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Director's Corner

Dan Ashe served as FWS Director from June 2011 until January 2017. The following is an archive of blogs authored by Director Ashe during that time. This content is intended for historical reference only and not as a representation of current Service policy or opinion.

Ed Grace and Operation Crash up for a Sammie

 Ed Grace

This week we found out that our own Law Enforcement Deputy Chief Ed Grace and his Operation Crash team were named a finalist in the  “Oscars” of government service.

Ed and team were nominated in the Homeland Security and Law Enforcement category of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals. Named after the founder of the Partnership for Public Service, the prestigious Sammies highlight the best work of our country’s dedicated public servants.

And no one is more deserving than Ed and team, who helped shine the national spotlight on the evils of wildlife trafficking with Operation Crash.

Actually, they did far more than bring the issue to light.

Recognizing early on the growing dangers of wildlife trafficking, both to biodiversity in general and to the future of some of the world’s most celebrated animals, Ed began planning Operation Crash. Crash is the name of a group of rhinoceroses, one of the animals being driven toward extinction by greedy and ruthless poachers who are themselves driven by demand that won’t die.

In February 2012, Ed’s brainchild first came crashing down on the trafficking world. So far, the ongoing nationwide criminal investigation led by Ed and our Office of Law Enforcement has led to 41 arrests, 30 convictions. The investigations, made up of agents from multiple regions and supporting federal agencies, has also seized more than $75 million in rhino horn and tusks of elephants, another charismatic animal threatened by poachers.

The investigations have “reverberated globally,” says Marshall Jones, a senior adviser at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “Ed Grace’s investigations have helped put pressure on” China, a large consumer of ivory and rhino horn, Jones says.

Operation Crash also shows would-be smugglers in the United States that wildlife laws have sharp teeth, and Ed’s tenacious leadership has not only put smugglers behind bars but created a real deterrent – people see the consequences of illegal wildlife trade. And thanks to Ed, that consequence is now often prison!

“For a long time, wildlife crime wasn’t treated as a serious crime even though it had become a lucrative business tied to organized crime,” Ed says. “We are now bringing these traffickers to justice.”

“It’s an honor to do this work that I’m passionate about and I believe it’s making a difference,” Ed adds. “If 20 years from now these species are surviving, I’ll know that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped make that happen.”

The honor is mine, Ed, and  that of everyone who has the privilege to work with you.

While the problem of wildlife trafficking is definitely global, the United States has an obligation to take action – much of the illegal trade occurs within the United States, crosses our borders or involves American citizens.

Thanks to Ed Grace and Operation Crash, not only are we taking action; we’re succeeding.


A Strong Message on Climate Change for Earth Day

 Two little blue herons standing above water on dead tree trunk and mangrove roots at Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Steve Hillebrand
Two little blue herons standing above water on dead tree trunk and mangrove roots at Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Photo by Steve Hillebrand/USFWS

At the end of last year, 196 nations came together to establish the Paris Agreement, an ambitious and historic pact to address climate change and cut greenhouse gases. The United States played a leading role in this effort, bringing the global community together to take real steps to reduce climate change emissions and prepare for coming impacts. You can read the full text of the agreement here

On this Earth Day, the United States will become one of the first signatories to this agreement, which will enter into force only after at least 55 countries responsible for causing 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions have signed on. 

This agreement is a cause for optimism, but not complacency. Optimism because it establishes ambitious targets to limit global average temperature increases to well under 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels, while providing a mechanism to regularly ratchet up global commitments and drive down emissions over time. The agreement also establishes more transparent tracking to hold countries accountable and requires a global effort to “take stock” of climate action every five years. It encourages the public and private sectors to rapidly invest and participate in the developing energy economy, and explicitly recognizes the importance of anticipating and addressing climate-related impacts to the earth’s wildlife and natural systems. 

But our work is just beginning. Despite its ambitious targets, the agreement’s emission reduction commitments are not yet strong enough to hold global temperature increases below 2°C. Indeed, the world has already experienced an increase of about 1°C. Even if fully implemented, our communities and ecosystems, including the diverse species the Service manages, will continue to feel serious effects from increasing climate disruption in the years and decades to come. 

