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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Kansas Refuge Helps Keep Tabs on Migratory Waterfowl

Jim Dubovsky is the Central Flyway representative in the Division of Migratory Bird Management. Hunters have always been important to conservation, and Jim explains how they team up with biologists in a wingbee. 

A mixed flock of ducks takes off from a wetland. Photo by Gary Kramer/USFWS

For the past quarter century, Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Kansas has played a pivotal role in keeping track of migratory waterfowl species across the nation’s midsection. Since 1992, the refuge has hosted the Central Flyway Wingbee, a waterfowl-monitoring effort coordinated by our Migratory Bird Program.

Gadwall wing with envelope. Photo by Jim Dubovsky/USFWS

A wingbee combines the eyes, ears and conservation ethic of hunters with the scientific expertise of wildlife biologists to assess the status and harvests of North American waterfowl. Wingbees are conducted in each of the four U.S. migratory bird flyways: Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific.

The U.S. portion of the Central Flyway stretches from Montana and North Dakota southward to New Mexico and Texas. Here, briefly, is how the Central Flyway Wingbee works.

The Migratory Bird Program asks hunters how many ducks and geese they shot during the most recent waterfowl hunting season. In addition, selected hunters are asked to send to a central location one wing from each duck they harvest, and the tail feathers and wingtips of each goose they harvest. From those waterfowl parts, and using waterfowl wing and tail-fan keys for guidance, biologists can determine the species, sex and age of each duck and species and age of each goose harvested.

Hunters from states in the Central Flyway send their wings and tails to the post office in Hartford, Kansas, where they are retrieved by Flint Hills Refuge biological technician Lyle Hancock. Lyle opens each envelope to determine the species, writes the species on the envelope, and then places each envelope containing the part(s) in a walk-in freezer at the refuge, where they are stored until the hunting season ends.

Biologists analyze waterfowl parts at the Central Flyway Wingbee. Photo by Jim Dubovsky/USFWS

Each February, about 40 biologists from federal, state and other agencies and organizations gather at the refuge for a five-day wingbee to examine the duck wings and goose tail fans and wing tips. With the support of Refuge Manager Jack Bohannon and refuge biologist Tim Menard, the 40 biologists examine all the wings and tails. The data are entered into an electronic file for later summarization and analyses. Reports that result from these efforts are available on the Migratory Bird Program’s Hunting Activity & Harvest and Flyways pages.

 Lyle Hancock
Lyle Hancock (left) accepts a plaque from Jim Dubovsky, as a thank-you to Flint Hills Refuge for 25 years hosting the Central Flyway Wingbee. Photo by Kammie Kruse/USFWS

By classifying the species, sex and age of up to 20,000 wings and tails each year, biologists can determine Central Flyway hunters’ harvests of adults and young for both males and females for each species of duck, and adults and young for geese. This information is used in population models and other decision-making tools to determine the appropriate level of harvest for the continent’s waterfowl, ensuring abundant ducks and geese for hunting, wildlife observation and other recreational activities.

Lyle has handled every waterfowl part that has come through the wingbee since Flint Hills Refuge began hosting it, about 525,000 parts. The refuge’s partnership in this effort has been paramount in the Migratory Bird Program’s success at providing critical information for the management of waterfowl in the Central Flyway and beyond.

Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan: Working Together for People, Wildlife

 Michael Bean
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Bean spots a golden-cheeked warbler at Reicher Ranch. Photo by USFWS

“It was fitting that a Texan HCP took a ‘bigger is better’ approach to addressing endangered species issues,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Michael Bean said at the celebration of the  20th anniversary of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP).

The BCCP is the first multi-species regional Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) permitted in the country. (Here is a good explainer on HCPs.) HCPs are one way we work to balance economic development and conservation, and the BCCP does that balancing act in Austin, Texas, one of the nation’s fastest-growing areas.

Eight endangered species – golden-cheeked warbler, black-capped vireo, Tooth Cave pseudoscorpion, Tooth Cave spider, Tooth Cave ground beetle, Kretschmarr Cave mold beetle, Bone Cave harvestman and Bee Creek Cave harvestman – and 27 species of concern find habitat in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, a system of preserves of more than 31,000 acres created by the BCCP.

Here’s to many more years of working together.


Taking the “Mayor’s Monarch Pledge” in Brookings, South Dakota

building a pollinator plot
A Vocational Agricultural Class in Brookings watches a drill used to prepare the pollinator plt. Photo by Boyd Schulz/USFWS

Mayor Tim Reed of Brookings, South Dakota, recently became one of the first mayors in our Mountain-Prairie Region to sign the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge

Monarch butterflies are in trouble. Loss of milkweed habitat needed to lay their eggs and for their caterpillars to eat is having a devastating impact on their populations and their migration phenomenon. Across the country, cities, CEOs, schoolchildren and backyard gardeners are taking action to conserve the monarch.

