FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Diana M. Hawkins February 5, 1997 PLANS FOR IMPROVED WATER QUALITY AND SAFER WILDLIFE HABITAT COUNTED AMONG THE SOUTHEAST'S 1996 CONSERVATION SUCCESSES
Despite some challenges faced in 1996 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its quest to conserve and enhance the Nation's wild places and wild things in the Southeast, the organization can claim a number of successes for the year that include the establishment of new areas of valuable wildlife habitat, progress towards improvement of water quality in a number of the Region's rivers and streams, and increases in populations of some endangered species.
In Atlanta, Georgia, Noreen K. Clough serves as the Regional Director of the Service's Southeast Region--one of seven Regions organized around the country to carry out the Service's charge. The Southeast Region covers more than 430,000 square miles and includes the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, as well as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Region is responsible for 114 national wildlife refuges totaling a little more than 3.1 million acres; 14 national fish hatcheries; 7 fishery assistance offices; 15 ecological services field offices; and 30 law enforcement offices. While members of Clough's staff could sit down with calculators and field reports to tabulate large, impressive statistics representing "actions completed" in 1996--acreage of habitat restored, trees planted, fish stocked in various waters--some of the Region's most important "successes" are measured in relatively small increments.
A true success story for 1996 involves a single bird. The Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released to the wild a young endangered Puerto Rican parrot chick that is expected to enhance the genetic variabiltiy of the species' diminished wild population. Agustin P. Valido, the Service's national species coordinator for the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program, said of the parrot's significance, "This chick was fathered by a founder bird captured in 1972 from a population in the West Fork area of the forest that has not been occupied by parrots for approximately 7 years. If he survives to breed with the existing wild flock, he will pass on priceless genetic variability to his offspring that will help save these rare parrots from extinction." DNA fingerprinting techniques allow the Service to examine DNA strands from male and female parrot blood samples to select the most genetically distinct pairs for mating. This cuts down on inbreeding and reduces the likelihood that offspring will contract diseases complicated by genetic factors.
The endangered Mississippi sandhill crane, for instance, found only on and adjacent to the refuge that bears its name on the Gulf coastal plain of Jackson County, Mississippi, set a record for nesting, hatching and fledging this year. Refuge Manager Joe Hardy reported a record 13 nesting pairs of the rare bird, the highest number recorded in 30 years of monitoring. Refuge surveys also revealed six new nesting pairs, three new active nesting territories, and three previously active territories used for the first time in at least 10 years.
"This year, for the first time, a pair of hand-reared cranes successfully hatched a chick," Hardy said and added, "Another first was the fledging of 'twin' cranes, two young from the same nest, a very unusual occurrence."
In another part of the Southeast Region, endangered and threatened sea turtles are surviving in increasing numbers thanks to the installation of visors on stadium lights located near turtle nesting beaches on the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. This minor modification will save thousands of turtle hatchlings each year. According to Clough, beach lighting tends to disorient newly hatched turtles; and, instead of instinctively heading for the ocean, the turtles are attracted inland and perish. This refuge is the largest nesting beach of the endangered leatherback sea turtle in the United States, and one of only 13 significant leatherback nesting beaches in the world. It is the site of an intensive research and conservation project that was initiated in 1981 by the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
Other successes took place on a larger scale. For instance, back on the mainland, a proposed first-of-its-kind, habitat conservation plan for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers is allowing Georgia landowners to participate in efforts to increase survivability of the imperiled woodpeckers and receive assurances that their future development plans have a secure future. The statewide plan was presented by the State of Georgia to the Department of the Interior in Savannah, on August 20, 1996, at a ceremony attended by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Lonice C. Barrett. At present, 20 landowners are participating in the program in the North Carolina Sandhills area, some of the best remaining red-cockaded woodpecker habitat under private ownership in the Southeast.
