Southwest Region
Conserving the Nature of America
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black coral jewelry
Confiscated black coral jewelry. Black coral is typically found in deep waters and are slow-growing. In the last few decades, pressures from overharvesting, poaching and the introduction of invasive species have threatened this group of coral. Credit: USFWS.

R2 LE Agent Receives Honor Award for Role in Operation Black Gold

Resident Agent in Charge Ariel Vazquez was recently recognized for his outstanding contributions in the Service’s Interagency Operation Black Gold investigation. A culmination of a three-year joint investigation led by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Black Gold investigation led to three independent prosecuting phases (US vs Ivan Chu and US vs Gloria Chu, US vs Gem Manufacturing and US vs Ashu Bhandari). Each case was successfully
prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice. The entire Black Gold Operation resulted in over 5.5 million dollars in fines for violations of both the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act and forfeitures and 51 months of imprisonment. This was the largest case for the illegal trade in
coral, the largest non-seafood wildlife trafficking financial penalty and the fourth largest for any U.S. case involving the illegal trade of wildlife.

For his role in the successful Operation Black Gold investigation, Ariel Vazquez, Office of Law Enforcement, Southwest Region, was recognized with the Regional Director’s Honor Awards for Employees in October 2013. As Vazquez was unable to make the ceremony, a special recognition video by Southeast Regional Director Cindy Dohner was presented at an all-employee meeting on June 10, 2014.

FWS Operation Black Gold Photo Gallery

Department of Justice News Releases on Operation Black Gold cases>2010/March/10-enrd-249.html

News coverage​



big horn sheep
Three Desert Bighorn Sheep seen on the rocky hillside at the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge's desert wilderness. Bighorns are a true sheep distantly related to domestic sheep. Photo credit: USFWS.

Steve Robertson and Nicole Jimenez nominated for the Environmental Stewardship Excellence Award for support to Desert Bighorn Sheep Research Projects

The Arizona Game and Fish Department recognized two of our employees - Steve Robertson and Nicole Jimenez of R2's Division of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program - by nominating them for the Environmental Stewardship and Excellence Award. This was for support and continued collaboration on the US 93, Hoover Dam to MP 17 Desert Bighorn Sheep Overpass Research Projects.  This project was one of the first projects in the nation to use GPS movement data for the identification of wildlife passage structure locations. Partners included staff from Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD), National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Federal Highway Administration. Research was funded through the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the ADOT Research Center. There were 36 sheep collared and distributed throughout the study area, resulting in 73,496 GPS locations. Larry Voyles, State Director for the AGFD, wrote in his nomination submission that the collaboration and support from Steve and Nicole was essential in making this research and its benefits available.

Learn more... 


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Region Employees Receive Federal Executive Board Awards
FEB recognizes 11 Southwest Region U.S. Fish and Wildife Service Employees

USFWS Region 2 employees receive FEB awards
Southwest Region employees receive awards from the New Mexico Federal Executive Board. Photo credit: USFWS.

The Federal Executive Boards (FEBs) were established by Presidential Directive in 1961 as a forum for communication and collaboration among federal agencies outside the Washington, D.C. area. Approximately 85 percent of all federal employees work outside the National Capital Region and field representatives of departments and agencies serve as the principal contact between citizens and the federal government. The national network of 28 FEBs, located in areas with significant federal populations, serves as the cornerstone for strategic partnering in government.

The New Mexico Federal Executive Board (NMFEB), Federal Employee of the Year and Employer of the Year Awards Program,  is being held in conjunction with Public Service Recognition Week. This year’s theme is “Forward in Service to the Public” and is  an opportunity to recognize outstanding federal employees who have demonstrated exceptional performance and dedication in a given field during the last year. We also honor those who have given generously of their personal time as volunteers in service to the community.

Joy Nicholopoulos and Steve Stucker at the FEB Awards.
Joy Nicholopoulos, Deputy Regional Director for the Southwest Region, USFWS, and Steve Stucker, of Eyewitness News 4 Today, celebrate the awards for the Southwest Region employees. Photo credit: USFWS.

Steve Stucker of New Mexico’s top rated morning program, Eyewitness News 4 Today, provided the Keynote Address . He is well known throughout New Mexico for his community service, work with nonprofit groups, schools, churches, and life improvement programs.

Our Region received recognition in the following categories: Team Excellence, Federal Employee of the Year for Supervisor / Manager, Professional / Administrative / Technical, Diversity Champion of the Year, Clerical and Assistant,  Trades and Craft, Leader, Mentor and Coach of the Year.

