Newsroom Midwest Region

Butterflies, ducks and flowers: Biological integrity through the eyes of a five year old

October 13, 2016

Tickseed sunflowers at Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jessica Bolser/USFWS.
Tickseed sunflowers at Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jessica Bolser/USFWS.

If you could eat only one kind of food what would it be? Hard to choose, right? Well, for a time that’s exactly what we used to ask ducks and other waterfowl to do as they migrated through the 3,000 mile long Mississippi Flyway.

Many of our national wildlife refuges were planted with corn to serve as an energy boost for nearly 20 species of migrating waterfowl as they make the journey south to wintering grounds across the continent. Crops were used to supplement what was naturally available on refuges.

Over time, we began to see that native plants were less management intensive and healthier for the birds and the land, especially in unpredictable floodplains. Biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health became a renewed focus across the refuge system with the newly implemented Refuge Organic Act in 1997. But, those are tough words to explain, even for a biologist. What does biological integrity really mean?

How do we demonstrate these concepts on national wildlife refuges? Fortunately, Congress helped give us a road map for finding our way from concept to on the ground conservation. They gave us a landmark policy that defines it and gives very good direction for refuge management. That policy defines biological integrity as “biotic composition, structure, and functioning at genetic, organism, and community levels comparable with historic conditions, including the natural biological processes that shape genomes, organisms, and communities.“

Whew! And there are two more excellent definitions for biological diversity and environmental health. But, eyes glaze over if we use those words to explain refuge management to the average refuge visitor. It’s still sort of intangible and fuzzy. Or is it? Refuge visitors, especially children, can sometimes explain what we do better than we can. The following experience on a Midwest refuge demonstrates.

Case in point - Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge

Our refuge auto tour was open on a Friday evening in August and it was my turn, on a rather warm night, to staff the observation deck to greet visitors and answer questions. Initially, I was a little bored and getting hot in the late afternoon sun. But then three visitors from the local area stopped to talk about the refuge and they had not been here for some time. Their main question to me, as refuge manager, was about what we plant on the refuge – or rather what we don’t plant. They were familiar with years past when corn was planted on the refuge, a practice which ended quite a few years ago in favor of more reliable native plant responses.

This area happens to be in the Mississippi River floodplain behind a levee with the ability to manage water levels that promote wetland plants. Typically in late summer, the refuge is in “draw down” or  low water conditions, with lush green growth on mud flats. This condition mimics the natural seasonal cycle of a now altered river. As summer begins to wane to fall, plants are typically diverse and seeds abundant. But to the untrained eye it may be hard to tell that these plants equal abundant food for wildlife.  

In response to the visitors’ questions, I proceeded to explain the nutritional benefits of native plants and the importance of having more than one thing to eat to meet the needs of a variety of migrating species, as well as foods that will last through the season. Not to mention that many years in these bottomland wetlands it is too wet to plant crops. One visitor wondered what foods were the best nutrition for ducks and cited corn’s value for many animals. I agreed that corn has some nutritional value, but explained that we are trying to provide the native habitat and mimic the natural river system on the national wildlife refuge. I asked them to look as I pointed behind them to the dry marsh brimming with millets, smartweeds, and sedges. They turned briefly. I even had some samples of plants at the observation deck to show them the seeds. They suggested instead that we try planting some crops to see if more birds came to the refuge.

Desperately wanting them to understand the need for this diversity of native plants, I pointed out that many of the local school children come here for environmental education and it is great for them to see the native plants and ecosystem.Two of the visitors left soon after, still not convinced that we were managing the refuge the right way to attract large numbers of ducks. One man stayed to converse and was interested in many topics.

Towards the end of the evening, one last car drove up to have a look from the observation deck. A girl, five or six years-old, came running up in her little pink outfit and began to look around immediately. “Where are the butterflies?” she asked. I told her I just saw a monarch a minute ago and we looked for it, but didn’t see one. Then I gave her my binoculars to use since she was so enthusiastic to see things. Meanwhile, her dad came up and asked when he could come back to take pictures. All the while, the gentleman who asked about planting crops was still right there. I told the dad that on much of the refuge he could take pictures anytime, but the auto tour was only open for driving on certain days.

Being hot like it was, he was wearing shorts that exposed his prosthetic leg. He sort of smiled and said he couldn’t walk real far, but he had noticed all the dragonflies and wanted to get pictures of them. I told him we could help him out. The girl was still looking in the binoculars. As I bent down to help her, I asked what she saw. She exclaimed, “flowers!” and pointed to a solid stand of bright yellow tickseed sunflowers which produce abundant and nutritious seeds.

This girl and her father defined biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health for me. There are many people who want to see the beauty, the diversity of life, and age-old natural processes. Many just want to know that nature is still okay, even if they don’t get to see it all. Some just want to see that unusual dragonfly and share it with others. And some are hopefully inspired for the rest of their life to be conservationists. At the same time, sportsmen and women can partake in likewise age old hunting traditions. Biological integrity and diversity means we can have it all. And we must have it all. Special places like national wildlife refuges keep complex natural systems in place with benefits for us all. Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge and more than 50 other refuges in the Midwest are full of places like this, places with simple beauty and a diversity of nature.

As dusk fell, the bystander to this interaction smiled and gave me a somewhat understanding look. I’m not sure he completely connected this girl’s delight at seeing all the flowers or the dad’s interest in dragonflies with our earlier discussion. He said, “Nice to meet you,” shook my hand and left with a smile. I told him to let me know how the duck hunting goes.

Learn more about North American migration routes: