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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Hope Springs Eternal for Biologist Working to Recover Highly Endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrows

   bird with grasshopper in mouthA Florida grasshopper sparrow, oddly enough, eating a grasshopper. But this bird's name comes from the fact that its song sounds much like that of a grasshopper. Photo by Mary Peterson/USFWS

By Mary Peterson, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, South Florida Ecological Services Office

Back in 2012 (how is it that 2012 is both yesterday and a thousand years ago), a friend and co-worker gave me the heads-up about a potential opportunity to work on the Florida grasshopper sparrow recovery effort. Being a bit of a bird nerd, and having followed the plight of the Florida grasshopper sparrow since arriving to Florida in 2002, I said, “Sign me up!”

  bird lying face-up in open hand; bird's head held between finers A biologist displays the bands on the legs of one of the Florida grasshopper sparrows released into the wild on May 9, 2019. Photo Courtesy of FWCA biologist displays the bands on the legs of one of the Florida grasshopper sparrows released into the wild on May 9, 2019. Photo Courtesy of FWC

The Florida grasshopper sparrow is native to central Florida and is considered the most critically endangered bird in North America. In 2012 when I joined the effort, the number of Florida grasshopper sparrows in the wild had dropped so low that we knew something drastic needed to be done.

In consultation with our partners, the Service decided to collect some sparrows to begin captive breeding while continuing to implement habitat management and research projects to reverse the decline.

Talk about scary! No one had ever tried to captive-breed this species before. These are tiny birds – about the size of a balled-up Kleenex, and they have a life-span around 3-5 years. But, with an increasingly bleak outlook, we knew this was a necessary effort.

 2 people in grassland FWS Biologists Mary Peterson (left) and Sandra Sneckenberger checking out the Florida prairie, looking and listening for Florida grasshopper sparrows. Photo by Jen Brown/Into Nature Films FWS Biologists Mary Peterson (left) and Sandra Sneckenberger checking out the Florida prairie, looking and listening for Florida grasshopper sparrows. Photo by Jen Brown/Into Nature Films

It was a bit of a bumpy ride in those early years – health challenges; getting their diet right; figuring out how many birds could be housed together; what the size of the enclosure should be, etc. But, we believe we have cracked that code. We can now produce (lots) of healthy sparrows in captivity.

So, the question is, “Can we successfully release them back into the wild?” We still don’t fully know the answer to this, but just like in the early days of learning how to captive-breed them, we are now starting to learn how to best release them back onto the landscape.

  6 people stand in grassland; one holding a big antenna Here's the group of trackers showing off their gear shortly before captive-reared Florida grasshopper sparrows were released into the wild. From left Mary Peterson (USFWS), Ashleigh Blackford (USFWS), Karl Miller (FWC) Troy Hershberger (USAF), Rob Aldredge (USFWS/USAF liaison) and Jose Oteyza (FWC). Photo Courtesy of FWC

Thursday, May 9, 2019, was a seminal moment in our efforts to launch this species toward recovery. We joined with our partners at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to release the first-ever captive-reared Florida grasshopper sparrows onto their native dry prairie habitat at Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area.

 screened-in habitats  This is the "aviary on the prairie" where the captive-reared birds stayed for a couple of days before they were released. Photo Courtesy of FWC

Prior to their release, the birds spent two nights in the recently constructed aviary on the prairie to give them a chance recover from their trip from the breeding facility and to get them acclimated to being on the prairie.

   small black object in the palm of a handThis is one of the tiny tracking devices attached to each of the captive-reared Florida grasshopper sparrows released into the wild on May 9, 2019. Photo Courtesy of FWC

When panels were removed to allow the birds to exit the aviary, one bird eventually left on its own, but the others had to be gently ushered out a few minutes later. I was one of several biologists on site ready to track them on the initial phases of their new journeys via the small radio transmitters on their backs.

   bird singing  in prairieA male Florida grasshopper sparrow singing its heart out on the prairie. The Florida grasshopper sparrow is believed to be North America's most endangered bird; survey counts show fewer than 80 sparrows in the wild. Photo by Jen Brown/Into Nature Films

Everyone watched with nervous excitement as those first three sparrows left to explore their new home. More releases are planned throughout the summer and early fall. And now, we are all holding our collective breaths as we wait to see how this recovery strategy pans out.

This bird never ceases to amaze and inspire, and for me, hope springs eternal. Go sparrows, go!

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Jim Kurth, Much More Than ‘an Old Country Game Warden,' Retiring

  Man in New Mexico landscape

How do you pay tribute to the more than 40 year career of someone like U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Jim Kurth?

There are at once no right words and too many words – and maybe none can quite capture the subject. A recitation of Jim’s extensive resume and countless job titles would do a disservice to his colorful career, but there is no doubt that his path shaped not only the leader he is, but also the legacy he leaves behind at the Nation’s foremost conservation organization.

