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Midwest Region
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Celebrating excellence in the midwest

May 24, 2019

We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work collaboratively with our state and tribal partners, nonprofits and local municipalities and, most importantly, Americans from all walks of life. Our goal is to conserve, restore and protect the special lands and waters that define America’s heartland as well as the wildlife that call the midwest home. It’s important that we make time to take stock of our collective accomplishments. Take a moment to learn about some recent successes and the people who made them possible.

On May 23, 2019, Acting Midwest Regional Director Charlie Wooley and the regional directorate team hosted the ninth annual Employee Excellence Awards Ceremony at the Midwest Regional Office in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“It’s great to take a moment to reflect on all we’ve accomplished and take the time to thank each of you for your contributions to the region,” said Wooley. “It’s your commitment to our mission, and each other, that make the Midwest Region a truly fantastic place to work.”

Based on peer nominations and review by representatives from each program, these annual awards are a measure of the exceptional contributions that come from all strata and locations within our organization. This year, there were ties in three of the awards categories: External Customer Service, John Stokes Internal Customer Service and Teamwork Excellence.

External Customer Service

Award winners with leadership.
Shauna Marquardt, Sara Schumuecker and Charlie Wooley. Photo by USFWS.

External Customer Service Award recipients excel in providing assistance and support to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stakeholders that reflects well upon and furthers the mission of our agency. We had two winners in the External Customer Service Award category this year - Shauna Marquardt and Sara Schumuecker. Both from Ecological Services!

Fish and Wildlife Biologist Shauna Marquardt from the Missouri Ecological Services Field Office, made a sea change for our mission to protect Indiana bats by changing the way we do business. After the discovery and protection of Sodalis Nature Preserve, which contains the largest hibernating population of endangered Indiana bats in the country, she recognized a need to develop a more proactive approach to the conservation of bats in Missouri. Marquardt worked with conservation partners to delineate large priority areas to protect bats on the summer landscape and began to pull together partners to complete forested habitat protection in the priority area. While we were making incremental progress to that end, it was fairly opportunistic in origin and only on small properties. Marquardt felt that a large conservation bank would help us avoid missed opportunities, because banks make it easy for industry by providing cost certainty and no responsibility for the mitigation success. With that in mind, Marquardt initiated conversations with private consulting firm Burns and McDonnell to develop the first ever conservation bank for Indiana bats and northern long-eared bats.

The recently approved 1,300 acre conservation bank is located in the heart of the Indiana bat maternity range in Missouri and within the known area of influence of Sodalis Nature Preserve. The properties also align with previously identified priority conservation lands for state and non-governmental partners. In addition to the on-the-ground conservation benefits, this land protection project resulted in strengthened partnerships with conservation partners and new partnerships with private industry. It took about two years and a lot of patience and persistence. Thanks to Marquardt’s efforts, it became the first conservation bank ever approved in the Midwest Region and the first in the country that focuses on bats.

Fish and Wildlife Biologist Sara Schmuecker from the Iowa and Illinois Ecological Services Field Office has demonstrated exceptional customer service to multiple state, federal and non-governmental customers. Schmuecker has participated as an integral team member in the development of the Habitat Needs Assessment II. Working closely with core team members from the U.S. Geological Survey – Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – St. Louis District, Schmuecker contributed scientific knowledge of large river monitoring and ecosystem function in development of this invaluable tool for identifying, prioritizing and monitoring Upper Mississippi River Restoration projects.

Taking more than two years to develop, this tool identifies a suit of river health and ecosystem function metrics which can be used to describe the existing environmental conditions of the various reaches of the Mississippi River that will be utilized by state conservation agencies for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, as well as several federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Non-governmental bodies like The Nature Conservancy will also use this tool  to evaluate existing conditions of the Mississippi River and plan projects to improve, maintain or enhance these conditions. An invaluable tool for river managers and project planners alike!

John Stokes Internal Customer Service

Award winners with leadership.
Alex Galt, Becky Clearwater and Charlie Wooley. Photo by USFWS.

John Stokes Internal Customer Service Award recipients excel in providing assistance and support to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees in ways that enhance the morale or effectiveness of our regional workforce. John Stokes was a stalwart in the regional contracting office and his sudden death was felt throughout the region. This Internal Customer Service Award recognizes people who are cut from the same cloth - those who provide consistent and excellent service to all employees. We had two winners in the John Stokes Internal Customer Service Award category this year - Becky Clearwater and Alex Galt.

