Susan Morse/USFWS

“We would be happy if a third to half the birds return” — as birds have in rescue projects elsewhere, says Mike Mitchell, deputy project leader at the Kauai Refuge Complex. “It’s fascinating how they do that. Scientists believe chicks memorize the stars to find their way back to the same spot that they fledged from.”

The first nine “graduates” of the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project flew off the island last fall; the 10th chick, ill before it was moved, didn’t live to fledge. The project’s next phase is tentatively set for fall, after the public gets a chance to weigh in.

Recovery's Next Step

On May 11, project leaders opened a 30-day public comment period on a draft environmental assessment. The preferred plan proposes the move of 10 Newell’s shearwater chicks plus 20 more Hawaiian petrel chicks to the new nesting area, as well as a “social attraction” component.

If you think that means a happy hour for birds, you’re not far off. Biologists have rigged up loudspeakers to mimic petrel and shearwater calls. They hope these will woo prospective mates to the refuge’s new nest site. “This way, we can increase our odds of success,” says Mitchell.

Meanwhile, refuge staff and partners are restoring habitat inside the fence — clearing another acre or so of invasive Christmas berry and replacing it with native plants. Eventually, they aim to remove all of the non-native plants and restore all of the 7-acre nesting area.

Partners in the seabird translocation project include: Kaua'i Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, a Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Forestry and Wildlife project administered by Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit, University of Hawaii; Pacific Rim Conservation; Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge; and American Bird Conservancy (ABC).

The National Tropical Botanical Garden helped with plant restoration at the translocation site. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and ABC provided funding support.

“It’s just at the very beginning here,” biologist Eric Vanderwerf says of the recovery project.  

Says Mitchell, “It’s great to have this partnership working together on restoration being done on a national wildlife refuge where the conservation efforts being made will be there in perpetuity.”

Rescuing Rare Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Chicks, Fledgling from Flooding

Florida grasshopper sparrow chicks
The three Florida grasshopper sparrow chicks found floating in flood waters are healthy and eager to be fed. Photo by Mary Peterson/USFWS


Mary Peterson, a biologist in our South Florida Ecological Services Office, tells us about a team effort to save some Florida grasshopper sparrows from heavy rains.

An unpredicted, freak rain event on May 4 flooded nearly all of the first Florida grasshopper sparrow nests of the season, prompting the Service and its partners from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to carry out an emergency rescue of chicks and eggs when the second round of seasonal nesting attempts was threatened by  heavy rains last week.

After the first round of storms, FWC field crews paid increased attention to nests at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area and a private ranch where these highly endangered sparrows are being studied. Late on the evening of May 17, these crews became increasingly concerned about the approaching rain storms and decided to check nests they knew had chicks or fledglings.

Three 1-day-old chicks were found alive floating in water while the female continued to try to incubate them. One 9-day-old fledgling was also found alive. The birds were collected and cared for overnight. Just before sunrise the next morning crews checked all the known nests and found all of them to be either flooded or in danger of being flooded, with another round of storms on the way. In consultation with FWC, we collected 30 eggs from all the nests at both sites.

We took the eggs and young birds collected to the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF) in Loxahatchee, Florida., to be part of the Florida grasshopper sparrow captive propagation program—where just a few days earlier, the first captive-bred Florida grasshopper sparrow chicks had hatched.

Of those 30 eggs, 20 were still viable and at various stages of development. They’re currently being incubated at RSCF. Some of the more developed eggs may begin hatching any day now. The young birds are also being cared for at RSCF and doing well as of May 23.

The effort to save the Florida grasshopper sparrow is truly a team effort. The rescues May 17 and 18 wouldn’t have been possible without the talented and dedicated field crews and Dr. Erin Hewett-Ragheb of FWC’s Florida Wildlife Research Institute. Hats off to Florida grasshopper sparrow technicians Lindsay Wagner, Neil Pearson, Annie Meyer, Conor Eagan, Alison Fox and Michael Maples, and University of Maryland Baltimore County Ph/D. student and expert nest-finder, Archer Larned. They’re all true conservation champions.

Although these floods couldn’t have come at a worse time for the sparrows, this species has been known to re-nest as many as five times and produce as many as three successful broods during a single nesting season. So, fortunately, the reproductive potential is still there to produce young in the wild during this breeding season. All Florida grasshopper sparrow nests found across all sites are being protected with predator fences, which are nearly 100 percent effective. If water levels recede and dry patches of habitat become available, these sparrows could begin building new nests by late May.