As Secretary Jewell has stated, the Department of the Interior has an important role to play in ensuring the success of the Paris Agreement, including supporting clean energy development, reducing our own carbon emission, promoting carbon sequestration, investing in sound science, and continuing to manage our trust resources under new and changing threats. 

I’m proud to say the Service is doing just that. Our Climate Adaptation Network (CAN), a regionally and programmatically representative advisory group of senior managers, will continue to work with staff across the agency to address climate change and plan adaptation actions. In particular, CAN will work to expand access to information and tools, clarify our goals and strategies, provide effective policy and guidance, and ensure accountability at all levels. The group will also host our first ever Climate Change Practitioners’ Forum at NCTC in June, bringing together staff from around the nation to share success stories, explore key questions, learn from each other and set the stage for a path forward. 

These steps are important. But, our agency’s most critical climate change response is happening right now on the ground, as we integrate climate change into our daily work. 

For example, refuges like J.N. “Ding” Darling, Ten Thousand Islands, Merritt Island, Archie Carr, Pelican Island and Lower Florida Keys face impending threats from sea-level rise, increasing air and sea-water temperatures and changing storm patterns. Threats like these are game changers for these refuges’ extensive mangrove forests, which provide vital habitat for dozens of species of fish, birds and crustaceans, while buffering inland areas from hurricanes and other severe weather. 

In face of these very real threats, we’re working with the USGS Land Carbon Program to assess the vulnerability of mangroves at several key refuges. Together, we’re using remote sensing tools to evaluate changes in mangrove distribution and abundance, measure carbon stocks in mangrove forests, and other indicators that can tell us if the ecosystem can keep pace with sea-level rise. 

Alaska’s communities and resources are also experiencing rapid environmental changes. Even in this remote northern region, human activities are fragmenting the landscape, and climate change is happening at two to three times the global rate. We are working with Alaskan communities and other partners through Alaska’s Landscape Conservation Cooperatives to understand, anticipate and address these changes on Arctic ecosystems and the communities and wildlife they support, including polar bear and walrus.  If we can work with partners to design ecologically connected landscapes now, while these landscapes are still relatively intact, we may be able to avoid the global trend of environmental fragmentation and degradation. 

We’re also doing our part to minimize our carbon footprint, with the goal of becoming carbon neutral as an agency by 2020. And we’re working to facilitate the shift to clean energy that is essential for limiting climate change, ensuring that impacts to species and habitat are avoided, minimized, and mitigated as renewable energy sources are planned and developed. 

As I’ve said before, climate change is not something “extra” that we can consider if and when we have the time.  We must make climate change a fundamental part of how we approach our core responsibilities in order to meet the mission of our agency. 

I urge you to learn more about what’s happening around the Service and discover how you can integrate climate adaptation and planning into your daily work. With your support and engagement, I’m optimistic we’ll succeed in sustaining wildlife and habitat for future generations.

Conservation’s Next Challenges

Last month, I had the great pleasure of addressing attendees at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. 

This annual gathering is significant because of both the number and breadth of conservation and wildlife management professionals who attend – from scientists of myriad specialties to policy-makers, advocates and legal experts representing federal, state, non-profit, for-profit and academic institutions.  This year, I used it as  an opportunity to talk boldly about what I believe are the paramount issues facing the conservation community today – not global warming or the sixth extinction wave, but our internal struggles to unite and to make the idea of conservation relevant to future generations of Americans. 

I have reproduced that speech here in the hope it will provoke thoughtful discourse and positive action. 

It begins with a simple math problem. In a world where our biggest challenge in conserving wild creatures is human ecology, we are faced with a human population that now numbers 7.3 billion. By mid-century, we will be approaching 10 billion! 

And it's not just our growing numbers, but our expanding affluence. More of the world's population will be more like us in America, with increasing access to things like electricity, education, transportation and health care. 

We will demand more fuel, more fiber, more food, and we will consume more of the planet's ecological space. 

Though we would wish it were not so, that means less and less for the rest of what we collectively call biodiversity.  