In August 2018, the Columbia Fish Wildlife Conservation Office initiated a National Fish Passage Program project associated with recovery of the Niangua Darter. Project selection occurred late in the fiscal year creating a compressed timeline to complete the necessary paperwork for successful project commencement. So, time was of the essence! Complicating the matter, the primary partner for this project was a new enrollee into the System for Award Management and the point of contact had never engaged in this type of agreement. That said, they needed a bit more guidance than seasoned users. This online award system had been plagued with fraudulent activity and privacy concerns in the past, requiring applicants to provide more robust documentation, including notarized letters. Needless to say, the enrollment processing time was estimated at eight weeks! In all likelihood, this project was doomed to miss the obligation deadline by the end of the fiscal year.

Contracting Specialist Becky Clearwater changed that fate by graciously accepting the challenge to teach, explain and refer staff to the Federal Acquisition Regulation, ensure proper understanding of all the requirements and even assist in tracking the award system submission until all processes were complete. There is little doubt this Niangua Darter project would have become a reality without Clearwater’s dedication.

Partners for Fish and Wildlife Private Lands Biologist Alex Galt from the Morris Wetland Management District is our second winner in this category. Over his tenure at the district, Galt has provided exceptional service to a number of programs at the station in addition to the private lands program. More recently, Galt has proved to be a valuable asset to the law enforcement team. During the past year, he worked in coordination with Federal Wildlife Officer Brett Bowser to develop plans to restore drained wetlands on more than 20 different wetland - all within violation of their easement terms. His work resulted in the restoration of more than 50 individual wetlands. Many of these restorations were particularly contentious, as they required multiple meetings with upset landowners, farm renters and their attorneys.

Galt also provided guidance for the mapping of wetlands on more than 200 pre-1976 SWAP easements and development of related Exhibit A documentation. His wetland expertise was critical in ensuring that wetlands were drawn appropriately and that only wetlands that could be legally defended in court were mapped. Due to his expertise and knowledge regarding easement wetland violations, the Regional Hydrologist and Minnesota Zone Law Enforcement Officer enlisted Alex in the development of new guidance regarding tile setback distances on wetland easements.

Fostering Partnerships

Award winner with leadership.
Eric Dunton and Charlie Wooley. Photo by USFWS.

Fostering Partnerships Award recipients excel in forming or sustaining partnerships, which may be internal, external or both. They increase partnership effectiveness in accomplishing resource conservation or find ways to help our region work more efficiently.

What Wildlife Biologist Eric Dunton does at the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge for the advancement and utilization of science is exemplary! His involvement in the research community is beyond admirable. From his work in multiple publications linked to the refuge, to wildlife surveys that catalogue populations of flora and fauna alike, Dunton has direct connections with seemingly every project engaged at Shiawassee and is always looking to start a new one. Dunton’s biological knowledge is only matched by the breadth of his professional networking, as he interacts endlessly with leaders in the scientific community on an hourly basis and always gathers the best minds of his peers together for the joint efforts of bettering the refuge. His presence in the scientific community and implementation of new discoveries and methods are what make him a top candidate for this award.

Dunton values this growth of knowledge and challenges his colleagues, as well as refuge neighbors with great poise and leadership. Dunton has been the mastermind behind the multi-phase Flint River restoration project, reestablishing waterways at the refuge to pre-farmland development conditions. His collaborative ingenuity furnished $1.5 million from Ducks Unlimited toward this project which was estimated to last the better part of a decade. This mission further opened doors to numerous research studies from leading research universities including the University of Michigan, Central Michigan University, Wayne State University and various others. During a hydrogeomorphic evaluation of the ecosystem restoration, Shiawassee was identified as a freshwater coastal marsh at 30 miles inland from the Lake Huron; something left undiscovered until Dunton’s inquisitiveness paired with research. This discovery opened accessibility to hundreds of thousands of dollars in GLRI funding to further partnerships and projects at Shiawassee.