The Team Excellence Recognition was awarded to the New Mexico Spatial Fire Management Planning Team. The USFWS employees recognized in this award are Kari Gromatzky, Jason Riggins, Jake Nuttall, Ryan Whiteaker. They completed the first spatial fire management plan (SFMP), of any of the federal fire management agencies. A SFMP incorporates and emphasizes spatial maps and diagrams over standard written planning documents, depicting goals and objectives using visual graphics in addition to text. This revolutionary planning approach provides a more efficient means to visually help convey complex and interrelated fields of information; making these plans more easy to use and applicable to land management. Six National Wildlife Refuges and two National Fish Hatcheries were covered by this plan, over a year including the Environmental Assessment. This effort provided significant savings due to the combining and streamlining of otherwise redundant single-unit planning endeavors.            

The Supervisor / Manager of the Year Award was given to Thomas Harvey. Thomas oversees National Wildlife Refuge operations in Arizona/New Mexico in the Southwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and  supervises 10 Refuge Managers at field units and the Assistant Refuge Supervisor in the Regional Office. Tom is an exceptional leader and supervisor and works diligently to support and develop his staff and provide them with the support they need to meet mission critical operations. He is active in the development of a mentoring program for refuge employees and in diversity recruitment efforts for the Southwest Region. He works externally with various partners and other outside interests. On the later, he excelled in leading efforts during FY 2012 on the establishment of two new Refuges--Valle de Oro NWR and Rio Mora NWR and Conservation Area.

The Professional, Administrative and Technical Employee of the Year Award was awarded to Paul Tashjian who has served as a Regional Hydrologist for the Service’s Southwest Region since the late 1980’s. During his career Paul has made enduring and outstanding professional contributions, often in the context of leading efforts to better understand the scientific linkage between hydrologic considerations and the advancement of the agency’s mission. He has played a key role as the Service has applied the general thesis that biologically-based objectives are much more likely to be achieved when physical processes are taken into full account. His many years of hard work pay significant dividends to the agency, as water issues have become more critical than ever. Paul’s skills and leadership have greatly supported the Service during the current drought on NM’s most important rivers, the Middle Rio Grande and the Pecos, providing powerful scientific insights as our leaders manage through these challenging times.

The Diversity Champion of the Year was awarded to Robert “Rob” Larranaga.  Rob reaches out consistently to the northern NM community to advocate diversity and promote career opportunities for students in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). As Refuge Manager for Northern NM National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex, he built a close relationship with NM Highlands University (NMHU), employing a number of Hispanic students majoring in forestry and other sciences. Students now acquire hands-on experience with refuge management that will directly assist them in their career aspirations. Also, Rob has hosted Minority Youth Environmental Training Institute programs for students selected by the National Hispanic Environmental Council. Finally, Rob has built a cohesive sense of camaraderie among his staff, in collaboration with volunteers, while reaching out to the local community.

The Clerical and Assistant Employee of the Year was awarded to two Southwest Region employees this year.  Lori Casados and Alice Montoya Lori Casados, Administrative Technician for the Northern NM Refuges Complex in Las Vegas, NM recently completed a detail where she performed at a level of Excellence and went above and beyond her call of duty. Her experience and skill set is why she was selected to assist the Regional Office, Refuge Program. During her detail, her performance was noteworthy not only for doing the daily administrative and clerical functions that are required, but also for taking on extra duties such as professionally assisting all programs outside of her detail assignment within the Realty Division. Lori also went to the extra effort, without being tasked, to find and complete unfinished projects decreasing workloads for the entire staff. Not only did Lori perform flawlessly during her detail, but her confidence and uplifting attitude markedly improved office morale, giving staff a much needed boost.

Alice Montoya, in her two years as an Executive Assistant with the FWS, has consistently exhibited her professionalism and “Can Do” attitude for the Service's Refuge Program. In addition, Alice is the Admin. Team Leader. She leads a group of four Administrative Specialists on meeting the many challenges within the program. She has a remarkable ability to coach and mentor her team members. She is a skilled communicator, a quick learner and an employee who has an exemplary work ethic. This award represents an opportunity for the FWS Refuge Program to let Alice know that we appreciate her as a friend and colleague.