The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program works with private landowners, tribes and the public to restore and enhance a variety of habitats across the nation. In this case the Partners Program worked with the City of Brookings to achieve voluntary habitat restoration on  city lands through technical assistance, for the benefit of the monarch butterfly and other pollinator species.

With assistance from our South Dakota Partners for Fish and Wildlife staff, Brookings will plant multiple pollinator plots and conduct numerous educational activities on the plight of the monarch for the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.  The first week of May, a 2.3 acre pollinator plot was planted, consisting of 44 native pollinating forbs including three species of milkweed.  This pollinator plot, along with the other plots planned, is adjacent to a heavily used park and hiking trail. 

Interpretive signs will be installed to help educate the public on the decline of pollinator species, including monarch butterflies. Groups that provided either financial or technical assistance include Pheasants Forever, Brookings Conservation District, City of Brookings, Brookings Chapter of the Wildlife Federation, Brookings School District Vocational Agricultural class, Millborn Seeds, and the South Dakota Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.


Art for African Elephants, Imperiled Species in U.S., Waterfowl

In case you missed it, the winners of several wildlife-themed art contests have been named. Of course, the real winners are the wildlife themselves that these artist-conservationists are helping.

Kelly Lance of Monterey, California, and Jacqueline Nott  of Auburn, California, will see their design ideas transformed into three dimensions as the winners of the Ivory Crush Design Challenge, which invited entrants to propose powerful visual concepts for public displays of crushed ivory from the Service’s Ivory Crushes.  The pieces will augment the Service’s public awareness and education campaign to help reduce demand for elephant ivory and other illegal wildlife parts and products. 

“These designs provide a compelling message to the American public about the need to protect African elephants by reducing our demand for ivory,” says Service Director Dan Ashe. (Read more from Ashe about elephants, ivory and the need for ivory destruction.) We will work with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to build and display the designs.

In November 2013 and June 2015, the Service crushed a total of more than seven tons of elephant ivory confiscated during the past 25 years. The pro-bono design challenge was announced in 2014. 

 Ivory Challenge
Lance, a commercial sculptor and science illustrator, proposed a massive cube-shaped acrylic container that will be filled with crushed ivory, emphasizing the sheer volume and scale of the poaching crisis. After it is built, the single exhibit is expected to travel to a variety of locations around the country, where it will be available for public viewing and interaction.
 Ivory Challenge
Nott, an artist and product designer, proposed an interactive standing display that will be replicated for use at multiple locations. The display features an hourglass-type mechanism that can be turned by the viewer allowing crushed ivory to flow from top chamber to bottom chamber, demonstrating how time is running out for African elephants unless we take action against the traffickers. The rotating wheel also will contain spent ammunition. Renderings by Joe Rohde 

Both displays will be supplemented with interactive educational information that builds on the Service’s large-scale efforts to reduce consumer demand for African elephant ivory and educate the public about the plight of African elephants. Elephant poaching is at its highest level in decades and continues to rise. Approximately 100,000 elephants were killed between 2010 and 2012 for the illegal ivory trade, and scores of park rangers who work to protect them have also been killed.

Meanwhile, schoolchildren in grades K-12 expressed their appreciation for our nation’s most imperiled wildlife in the 2016 Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest.

ES art

Californian Miles Yun, 15, won the grand prize with his drawing of (Grizzly bear, Millerbird (Nihoa, old world warbler), Fern (Aleutian shield), Quillwort (Louisiana), Torreya (Florida), Wawae`iole, Cactus (Mesa Verde), Bluecurls (Hidden Lake), Buckwheat (steamboat), Milkweed (Welsh's), Thistle (fountain), Popolo ku mai, Cliffrose (Arizona), Brickell-bush (Florida), Bird's-beak (soft)). But all of the other winners and semi-finalists are awesome.

Jr Duck Stamp

And last month another Californian, 16-year-old Stacy Shen, took top honors at the National Junior Duck Stamp Art Contest for her colored-pencil rendition of a pair of snow geese. The image will appear on the 2016-2017 Junior Duck Stamp, which sells for $5 and raises money for conservation education. See the best-of-show entries from all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

Thank you to the winners and everyone who uses art or any talent to conserve wildlife.


Matt Trott, External Affairs

Model for Citizen-led Phenology Monitoring on National Wildlife Refuges

 Nature's Notebook booth
Americorps intern Jessica Allen runs the Nature's Notebook booth at the Valle de Oro third birthday celebration. Photo by Erin Posthumus/USA National Phenology Network

Erin Posthumus, with the USA National Phenology Network, tells us about an option for national wildlife refuges and citizen-scientists.