Other restoration related research began too, including the effects water control structures have on wildlife in managed units and assessing the value of muskrats as an indicator species for wetland quality, connectivity and wildlife abundance - both fostering relationships with other conservation related entities. Dunton’s contribution to cattail biomass studies have been groundbreaking and innovating as well, exploring the nutrient benefits, contamination response and wildlife usage of harvesting cattail plots. While collaborating with Loyola University Chicago, The Nature Conservancy and local farmers, consideration of the biomass as a fertilizer alternative continues to be underway and his work is sure to end up in multiple publications.

Outreach Excellence

Award winner with leadership.
Kim Mitchell and Charlie Wooley. Photo by USFWS.

Outreach Excellence Award recipients excel in creating a greater understanding, appreciation and stewardship of our natural and cultural resources. They provide visionary leadership to meet our conservation missions through the outreach/education programs, products or events they deliver.

Through her collaborative outreach and communications activities over the last 20 years, Ecological Services Outreach Coordinator Kim Mitchell has added tremendous value to our species recovery efforts across the Midwest Region. Mitchell has worked closely with biologists and managers, agency partners and the media to provide helpful information and tell compelling stories about the sensitive plants and animals we are charged to recover. Mitchell proactively anticipated information needs, facilitated key conversations and coordinated across organizational and geographical boundaries. Bringing with her a background in biology and a wealth of experience working with the Endangered Species Act, Mitchell has transformed the position of outreach coordinator for Ecological Services from a support position to one of proactive leadership on issues of regional and national scope. Mitchell is a valuable partner to both Ecological Services and External Affairs, coordinating with regional and field offices on outreach efforts and working closely with External Affairs staff.

Mitchell has been far more than a regional asset over the years, leading national recovery outreach efforts for high-profiles species as well. She is co-lead for outreach on the national monarch SSA effort, coordinates multi-partner recovery outreach efforts for rusty-patched bumble bee and prairie butterflies and continues to coordinate outreach associated with long-standing, far-reaching and sometimes controversial midwest issues like wolf recovery, northern long-eared bat listing and recovery, eastern massasauga rattlesnake conservation and Kirtland’s warbler recovery and delisting. Mitchell also coordinates with other Ecological Services programs to communicate on environmental contaminants, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Coastal, wind energy and other regional priorities.

Mitchell maintains the Midwest Region Ecological Services website, a model for our agency that features in-depth, easy to use resources for the complete array of Ecological Services programs. She has established excellent working relationships with field offices across the region, providing a dependable, approachable, effective and creative partner in implementing conservation outreach activities ranging from the annual Endangered Species Day at the Minnesota Zoo to support of special events with Departmental participation, such as the dedication of Sodalis Nature Preserve. Using a common-sense approach to communications, plain language and a creative eye for effective outreach, Kim has helped shape the conservation success of the Midwest Region.

Safety Improvement

Award winners.
Dave Wedan and Walt Ford. Photo by USFWS.

Safety Improvement Award recipients excel in showing commitment to reducing injuries and/or environmental hazards. They implement innovative programs and/or training to increase employee safety, health, and/or environmental awareness and provide visionary leadership to identify and correct hazards in the workplace.

We had two winners in the Safety Improvement Award - Logistics Management Specialist Dave Wedan with Fisheries Program and Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge Manager Walt Ford. The Midwest Region is a place full of amazing landscapes, lakes and lutefisk. For some of us, our workplace isn’t always in the office, it’s outside in nature. For those who work outside, safety couldn’t be more imperative. Dave Wedan Walt Ford collaboratively teach watercraft and airboat safety courses to agency staff and other Department of Interior staff. What really sets this nomination apart is their commitment to our tribal partners as well. Several times Wedan and his staff have gone out to provide training to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe biologists, natural resource officers and law enforcement officers. These trainings save lives by providing field staff with life saving techniques, increasing life saving resources for tribal members, non-tribal residents and visitors of Mille Lacs Lake and by increasing capacity among the pool of first responders. They live up to the tribal trust responsibility that the federal government has promised in signed treaties.

Science Excellence

Award winners.
Sara Erickson and Eric Leis. Photo by USFWS.

Science Excellence Award recipients excel in articulating science needs of our agency and working with others to meet those needs. They also develop new techniques and technology to address a science question in furtherance of agency responsibilities. They also ensure that the best possible science is brought to resolving tough management or policy questions.

