Not So Strategic Habitat Conservation -- A True Story About a Missed Opportunity
by David Viker
Ten years ago I was in my first week as manager of three rural Mississippi national wildlife refuges (Hillside, Morgan Brake and Matthews Brake).
The Project Leader and I were out kicking some dirt on one of the refuges when we began discussing plans for the coming year. He talked about many things that day, but I clearly remember hearing him say in his soft southern accent, “I like diversity. I like to manage for diversity. When I look across the landscape, I like to see diversity.”
Now, at that time my “landscape” was only what my eyes could see from the top of that levee … not what was needed on a larger, more important scale to meet the needs of wildlife that flew, lumbered, and swam beyond the reach of my eyes.
So my enthusiastic staff and I set out to create diversity on these refuges like had never been seen before. We planted trees in some places and created moist soil units in others. We allowed scrub-shrub to grow in areas while keeping open water in other spots. With each passing month, we continued to diversify our three big patches of ground.
Indeed, we attracted lots of wildlife through our “diversified” efforts, but in reality it was just more of the same species. Back then we did not realize how our efforts could contribute to a much larger landscape. We certainly helped keep common birds common, and we produced more deer, squirrel, and turkey than I’d ever thought we would.
However, we did little to meet the needs of priority forest interior nesting birds, which require larger wooded blocks; we did not take advantage of opportunities to create movement corridors for black bear; and, heck, we didn’t even increase crop and moist soil production in the most beneficial places for ducks!
And I’m now embarrassed to admit we were less than an hour’s drive from the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture office, where folks working on “conservation design” - a term probably not yet invented back then - could have shown us the latest GIS tools to help us better understand how we fit into the larger landscape. Looking back I wish those folks would have come to the refuge, kicked the dirt with us that day, and let us know how they could help. Shame on me for not seeking out those who might help me answer the most basic management questions of “why” and “where.” Instead I was too focused on “what” and “how.”
If I had thought about the right conservation in the right places, I would not have planted a single tree at Matthews Brake unless the area could be flooded each winter for ducks. I would have continued to manage the many moist soil units at Morgan Brake, but with more of an eye towards meeting the needs of migratory shorebirds. And at Hillside, I would have planted every tree I could and worked with partners to build and connect corridors for forest interior nesting birds and black bear. If only I had known what I know now.
I can honestly say this was one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve had with the Service, and we did lots of good things. But we didn’t do the best things.
Although I wish I could get those two years back, there is a Chinese proverb, which says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago … the second best time is now.” I am grateful for the challenges and experiences over the last 15 years of my career, and I am excitedly awaiting the conservation opportunities the next 25 years will bring.