We know that to make the best decision, we need the best data. But with limited funding, some data may go uncollected. That’s where the USGS-sponsored USA National Phenology Network’s (USA-NPN) Nature’s Notebook  phenology-monitoring program comes in.

Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life. By tracking ecological changes on refuges, citizen-scientists can help shape management actions. This in turn keeps the citizen-scientists engaged and gives them a sense of ownership of their land.

Nature’s Notebook is an online phenology-monitoring program with observation locations  across the country that provide long-term monitoring data, both on and off national wildlife refuges, that can be used to assess environmental change over time.

Phenology Trails, or networks of sites that monitor similar species, enable  comparison of refuge and non-refuge data.

The Rio Grande Phenology Trail is a pilot project of the USA-NPN and Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that links organizations throughout the Rio Grande watershed. The trail includes the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden, Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program and Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area to track the phenology of a suite of focal species.

At Valle de Oro Refuge, citizen science-led data collection efforts have provided phenology data since 2013, data that might not have been collected because of limited refuge staffing. This can be a net gain of staff time, but collaborating with citizen scientists does require coordination to organize volunteer trainings, to manage volunteer sign-ups, to collect feedback from volunteers, and to deliver results collected by the volunteers.

In September, Valle de Oro Refuge hired a one-year Americorps intern, Jessica Allen, to work as Rio Grande Phenology Trail coordinator. Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia has also used an Americorps intern to work with Nature’s Notebook. The goal is to produce a sustainable phenology-monitoring volunteer program that continues after the internship ends, though it often takes  three to five years to reach sustainability.

 “Citizen scientists may sometimes lack formal education in their given interest, but what they do not lack is passion and enthusiasm,” Jessica says. “Their participation allows exponential growth in knowledge of this ecosystem, and also fosters a stronger sense of community surrounding the trail.”

 Valle de Oro Refuge Manager Jennifer Owen-White
Valle de Oro Refuge Manager Jennifer Owen-White examines leaf buds of a native Rio Grande cottonwood, a species monitored through Nature's Notebook. Photo by Erin Posthumus/USA National Phenology Network

In the first half of her service, Jessica has helped several organizations join the trail, and is organizing summer workshops to train up more volunteers for the different trail locations.

“With our limited staff time, Jessica enables us to collaborate much more easily with partners from surrounding organizations to collect information on and off the refuge,” says refuge manager Jennifer Owen-White.

Having Jessica in the  coordinator position has allowed for more effective engagement of volunteers, through in-person meetings and trainings, trail newsletters and a Facebook page.

More than 40,000 data records have been collected on 43 species over the last several years by 32 volunteers.

“Jessica keeps the volunteers connected to the refuge and informed about what we are finding with the data collected,” Owen-White says, “which keeps our volunteers interested and loyal.”

Learn more at the USFWS Phenology Network website at www.usanpn.org/fws.

Future Generations of Scientists Raising Future Generations of Salmon in Portland Public Schools

Service staff works with students during a fish dissection lesson. Photo by Juan Jose Mora Flores/USFWS

Salmon in the Classroom is an educational program where our biologists and local fourth-grade teachers in our Pacific Region instruct elementary school children about the development and lifecycle as well as the importance that salmon play in the ecosystem.

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What's in a Wetland?

May is American Wetlands Month. In honor of these critical life support systems that protect our natural, cultural and economic resources, we bring you this inspiring video that highlights the incredible value and beauty of our natural world.

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Cattle Help Build Up Endangered Buttercup

 autumn buttercup

Wildlife biologist Clint Wirick, of our Partners for Fish & Wildlife Program in Utah, tells us how a community and conservationists are proving cattle to be a useful tool for recovering an endangered plant.

In Utah’s rural Garfield County, a 44-acre preserve lies amongst wet meadows, pastures and livestock along the Sevier River. The preserve was purchased nearly 27 years ago by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) as a safe haven for one of the last known populations of an endangered wildflower, autumn buttercup.  

In 1989 we listed the plant as endangered because data told us it was on the brink of extinction. The plant is endemic to the area, meaning it is found nowhere else in the world.

Not a whole lot is known about the plant’s life history, and when the preserve was purchased, grazing was discontinued. Over the next 27 years, the preserve drastically changed, and with that change autumn buttercup became nearly non-existent on the preserve, even with reintroduction efforts in 2007 and 2010.  

The grazing gets rid of a dense understory of old plant litter. To the right of the fence, the grazed side, it's green; the ungrazed side is brown. Photo by USFWS

What happened during that time period was the preserve’s vegetation had become thick with a dense understory of old plant litter.