Numerous species of freshwater mussels are listed as threatened or endangered, either at the state level, or at the national level. As part of restoration and recovery efforts of these mussels, our biologists and others rear freshwater mussels in captivity or transfer them to new locations, risking the spread of agents pathogenic to mussels. Recognizing that little is known about the pathogens of freshwater mussels, Fish Biologists Eric Leis and Sara Erickson of the La Crosse Fish Health Center have been part of a multi-agency task force that is working to identify potential bacterial and viral pathogens of freshwater mussels and diagnostic methods to detect the pathogens for the past two years. The task force also includes biologists from other U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service programs, as well as biologists from the U.S. Geological Survey, state natural resource agencies, universities and non-government organizations.

The leadership, innovation and enthusiasm that Leis and Erickson have demonstrated as part of this task force make them excellent candidates for the Science Excellence Award. Through investigations into mortality events that have occurred in the Chehalis River in Washington, the Clinch River in Tennessee and Virginia, the Crooked River in Oregon and the Embarrass River in Wisconsin, the group is building baseline information and has already identified at least six viruses that are potentially pathogenic to freshwater mussels. The task group is using both traditional culture methods newer molecular methods to identify bacteria and viruses, as well as histology and metabolomic assays to identify the presence of disease. This work is filling an important knowledge gap as practitioners work to recover and restore freshwater mussels. Leadership, innovation and enthusiasm like this are not new for these award winners.

Teamwork Excellence

Team Excellence Award recipients excel in tackling tough issues and work together to craft creative solutions. Team excellence occurs when the sum of the collective efforts was greater than an individual's efforts. This year the Teamwork Award has an unprecedented three-way tie between the La Crosse Fish Health Center, the Monarch Butterfly Species Status Assessment Team and the Operation Charlie Team.

Award winners with leadership.
Georgia Parham, Kim Mitchell, Kelly Nail, Ryan Drum and Charlie Wooley. Photo by USFWS.

Monarch conservation is seen by many as the conservation challenge of our era. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires the best scientific information to inform the decision of whether the monarch butterfly, an iconic species, warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act. This decision is complicated by the fact that the monarch has a global range that includes four U.S. states, Mexico and Canada, with two migratory populations.The Monarch Butterfly Species Status Assessment, developed by this team, is the scientific foundation for a decision, with information on the monarch’s life history, biology and current and future condition. The Species Status Assessment team uses a variety of expertise, including monarch science and conservation, population modeling, knowledge of state and regional conservation issues, outreach, database development and management, GIS, scientific writing and Endangered Species Act policy.

This assessment is the most sophisticated and complex that our agency has ever produced and it’s unique because this is the widest-ranging species ever assessed using the Species Status Assessment framework. There has never been an assessment for a species that occurs in 49 states and globally. Regardless of the listing decision, the Species Status Assessment will be used to inform and guide monarch conservation and, by extension, pollinator conservation, into the future.

The Monarch Butterfly Species Status Assessment Team is made up of: Michelle Shaughnessy, Ryan Drum, Jennifer Szymanski, Kristen Voorheis, Kelly Nail, Steve Choy, Barbara Hosler, Sarah Warner, Kim Mitchell, Georgia Parham, Erik Olson, Kristen Lundh, Cat Darst, Lara Drizd, Katie Boyer, Tara Nicolaysen, Beth Forbus, Karen Kinkead, Ed Boggess, Karen Miner and Susan Olcott of Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Award winners.
Erryl Wolgemuth and Steve Kinne. Photo by USFWS.

Operation Charlie was a comprehensive joint investigation between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Senior Special Agent Erryl Wolgemuth with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement was the case agent for the investigation and worked closely with officers from the state agencies for more than four years, from November 2014 through February 2019.