Calvin Reaves was recognized with the Trades and Crafts Award. He has been a WG-9 Engineering Equipment Operator at Bosque del Apache NWR since 1991.  Since then, he has been instrumental in the progress that the refuge has made in controlling salt cedar and making the refuge into one of the premier refuges in the country for waterfowl and visitors alike.  Calvin has been the one of the primary operators and has spent countless hours on refuge heavy equipment including large bulldozers, front end loaders, scrapers and other specialized equipment to clear invasive trees and recontour lands into moist-soil and riparian areas for wildlife; his effort has led to critical water savings, allowing the refuge to restore this habitat to preferable native vegetation.  His skill level is so impressive that he can operate a bulldozer with a root plow around cottonwood groves, removing the salt cedar without damaging the cottonwoods.  The results of his work can be seen throughout the refuge, as his work has helped showcase the refuge’s restoration successes, making it one of the top 10 wildlife photography destinations in the country.  This work has lead to water savings, more efficient use of refuge resources, a better public image of the refuge and the work that we do.

The Leader, Mentor and Coach of the Year Award was given to Kevin Cobble, Refuge Manager for San Andres National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). Kevin reached out to NM State University and mentored a number of student employees; some of whom are now employees for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). He has coached interns in the Student Conservation Association who became term employees and students volunteering at the refuge.He has built cooperative partnerships with agencies including NM Department of Game and Fish, White Sands Missile Range, and National Park Service for desert bighorn sheep and oryx management, prescribed fire, and control of salt cedar. In addition, Kevin pursued habitat restoration on the Rio Grande through innovative partnerships with stakeholders such as International Boundary and Water Commission, NM State Parks, NM Audubon Society, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, NM Interstate Stream Commission, and Bureau of Reclamation. Finally, Kevin assumed a leadership role with other Refuge Managers to develop a coordinated approach for sharing of heavy equipment and maintenance staff,
and project planning.

Congratulations to the exceptional employees in Region 2!


Grant harris receives the Science Leadership Award from Dr. Benjamin Tuggle  
Grant Harris, Division of Biological Sciences Chief, receives the Science Leadership Award from Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, Southwest Regional Director, USFWS. Photo credit: Whittle, USFWS.  

Grant Harris of the Southwest Region Wins the 2012 Science Leadership Award 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2012 Scientific Leadership Award goes to Grant Harris, the Southwest Region’s Chief of Biological Sciences. Harris took over the Chief role in 2010 when the Biological Services group consisted of only two half-time staff members. Now the group encompasses a scientific team of 12 and growing.

The Science Awards were established to recognize that effective wildlife management and conservation is founded on innovative scientific inquiry and principles. As the Service faces increasingly complex challenges, the value of current scientific information is rapidly increasing. The awards are meant to recognize the outstanding efforts of the agency’s scientists and technical staff. The Science Leadership Award recognizes a Service employee’s exemplary practice

  The Science Leadership medallion
  The Science leadership medallion.

and support of scientific activities to improve the Service’s knowledge and management of fish and wildlife resources.

Under Harris’s leadership the region’s Biological Services group has added significant capacity. Harris has built a strong foundation for science-based wildlife conservation to grow and flourish in the Southwest, and is leading the Service with reinforcing how science informs management decisions, habitat acquisition, and the Inventory and Monitoring Initiative.

Harris has developed studies to assess the role of mountain lions in bighorn sheep mortality, led the way for novel techniques to save time and money for monitoring wildlife through camera trapping, assessed habitat fragmentation effects on threatened birds, and helped

Science Leadership Award plaque  
2012 Science Leadership Award plaque. Photo credit: Whittle, USFWS.  

revamp the survey methodology of wintering whooping crane. His efforts have directed the pioneering of new techniques to estimate the abundance of animals without marks, techniques that can be applied to endangered animals world-wide.

Harris’ leadership in addressing a plethora of wildlife management and conservation topics in the Southwest has provided the ground work for creating new partnerships with State wildlife agencies, U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service (NPS), NatureServe, NOAA, universities, and NGOs. These include a new Inventory and Monitoring Initiative collaboration with the NPS in the Chihuahuan and Sonoran desert networks and various applied research
projects across the southwest region.

  Grant Harris cuts cake
  Grant harris cuts cake in celebration of his award. Photo credit: Whittle, USFWS.

In addition to his personal accomplishments, Grant strongly believes in the importance of increasing science capacity within the Service for the good of conservation. In support of that vision, he has built a science team that is raising the bar for science on Refuges throughout the Southwest Region. His "lead by example" attitude motivates those around him to excel, while raising standards such that scientific rigor and defensibility are the norm.

As we all face increasingly complex challenges in wildlife management and conservation, innovation and excellence in science are crucial to improving the Service’s knowledge and management of fish and wildlife resources. The Southwest Region is proud to have Harris on our team!