In 2011 a team, consisting of our Partners for Fish & Wildlife and Ecological Services programs, TNC, Utah Association of Conservation Districts, Utah State University Extension, local landowners, Weber State University and the Natural Resource Conservation Service visited private property where a landowner reported a large population of the endangered buttercup. The field visit was eye-opening.

Grazing has created open wetland habitat. Photo by USFWS

The plant was thriving in concert with grazing. The endangered buttercup appeared to prefer growing on the small hummocks, or mounds, created by cattle’s hooves. The team also concluded that grazing may be limiting competition with other plants for resources. It was kind of an “ah-ha” moment.

So the team formulated a grazing plan for the preserve and recruited a local livestock producer. With that,  grazing began with a goal to restore autumn buttercup to the preserve. The plan had an experimental design – grazing half the preserve while leaving the other half ungrazed.

A lot of locals have taken notice of the cows on the preserve after decades of no grazing. The Excells, who run a cow-calf operation in Panguitch, Utah, have gotten a lot of questions since they began grazing the preserve and have been happy to provide answers.

Team members and local volunteers planted about 300 plants. Photo by USFWS

After initiating the grazing, team members and local volunteers planted about 300 plants grown out from collected seed in 2013. Michele Skopec from Weber State and her students have been monitoring the plants, and data have shown that the plants on the grazed side are surviving much better than those on the ungrazed side of the preserve. Also plant diversity and production have greatly increased on the grazed portion.

The project is much bigger than just one rare plant, it’s about biodiversity, ecosystem health and community-based conservation.

The results of the project are driving development of a long-term grazing plan, a stark contrast from management on the preserve for the last 27 years. The project has been an out-of-the-box approach to endangered plant management and recovery, and it is a great conversation piece when approaching landowners for other habitat work. Results from the data collected have been presented at local, state and national levels, and a publication is in the works.

Now the future looks a little brighter for this discrete yellow flower. More reintroduction plantings are scheduled and our biologists are working with partners to do a larger scale survey on the privately owned wet valley bottom that the buttercup prefers. We hope to find populations that have been unknown because of limited access in the past. This project might be just the tool needed to start the conversation and open access with private landowners.      

Spring Flowers Bring Life to Death Valley


Story and photos by Peter Pearsall, an employee at Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge, who wrote this during his trip to Death Valley for the “super bloom,” earlier this spring.

In the sun-blasted scrublands and alkali sinks of California’s Death Valley National Park, a glorious transformation is taking place. The sere hills, alluvial fans and rocky washes are ablaze with color, an ephemeral glow brought forth by the blooms of myriad wildflowers. This so-called “super bloom”—acres and acres of efflorescence—is a rare phenomenon made all the more spectacular by the density of desert annuals, species that appear in abundance only in wetter years.

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'Sweet Violets, Sweeter Than All the Roses'; It's True


Spring is in full bloom most everywhere, and Dan Magneson, a fishery biologist at Quilcene National Fish Hatchery in Washington state, has an idea for adventurous sweet-tooths.

In the 1960s, I remember reading an article in one of those little magazines (Parade?) found inside the Sunday newspaper that had to do with making violet blossoms into syrup. It was unusual enough that it stuck with me, although I now understand violets are a fairly common food ingredient in Europe. 

Violets are one of my favorite spring flowers, and when you pluck the flowers from a plant, you usually are basically pulling off its reproductive organs. So I came pretty close to not writing this piece - because I didn’t want to advocate anything that affected the ability of this plant to perpetuate itself. 

But then I read that the violet’s purple blossoms are quite expendable – the plant’s true seed-bearing ability is instead borne from a much more nondescript type of flower. So one can pick the purple ones with a clear conscience. 

It takes some effort to gather enough violets to make syrup and you would be wise to enlist as many helping hands as you can. But especially after a chilly, damp and dark winter spent mostly indoors, the opportunity to get outside on those warm and sunny spring afternoons is a pleasant experience for just about everyone. 

The actual process of turning the violet blossoms into syrup is pretty simple and straightforward and you will need only minimal kitchen skills and equipment. The internet lists many recipes, which vary a bit from one to the next. The most basic simply calls for boiling water and the addition of sugar. Others advise adding lemon juice, or substituting honey for the sugar. You can also make an elixir by adding brandy into the concoction.

Besides the taste of the syrup produced, another part of the appeal lies in the neat color generated by the purple blossoms. Pouring the syrup onto pancake or waffles, over vanilla ice cream and adding it into iced drinks are among its more popular uses. 

And if you are the type who likes to experiment in the kitchen, there are other recipes out there for using violet blossoms to manufacture jelly or to candy the violet blossoms themselves.

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