The investigation required exceptional teamwork and communication between this diverse team of law enforcement professionals in order to document potential violations of illegal commercial fishing activities related to sturgeon, paddlefish and other species of concern within the Ohio River basin. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agents worked in an undercover capacity with state counterparts from Indiana and Ohio in various roles that ranged from fishing with subjects, to buying/transporting illegal fish and roe from fishers and wholesalers in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois. During the investigation, the team documented 60 potential Lacey Act and 90 state violations related to illegal fish and roe/caviar with a potential retail value of at least $1 million dollars. On November 27, 2018, one of the subjects pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Lacey Act for wildlife trafficking and one count of possession of a firearm. The subject will serve 24 months in federal prison, was ordered to forfeit all paddlefish caviar and meat, as well as his trailer and boat. Multiple other subjects are currently in the prosecution phase. Due to the long working hours and genuine commitment to this investigation, the team was able to hold violators responsible for their actions and in doing so, helped protect valuable natural resources shared by multiple states in the Ohio River basin. In the end, by being able to develop a plan, build rapport with other agencies and make sound decisions, this joint undercover investigation was a tremendous success.

The Operation Charlie Team is made up of: SSA Erryl Wolgemuth, SA Chris Ogle, SA Doug Ault, SA Jim Haney, SA John Wells, RAC Chris Aldrich, and partners from Indiana Department of Natural Resources - Steve Kinne, John Cannarella, Zachary Walker, William Baker, Kyle Goff, Brian Kaser, Kenny Wireman, Joel Arthur, Justin Blake, Brian Bailey and Ohio Department of Natural Resources - Kevin Behr.

Award winners.
Sara Erickson, Kenneth Phillips, Eric Leis and Sara Erickson. Photo by USFWS.

While the level of support that the La Crosse Fish Health Center provides our agency and our partners across the region is always high, the work that this superlative team completed in the past year and a half is also worthy of the 2019 Employee Excellence Award in the category of Team Excellence. Teamwork is at the bedrock of the team’s research and commitment to hatchery health management. Together, they addressed critical knowledge gaps in a pathogen novel to the Midwest Region and gathered critical information that allowed the Fisheries and Aquatic Conservation Program to adjust propagation and stocking plans that aimed to protect valuable fisheries resources. The team routinely provided national fish hatchery heath certifications and diagnostic support to national fish hatcheries across the region.

In late 2017, the staff faced a big challenge when an unknown pathogen killed post-spawning broodstock at one of our regional federal hatcheries. Broodstock mortalities increased in December 2017 and continued into February 2018. Standard bacteria culture diagnostic assays identified a Gram-positive bacterial pathogen, Vagococcus salmoninarum, in moribund and dead fish. This bacterium is not commonly found to cause disease in North American fish hatcheries. Throughout 2018 and into 2019, the La Crosse-based team continued diagnostic testing and kept communication lines open with hatchery managers and staff throughout this process. The team continued this work through the recent federal furlough to continue the investigation, informing critical decision-making as to the appropriate disposition of Vagococcus salmoninarum-positive broodstocks.

La Crosse Fish Health Center staff include Kenneth Phillips, Corey Puzach, Eric Leis, Isaac Standish, Ellen Lark, Ryan Katona, Beka McCann, Jennifer Bailey, Sara Erickson and Eric Kleman.

Workplace Improvement

Award winners with leadership.
Katie Steiger-Meister, Anna Sidie-Slettedah, Monica Blaser, Amy McGovern and Charlie Wooley. Photo by USFWS.

Workplace Improvement Award recipients excel in leading efforts to improve our workplace, both interns of the physical work space and workplace culture. This year’s winners represent the Mother's Room Committee. Their efforts brought this essential space from expressed need to fruition.

As the number of working mothers in our agency continues to grow, the mother's room is a tangible symbol of support for a breastfeeding-friendly workplace. Establishing a comfortable, designated space for expressing milk takes stress off new mothers. It also benefits her baby and the greater U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service family. Breastfeeding offers children optimal nutrition for growth and development for the first six months of life. It is also the most economical way for a mother to feed her child and supports healthy bonding. Breastfeeding also reduces medical issues for both mother and child, which in turn decreases the need for using sick leave. The mother’s room improves the quality of life for field staff and employee spouses who are visiting the regional office. This helps us retain our talented employees!

The Mother’s Room Committee petitioned for the construction of the room, helped design the room, decorate and supply the room with needed items and scheduled the presentation by the Minnesota Department of Health on the benefits of creating a breastfeeding friendly workplace. This effort has been both a physical and cultural improvement to the workplace that will serve employees now and well into the future.

Congratulations to all!

Last updated: June 8, 2020