Secretary Announces Establishment of Two New National Wildlife Refuges in New Mexico

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announces two new National Wildlife Refuges in New Mexico - an urban refuge in Albuquerque and the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge in Watrous.

As an Urban Refuge, the Albuquerque project has an increased emphasis on recreation and education for urban youth, with convenient access.  This refuge will serve as a gateway to other outdoor venues in the area as well as other refuges in the state. 

The Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area is a watershed level partnership effort in conjunction with a 5,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge and Environmental Education Center. 

These projects represent two distinct approaches to conservation being taken by the Administration. Both approaches are partnership driven, with pooled resources for maximum public benefit.

Valle de Oro NWR  
The Service's Honor Guard opened the dedication ceremony for the first urban refuge in the Southwest. Credit: USFWS Nicole Haskett-Osborn.  

Learn More about Albuquerque's urban refuge, the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge:

Valle de Oro NWR Environmental Assessment and Land Protection Plan (referred to as the "Middle Rio Grande NWR" during planning)

Valle de Oro NWR Fact Sheet




Valle de Oro NWR  
View from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS Rick Jones.  

Learn More about Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge:

Rio Mora NWR Environmental Assessment

Rio Mora NWR Land Protection Plan

Rio Mora NWR Fact Sheet





Southwest Region Soars to New Heights – Receives Employer of Choice Recognition

FEB group  
Left to right: Chris Tincher, Assistant Regional Director External Affairs; Joy Nicholopoulos, Deputy Regional Director Southwest Region; Jose Viramontes recipient of Exceptional Community Service award; Stacey Baca-Garcia recipient of the Supervisor and Manager of the Year award; Beth Oms, Deputy Assitant Regional Director for Ecological Services. Credit: USFWS.  

Celebrated the first week of May since 1985, Public Service Recognition Week is time set aside to honor the men and women who serve our nation as federal, state, county and local government employees and ensure that our government is the best in the world. This year, I’m proud to say many outstanding employees work in our Region. A couple of you were recognized by the New Mexico Federal Executive Board (FEB) last month.

At this ceremony, we were also named the Employer of Choice. Our Region implemented recruitment, retention and developmental strategies to foster a thriving workplace with growth opportunities for the next generation of leaders. This helped us take home this honor, but we were also recognized for our community outreach and partnerships with other agencies, local governments, tribal governments, conservation groups, landowners and concerned citizens in New Mexico. Now, I know that doesn’t just happen in this state. This takes place across our Region in all four of our states. It took a committed effort on the part of many of you to help our Region achieve that remarkable accomplishment. The most recent example of community involvement is the work done to establish voluntary conservation agreements in New Mexico and in Texas to enable us to make a landmark decision and keep the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard from being listed.

I’m proud of all of you, but for the moment, let me brag about a couple of folks that were recognized in May at the FEB awards ceremony. First is David Mendias. David was recognized as the Mentor and Coach of the year.  He has made valuable contributions in the Southwest region and for the Service. As a leader and mentor, he uses feedback, coaching and timely evaluations to promote teamwork and goal accomplishment and to build confidence and commitment in our future leaders. He also assisted in establishing a region-wide “focus group” to provide suggestions on how our Region could improve. We’ve incorporated much of the feedback from the Focus group and I believe this has helped make us an employer of choice.

Next is Stacey Baca-Garcia. Consistently and successfully addressing and overseeing a large volume of complex work, Stacey was named Supervisor and Manager of the Year for her leadership abilities.  She also collaterally serves as Regional EEO Diversity Women’s Program lead.  Her ability to lead by example has gained her respect and appreciation across programmatic lines.

One of the individuals helping keep us connected to the local community is Jose Viramontes. He was the recipient of the Exceptional Community Service award.  Jose led a successful CFC Campaign in New Mexico that created more community awareness and inspired others to give back to their community. Jose himself is very active in the community – serving as board member of the Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless, and the Leadership New Mexico Board of Directors, Chair for Connect New Mexico Curriculum Committee, Vice-President for his community neighborhood association and sitting on the Board of Directors for the Future Fund of the Albuquerque Community Foundation and the Montessori of the Rio Grande Building Committee.

The Urban refuge in Albuquerque
Valle de Oro NWR Fact Sheet
Rio Mora fact Sheet
Rio Mora NWR fact Sheet
Wolf Recovery Program
Lesser Prairie Chicken
Great Plains Wind Energy
Dunes Sagebrush Lizard
Last updated: June 23, 2014