Saving Lives in Paradise: 2015 Valor Award Recipient Gabriel T. Cruz

Fish and Wildlife Officer Gabe Cruz, stationed at Guam National Wildlife Refuge, stands with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor in Washington, D.C.

On May 9, Officer Cruz received the Department of the Interior Valor Award in recognition of his highly courageous action involving great personal risk that resulted in the rescue of two individuals.  “The quick thinking and heroic action of Officer Cruz prevented that day from ending in tragedy,” said Pacific Regional Director Robyn Thorson. “Officer Cruz is a credit to the Service and the National Wildlife Refuge System Division of Law Enforcement.” 

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Partners 'Connect the Connecticut'

It started two years ago as an experiment in combining big data with a big conservation vision for the 11,250 square-mile Connecticut River watershed. Today the experiment has evolved into Connect the Connecticut, a collaborative effort among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative and more than 30 partner agencies and organizations to conserve a network of lands and waters that sustain wildlife and people for generations to come.

Read More

Endangered Species That Are More Than Their Silly Names

Some endangered species receive time in the limelight just for being cute and fluffy. This isn't a blog post for them. This post introduces some species that don't often get the spotlight, but should. And not just for their ridiculously entertaining common names. Get to know these amazing, yet troubled, species facing real threats. Join us in sharing their stories!

Rock Gnome Lichen - One of two lichens on the federal list of threatened and endangered species, rock gnome lichen is primarily limited to vertical rock faces. As you can imagine, this lichen gets trampled, so please be careful while climbing! 

Rock Gnome Lichen, USFWS

Snuffbox Mussel - The snuffbox is a small-to-medium sized mussel with a squarish shape. Dams and pollution are threatening these animals. 

Snuffbox Mussel, Photo by G. Thomas Watters, Ohio State University

Dudley Bluffs Bladderpod - Dudley Bluffs bladderpod is a small, cushion plant species in the mustard family. The Dudley Bluffs bladderpod is only known to occur in the Piceance Creek area, of Rio Blanco County in western Colorado. The good news we're working to create guidelines that help minimize disturbance to these plants, their habitats and their pollinators.

Rough Pigtoe 
-  Reproduction for this mussel requires a stable, undisturbed habitat and a sufficient population of host fish to complete the mussel's larval development. This makes it rough to make it to adulthood. 

Shortnose Sucker - Early records indicate that shortnose suckers were once widespread and abundant in the upper Klamath Basin of Oregon and California. Although they are facing a number of obstacles, habitat degradation is the big issue that faces this poor sucker. However, it's closely related species the Modock sucker was recently delisted from the ESA due to recovery, so there’s hope yet for this fish.

Shortnose Sucker

Devils Hole Pupfish - 
This short-lived species (only about a year) is limited to living in a place called Devils Hole, hence how it earned its somewhat disturbing name. In a recent 2015 count found there was a 22% increase in the population from the previous year and was double the 2013 count. 
Devils Hole PupfishDevils Hole Pupfish, Olin Feuerbacher

Get to Know Endangered Species Near You!

Learn more about the endangered species near you and how you can help

Supporting Monarch Butterfly Conservation in Mexico

Monarch on purple coneflower
A monarch sits on a purple coneflower. Photo by Jim Hudgins/USFWS

In February, we proudly joined our Mexican and Canadian partners in Mexico City to celebrate that the 2015-16 eastern monarch butterfly population was overwintering in an area totaling approximately 10 acres. While it might sound like a small area, the estimate reflected a 255% increase in the overwintering habitat occupied by monarchs  from the previous year! While this is great news, our mission to protect monarchs and their migratory route from Canada to Mexico continues.

Working Together for Monarchs

This week, collaborative efforts to protect monarchs are among the topics to discuss at the 21st annual meeting of the Canada/Mexico/US Trilateral Committee for Wildlife and Ecosystem Conservation and Management.  Taking place this year in Ottawa, Canada, the Trilateral Committee has addressed monarch conservation consistently since its inception in 1995. In what was a highlight of last year's meeting, participants joined local Girl Scouts to plant milkweed for monarchs.

