Refuge Update recently asked National Wildlife Refuge System employees to share the most important thing they have done on a refuge so far in their careers to connect everyday people to the land. Staff members were hesitant to reply. In characteristically humble U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee fashion, they did not want to be seen as promoting themselves above the conservation mission. Nonetheless, we were able to armtwist a handful of colleagues to cooperate. What follows are condensed versions of their responses.
Steve Kallin, project leader, National Elk Refuge, WY:
In 2002, when I was district manager at Windom Wetland Management District, MN, we started Wings on the Prairie, a spring bird festival that continues today. The concept was to bring attention to efforts to reestablish trumpeter swans, which were extirpated from southwestern Minnesota early in the 20th century. The festival expanded to include prairie ecology and other migratory bird identification and research techniques, all with an emphasis on youth environmental education and handson activities.
Wings on the Prairie helps youth and adults visualize the tallgrass prairie and wetlands of the presettlement landscape, which enables them to better appreciate the importance of wetlands and the rich wildlife heritage of the area. This occurs not just through educational programs but also through simple handson projects where folks can make a small contribution to helping birds.
A girl relishes her role in a native grass planting project at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in central California.
Credit: Karl Stromayer/USFWS
Karl Stromayer, assistant refuge manager, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, CA:
Working with others to conduct volunteer days on which families plant native grasses and shrubs. Specifically, planting saltgrass plugs (a native perennial grass) one day in January 2010to restore an upland that had been converted to agriculture and had been lying fallow since acquisition by the refuge. People got their feet wet and their hands dirty in the soil. They were connected to nature in a primal way.
The foggy cold day slowly warmed up, and many migratory birds flew over the planting site that day, including lesser sandhill cranes, Rosss geese and whitefaced ibis. Even though the site was next to agricultural land, the fog and birds flying over and calling created for a short time an illusion of wilderness. Children and adults alike stopped their work and looked up to see the birds above.
Anne Morkill, refuge manager, Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex:
National Key Deer Refuge is a matrix of public and private lands. One of our biggest challenges and threats to our threatened and endangered species are feral and freeroaming cats. I initiated discussions in 2007 with local animal advocacy groups to begin addressing this issue publicly and to implement a trapandremove program on refuge lands as part of our recovery strategy for the endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit.
What started as a polarized debate transformed into a proactive alliance called One Animal Family. It is a partnership that promotes the humane treatment of all animals, wild and domestic, while seeking to reduce humaninduced pressures on endangered species through a variety of strategies including education, law enforcement, reducing wildlifes access to human food and trash, and actively trapping and removing cats from refuge lands.
We have not started the trapping program yet. It will start soon, and its still rather controversial, as might be expected. I see this as a means of connecting people to the land by educating them about the impacts of their cats on native wildlife and showing that responsible pet owners and conservationists alike can play a supporting role in accomplishing the compatible goals of conserving endangered species and reducing homeless cats on refuges.
Ernesto Reyes, Ecological Services fish and wildlife biologist based at Santa Ana Refuge, TX:
Since last year, I have been involved with the South Texas Environmental Education and Research group from the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen, TX. I have given presentations to premed students from across the country about the refuge and environmental issues that impact wildlife and people. I take the students to see the border fence/wall, so they can get a perspective firsthand on the loss of land connectivity for terrestrial wildlife on nearby Lower Rio Grande Valley Refuge.
Ecological Services fish and wildlife biologist Ernesto Reyes, second from left, with pre-med students at Santa Ana Refuge in south Texas.
I also talk about how water quality relates to human health issues such as cancer, deformities and disease. I discuss the importance of protecting the habitat in our watershed by minimizing chemicalfilled stormwater runoff from urban areas and farmlands. I explain how sensitive species, such as amphibians and fish, are indicators of water quality and contamination. The students like that we connect the importance of protecting the environment with human health issues that they will deal with in the medical field.
Jared Brandwein, refuge manager, Back Bay Refuge, VA:
In the mid1990s, when I was an Ecological Services project leader in Pennsylvania, I was a sideline person who shepherded through the beginnings of Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which was established last fall. I helped keep the process moving despite a lot of odds. That refuge was started in a conference room. There were four of us: Bud Cook, Tony Tur, me and, on the phone, nowretired realty specialist Walt Quist. The idea was spawned by The Nature Conservancy.
Five different refuges had been roughed out on an area map. We eventually decided to aim for one refuge. Cherry Valley was the best location because it had the mother lode of bog turtles within its proposed boundary, it was near the Appalachian Trail and the Delaware River National Recreation Area, and it had connectivity to state game lands. It was like the missing link in the conservation puzzle of northeastern Pennsylvania. It was rewarding to see the project come to fruition after I left, to see how an original concept goes through when the public wants it and we communicate effectively.
Deborah Holle, refuge manager, Balcones Canyonlands Refuge, TX:
The most important things I have done in my career to connect people to the land are to hire great people and to agree to the great ideas people come up with. For instance, when I was manager at the Florida Keys refuges in the 1980s, we were experiencing high numbers of Key deer deaths on roads. We had a large volunteer group, and Bill Grimes, a retired New York City fireman, suggested that we erect a sign on Big Pine Key reporting how many deer were killed compared to the previous year.
The group liked the idea of raising awareness, but I cringed. What kind of sign? Would it comply with Service, Florida DOT and Monroe County regulations? Where would we get permission, what safety issues were involved, who would maintain and update it? How would it get built? The suggestion was simple, but, because of the lack of money and people, these were very real concerns.
Luckily, I kept my concerns to myself, smiled and said: Thats a great idea; who will take charge of this project? Bill stepped up along with other volunteers. The sign created more public awareness than we were prepared for. I visited the Keys two years ago, and the sign was still there, albeit a newer one. Often since then I have wondered what would have happened had I dismissed Bills great idea and said no because it probably wasnt worth the effort. Sometimes it not what we say or do, but what we dont say.
Susan Adamowicz, Land Management Research and Demonstration biologist, Rachel Carson Refuge, ME, and Parker River Refuge, MA:
I work on salt marshesplaces I consider very beautifulbut places that historically have been on the fringes of human communities. Salt marshes are downstream of most human concerns, literally and figuratively. What I do is salt marsh restoration. Most often that involves undoing what people have done in the distant or recent past. My work is full of mud, mosquitoes and data points. The results of my work are (hopefully) expanses of healthy salt marsh with a mixture of lush grasses and forbs (flowering plants).
When I connect to everyday people, its usually on my private time. Talking to people at the gym, in the supermarket, family, friends, strangers. I talk to them about the awesome beauty of these ecosystems, about the connections between the pulses of tide and time, plants, fish and birds. Most people dont see the almost spiderthreadthin connections between themselves, their actions and the planet around them. But even though spider threads are small and thin, they are incredibly strong.
So when I listen to people describe some bird theyve seen on the marsh, I understand their wonder at it, but the wonder is only increased as we discuss the life of that bird, how the salt marsh supports it, how the watershed supports the salt marsh and how our actions and choices affect all of these.