So, continued success will require that we be smarter, faster and stronger. Better focused. More unified. Collectively determined. 

But as a conservation community, we have a significant and growing dysfunction. We seem to be armoring ourselves against momentous tides of change. 

We are reflexive and defensive and increasingly angry at the growing proportion of the population that we think just doesn't get it.

Easy things are hard. Hard things are impossible.

Case-in-point is what we call a federal Sportsmen's Bill. And this is not a criticism of the congressional sponsors, because they are responding to us. We are the problem. This is our dysfunction. 

Rome burns ... prairies are in crisis ... Asian carp assault the Great Lakes ... Burmese pythons strangle the Everglades ... Elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife are decimated by a global epidemic in trafficking ... state and federal refuges in California (anchors of the Pacific Flyway) are starved of water ... mule deer are disappearing from large expanses in the west ... every native trout species is imperiled ... grassland birds are declining precipitously ... and on, and on. 

And yet we ask Congress to address the import of 41 polar bear trophies, killed in 2008, in the name of Sportsmen.  

The Land and Water Conservation Fund expires. 

But, in the name of Sportsmen, we ask Congress to exempt lead bullets from Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulation, well knowing that lead bullets are not being regulated by TSCA. 

And early this year, we witnessed the armed, illegal occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by extremists who deny the legitimacy of federal and state government, and the entire concept of public lands held in trust for the American people.  All American people. 

Some ideologues, while not agreeing with the tactics used at Malheur, continue to want the federal government to divest hundreds of millions of acres of public land – not for sportsmen or women – but for economic development, private use and corporate profit. 

My heartfelt thanks to the organizations that stood up and spoke out publicly against the occupation at Malheur: the National Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Defenders of Wildlife, the Audubon Society and others. 

And we will need more strong voices calling for unity, as we see our ability to conserve and protect our public lands and native wildlife steadily undercut by those in positions of power and influence who are hostile to the very idea of public trust.

Sadly, the public doesn’t seem to realize the stakes – nothing less than conservation of wildlife and public lands for current and future generations of Americans. And all the while, conservation is increasingly irrelevant in today's changing American society. 

To us and our predecessors – anglers, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts – conservation has been relevant because it sustains the things we care about. But fewer and fewer people are fishing, hunting and spending time outdoors. 

More than eight in 10 Americans live in urban and suburban environments. And urbanization is accelerating. 

The nation will soon be made up of a majority of minorities.

Most of us in conservation do not look like America. We do not, therefore, adequately represent America. 

This is a crisis for conservation that we simply must address. 

The solution?  I believe it is that we must change and change rapidly. 

And yes, change comes hard. But, as General Eric Shinseki teaches us, if you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less.  

We are already seeing the early stages of irrelevance. 

So, we're facing big challenges. 

Here's what I believe we need to do: 

We have to break out of the disciplinary silos that we built and that served us so well, in the 20th century. We can't do 21st century conservation if we see the world divided into fish, wildlife, range and forestry. We have to unite these great disciplines and see conservation in a larger context, and design conservation on a larger scale. 

We have to have zero tolerance for those who support divestiture of public lands. No one should be able to call themselves a sportsman or sportswoman unless they defend, loudly and at every turn, the benefits and importance of public land ownership and professional stewardship. And we need people in positions of power who will stand up for clean air and water, for protection of habitat, and stand behind the professional public servants – local, tribal, state and federal – who dedicate their lives to conserving wild places and wild creatures. 

We also need a professional ethic that unites us as a community. Something like: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow conservationist. Sure, we may disagree from time to time, but these should be professional, courteous and respectful differences. How can we expect the faith and confidence of the public if we do not reflect faith and confidence in one another? 

We must diversify our organizations, our profession and our community.

This must be a collective priority.  We need to better represent what America looks like. There's a new generation of conservationist out there. They're in cities; they're using smart phones; they don't hunt or fish; they've never spent a night outdoors; their skin is shades of red or brown; English may be their second language. We have to find them. We have to inspire and recruit them. They will become the best-and-brightest. They will make conservation relevant. 

We have to start today.

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