 Girl scouts
Girl Scouts were excited to help plant milkweed at San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge and protect monarch habitat during last year’s Trilateral meeting. Photo by Kayt Jonsson/USFWS

Despite the recent good news, monarchs are still facing many threats, and collaboration to protect this butterfly is needed more than ever. In comparison to the 20-year average, monarch estimates from last year showed that the population has dropped more than 90 percent. This year’s increase, though encouraging, is still far away from the goal of 225 million monarch butterflies (or nearly 15 acres of overwintering habitat) by 2020,set by Canada, Mexico and the United States. We are encouraged by this year’s increase in population but worry that a late winter storm might have hurt the overwintering population on monarchs in Mexico. The total impact is not yet certain.

Magic of the Monarch

Service Director Dan Ashe, after a recent trip to Mexico, wrote: “I had the privilege of visiting one of world's most beautiful places - the Piedra Herrada Monarch Sanctuary near Valle de Bravo - to see one of the world's most incredible phenomena. All around us, on every leaf, branch and tree, were millions of monarch butterflies - spending their winter as they have for millennia, sheltered in the mountainous forests of Mexico. As long as I live, I will never forget the sight.”

Monarch Butterflies cover trees in Mexico’s Piedra Herrada Monarch Sanctuary. Photo by Ann Marie Krmpotich/USFWS
Monarch Butterflies cover trees in Mexico’s Piedra Herrada Monarch Sanctuary. Photo by Ann Marie Krmpotich/USFWS

Protecting the monarch magic that Director Ashe referenced requires collaboration from Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Research indicates that there are three primary threats to monarchs: 1) deforestation and degradation of the overwintering grounds in Mexico because of illegal logging, 2) loss of breeding habitat in the United States due to land-use changes and decrease of the butterfly’s larval food plant – native milkweed plants -associated with the use of certain pesticides, and 3) periodic extreme weather conditions throughout their range, especially storms in their overwintering.  Other threats include land management practices such as insecticide use, mowing, and increased levels of disease and parasites.

Monarch Conservation in Mexico

While the Service has made monarch conservation a priority in the United States, we also support activities in Mexico that protect these charismatic butterflies and their habitats. Since 1995, the Service’s International Affairs Mexico Program has been working with Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) and the Mexican group Alternare, A.C., to protect the wintering habitat of the monarch butterfly in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR). 

Over the past 18 years, Alternare, A.C. has been one of the primary recipients of funding from the Service’s Mexico Grants Program.  The goal is to promote the long-term conservation of monarch habitat by implementing an innovative, comprehensive training program on how to manage the forest for future generations.  Thanks to this program, a Training Center on Sustainable Natural Resource Management is fully operational in the reserve.

More than 72 community extension workers have graduated and trained an additional 2,000 subsistence farmers on topics such as community planning and governance, sustainable agricultural production, soil and water conservation, reforestation and forest protection, domestic amenities construction (wood-saving stoves, composting toilets, plaster floors, cisterns, adobe bricks), health and nutrition, and solid waste management. The majority of the communities where Alternare, A.C. works have voluntarily created fire prevention brigades as well as citizens’ brigades to monitor illegal logging activities, while simultaneously reforesting more than 90 hectares of core habitat.

Recently senior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff, including Director Dan Ashe, met with Mexican park rangers, monarch experts, and young leaders who are helping to protect monarchs in Mexico. Photo courtesy of José Ignacio Mijares/CONANP

An additional project that the Service has recently supported through a partnership with Geoconservacion, A.C. and CONANP was to train 15 young leaders to monitor butterflies and ecosystems in the MBBR. As part of the project, the young leaders visited several biosphere reserves and were given nature guides, training manuals, and environmental monitoring equipment.

This year, in addition to the continuing work with Alternare, A.C. and the Mexican government, the Service will work with the organization Ecosistemica, A.C. to develop an environmental education and awareness program for elementary school teachers, students, non-profit organizations and citizens in four Mexican states that span across the migratory route of monarchs (Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas). 

If you want to see what the magic of monarchs is like in Mexico, we encourage watching the video you can find here (Includes subtitles in Spanish).

It’s also possible to get involved in the conservation of monarchs. Check out our resource page to learn more about how you can participate.

Story by Amanda Gonzales and Levi Novey

Happy World Fish Migration Day

When you think about migration, your mind probably goes to birds -- the rufa red knot stops every spring in Delaware Bay to eat horseshoe crab eggs to give it needed energy as it  flies thousands of miles from the coasts of southern Chile and Argentina to breed in the Arctic -- maybe an insect -- the monarch butterfly, with its famous migration over thousands of miles and many generations from Mexico across the United States to Canada --  or even a mammal -- the Pronghorn antelope, one of the longest mammal migrations in the lower 48 states.