In the past year, the Service joined forces with the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee to enhance water quality in the Lower Mississippi Valley and restore fisheries habitat in the lower Mississippi alluvial valley that extends from the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico. Loss of approximately 80 percent--close to 20 million acres--of the forested wetland habitat in this area over the past two decades has resulted in the decline of many fish and wildlife species. These losses prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate the area as an ecosystem of special concern in 1995. Clough, along with Edwin F. Crowell, chairman of the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee, signed a cooperative agreement to create a forum where river management agencies can discuss various issues involving the Mississippi River and make collective decisions on needed actions that states would be unable to accomplish individually. This agreement is patterned after one that has functioned successfully between the Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 50 years. The committee was chartered under a constitution signed by 11 conservation and water quality agencies in Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee to manage the river's natural resources in these states. Because the Mississippi River generally forms boundaries between states rather than flowing completely within them, no individual state has the management authority or funding to deal with natural resource problems that transcend state boundaries. Although water quality problems may originate in upper reaches of the river, they frequently affect downstream states, as well as the Gulf of Mexico.
Another of the year's accomplishments will benefit the public more personally. In May, the Service and the Nature Conservancy of Louisiana announced the establishment of Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge, a 4,618-acre refuge in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, near Houma. Clough said that the Service plans to develop the refuge for the public's use in sport fishing, wildlife observation, and limited hunting. "The traditional uses of the area will be maintained to the greatest extent possible," she said. Strategically located at the southern terminus of the Mississippi Flyway, the refuge is identified as a "top priority" conservation project of the Gulf Coast Joint Venture of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, signed into law by the United States and Canada on May 14, 1986.
On Sept 30, 1996, the states of South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia became the proud new owners and operators of three fish hatcheries transferred to them by the Service through Sport Fish Restoration grants that will assist each state's natural resource management agency to produce fingerlings and catchable fish for stocking in lakes, streams and rivers.
The Service was also a part of several partnerships formed to acquire and restore coastal wetlands, such as the Keeywaydin Island Acquisition that was completed in 1996. Service funds were also used to buy a 15.28-acre parcel that was part of 12 parcels purchased. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve have acquired more than 2,490 acres of the island since 1993.
In the Florida Keys, the Dynamite Docks Wetlands Restoration Project was completed as planned and the Service, the Florida DEP, and the Florida Audubon Society teamed up to restore this disturbed area to a productive mangrove habitat. Five new coastal acquisition and restoration activities were also initiated in 1996. Four of these focused on Florida mangrove habitats on the State's east and west coast. The fifth was in Kitty Hawk Woods, on a barrier island off the North Carolina coast.
In South Carolina, within the Winyah Bay Focus Area, 17,000 acres of blackwater forested wetlands and associated uplands were purchased by the South Carolina Department of Transportation as mitigation for local highway projects. The land includes 8,000 acres of Sandy Island, a unique dune ridge island formation in the heart of this Focus Area; and 9,000 acres of blackwater riverine habitat owned by the Georgia Pacific Timber Company. Most of this habitat is expected to become part of the Service's proposed Waccamaw refuge.
Some serious challenges and setbacks the Service also faced during 1996: The deaths of more than 150 endangered manatees that perished in Southwest Florida's coastal waters after ingesting naturally-occuring toxic organisms; the damage wreaked by Hurricanes Bertha and Fran to some wildlife refuges and Service facilities in North and South Carolina and by Hurricane Hortense in Costa Rica; the loss of thousands of hatchery-bred trout in Georgia and Arkansas, possibly at the hands of vandals.
Clough noted that natural and other disasters such as these demonstrate the vulnerability of our wildlife and wild places and stress the need for us to continue to strive to eliminate, as much as possible, the human-caused losses of species and habitat. "These," she pointed out, "are the only losses over which we have any measure of control."
"This Nation's fish and wildlife resources are an asset of tremendous environmental, recreational and economic importance, and represent a vital part of our natural heritage -- one that is facing increasing pressures every day," Clough said.
"While we will inevitably continue to face these pressures," Clough said, "the Service's recently implemented ecosystem approach to conservation allows us to more efficiently and effectively help maintain healthy ecosystems on a long-term basis. Because this approach enables us to implement consistent policies and procedures that consider the needs of all resources, the Service will be able to continue to work towards successfully conserving the Nation's rich biological heritage. To do this," she said, "it is essential that the Service's fish and wildlife experts work hand-in-hand with partners, both in the public and private sectors, who share responsibility for our world's ecosystem health and biological diversity."
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1997 News Releases