Fish Have Impressive Migration Routes

lake sturgeon
An underwater view of three Lake sturgeon. Photo by Eric Engbretson

But did you ever think about lake sturgeon? They will travel hundreds of miles annually from their homes in lakes to the rivers where they were born to spawn in fast, flowing water. Or how about Atlantic salmon, which migrates more than 6,000 miles annually to reach the rivers where it was born to spawn new generations of salmon. 

  • World Fish Migration Day is on May 21.

They may be some of the marathoners of the fish world, but migration is not always about long-distance moves or spawning. Darters may need to move as little as a half mile for food; trout seek out deep water to overwinter.

But all of these fish and many others often can’t complete their amazing migrations because of barriers to fish passage – like dams, road culverts, low water levels and levees. In fact, there are more than 6 million barriers in the United States that stop fish from reaching their travel destination.

Helping Fish by Removing Barriers

This Hurricane Sandy resilience project removes the Centreville Dam in Centreville, Maryland, providing unimpeded passage for river herring and American eel to two miles of spawning habitat in Gravel Run, a tributary of the Corsica River. A local municipal building, evacuated several times in floods, will also be protected from future flooding. Photo by Jim Thompson/Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Since 1999, our National Fish Passage Program has been providing funding and technical assistance to reconnect aquatic habitats. In those 17 years, the program has removed 1,530 fish passage barriers, reopened 21,401 river miles, and reconnected more than 166,751 wetland acres that has benefitted more than 90 species of fish and mussels 

Oh, who cares about fish, you say. Um, surely, you jest. 

Fish are an important part of our natural heritage – here’s a picture of George Washington’s fishing tackle – and many of the fish that need to migrate can end up on your hook or even on your dinner plate. Think salmon or lake trout.

But I don’t fish or eat fish, you sneer. 

Why Help Fish Migration?

Fish are also an important link in our food web. They’re food for wildlife, like birds, bears and other fish. When fish die, their carcasses can even provide nutrients for plants.

Beyond the food issue, fish and free-flowing rivers are important to people (or at least they should be). 

Free-flowing rivers increase recreational opportunities for boating and wildlife viewing.   

Fish also tell us how well we are caring for our waters. When fish are abundant, water quality is good; when they are gone, something is wrong. By restoring wetlands we restore natural filtration, which keeps water quality high. 

And free-flowing rivers make surrounding communities more flood resilient by providing a place for the water to go during storms and wet years. 

Also, many of the barriers to fish passage, especially in the United States, are aging dams and poorly designed road stream crossings. These pose threats to communities should they fail.

Fish Migration Means $$$

Even from an economic standpoint, fish passage saves money and more. 

culvert fail
A road crossing failed to hold up over Johnson Brook in Vermont. Photo by USFWS

We have been building road-stream crossings with larger, fish-friendly channel-spanning structures, and when rains drenched Alaska a few years ago, almost all the new-style crossings survived the flooding. Roads that would have been under water were able to handle emergency response, commerce and transportation… all for fish’ sake. 

Local fisheries thrive or come back once fish passage is restored, too. So even if you don’t fish, others do, and if fish return, anglers usually follow. That can mean big bucks for local economies. 

But even with our work, there are still 5.99 million barriers out there. World Fish Migration Day on May 21 will create awareness on the importance of migratory fish and free-flowing rivers. 

So next time someone mentions migration, share some facts about the lake sturgeon or darter.


Matt Trott, External Affairs

New Technology Helps Conserve Vital Wetland Habitats in the Last Frontier

salmon in spawning stream

Half of the 150 million acres in the National Wildlife Refuge System are in Alaska. These lands contain vast areas of intact wetlands that support migratory waterfowl, endangered species and salmon, which are of great economic, cultural and biological value.

Alaska’s wetlands account for approximately 65% of all the wetlands in the United States. For nearly 35 years, the National Wetlands Inventory program has worked with other federal and state agencies to inventory and map these vast wetlands. Wetland mapping is a fundamental requirement for inventorying and monitoring on refuge lands and provides vital habitat information in support the Service’s conservation programs to assure that habitat protection activities are focused on the highest priority areas across Alaska. Learn more: http://1.usa.gov/24MCrep 

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