He loved his formative years with the Service from the “Crane Ranch” in Mississippi to the beaches of Rhode Island.  Along the way he met and worked with the people that would shape his outlook on wildlife conservation (and other things).  Jim refers to himself as “just an old country game warden” at heart and feels he worked among the best in the Service.  The combination of his many years in the field, particularly his time as a refuge manager at the iconic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and his time as the Deputy Chief and Chief of the Refuge System, gives Jim a level of respect and depth of experience that few can match. When Jim speaks, people listen and learn.  And he is one of the few, if not only, Service employees who is as comfortable walking into a refuge maintenance shop as he is the Secretary of Interior’s office.

 man holding big brown bird

Jim possesses a passion for history which translated into his encyclopedic knowledge of the many conservation heroes whose stories and faces line the walls of the National Conservation and Training Center. Don’t try to have a beer with Jim in the bar at NCTC without getting a conservation history lesson based on one or more of those photographs.  Many of his mentors taught him the value of knowing and understanding the historical perspective of conservation and the federal laws we are entrusted to uphold.  Jim loves to honor the legacy of those that walked the path of conservation before him and share their stories with any Service employee.

Jim is a student of Aldo Leopold’s pioneer writings in Sand County Almanac and firmly accepts and believes that land represents a community of life and we are at our best when we work to maintain the health of the land.  He loves to “save dirt” as he would put it. Jim found Leopold’s ideas as lessons told in a manner that removed the complexity of “classroom” learning and which were delivered from the heart in hopes of having a greater impact on society not only trained ecologists.  Jim followed in the footsteps of Olaus and Mardy Murie and their efforts to conserve the Arctic Refuge for its “wilderness” values alone.  But Jim also challenged the arrogance of “wildlife only” policies throughout his career, believing that human use must be balanced with wildlife conservation or the latter would be lost.

Jim draws his greatest inspiration from the dedicated men and women of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who get their hands dirty on a daily basis. Jim gives unselfishly of his time to the people. He never misses an opportunity to address the Service’s many leadership classes, the Refuge Manager’s Academy and his favorite, the Wage Grade workshops. Jim loves to tell the story of buying the first pitcher of beer at NCTC which perhaps foreshadowed the role he would play in developing Service employees and future leaders (and buying many more pitchers). More recently, Jim has led the way on improving the diversity of the workforce, believing it is critical to our mission and remaining relevant to the American public we serve.

In 2015, Jim was awarded the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award by the Department, the highest award for members of the SES and given to those recognized for sustained extraordinary accomplishment.  Last year, the National Wildlife Refuge Association presented Jim with its highest award, the Theodore Roosevelt Lifetime Achievement Award, for devoting his life to the protection and conservation of our nation’s wildlife and wild places, and for serving as a mentor and role model for new generations of conservationists throughout America.  With his retirement this week, Jim can be confident that he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with past and present conservation leaders.

Finally one could not spend any time with Jim and not know he put only two things before the Service, his faith and his family. And he was not uncomfortable sharing his love for both. Luckily for all of us, the Service was also family to Jim and that family will truly miss him.

 

 

Please feel free to share your thoughts and memories below about Jim.

Manatees Hanging Out in Mitigation Feature in Southwest Florida

 

   snout of manatee above waterA manatee wades in the waters of the Faka Union Canal at Port of the Islands. Photo by USGS 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists monitoring the progress of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) were excited to hear that up to 20 Florida manatees used the manatee mitigation feature south of Port of the Islands marina in Collier County, Florida, in January and February.

   headshot of smiling woman in green shirt

That manatee mitigation feature is a refugium built by the South Florida Water Management District a couple of years ago. A refugium is a place with fairly constant temperatures that species shelter in. For manatees, that place is full of warm water.

“That these manatees found this ‘replacement’ refugium and seem to be hanging out there in greater numbers is extremely good news and has been a long time coming,” says Service Biologist Kim Dryden (left).

As far back as 18-20 years ago, Kim and other biologists were concerned that CERP initiatives to fill canals at Picayune Strand would result in the loss of a warm water refugium within the Port of the Islands Marina there.

Historically, the marina site has been used by up to 300 manatees as a thermal refugium.  But the initiatives would alter, if not eliminate the existing manatee refugium--potentially causing manatee mortality and cold-water stress. 

   aerial photo of  water with white blobs in itAn aerial view of manatees in the new warm water refugium. Photo by FWC

“We predicted that the refugium at the marina would disappear once we filled in the canals because that would stop the freshwater flows that kept the warm water lens in place in the marina,” says Kim.  “That was good for everything else, but not for maintaining that warm water refugium.”

Several alternative mitigation measures were discussed between the Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). Ultimately, they agreed that it would be best to build a refugium. 

The new manatee refugium is on lands managed by Rookery Bay Aquatic Preserve and is next to Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Fakahatchee Preserve State Park.  The site is managed by the SFWMD Big Cypress Basin and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and currently monitored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).  Long-term monitoring will be conducted by the Service and FWC. Three 20-feet-deep pools are continuously monitored by the SFWMD for warm-water temperatures associated with a salt-water aquifer accessed by the construction. 

   aerial photo of watersAn aerial view the manatee refugium and Faka Union Canal with Port of the Islands Marina and Picayune Strand Restoration Project to the north. Photo by FWC

Wildlife managers are very encouraged that manatees are using the warm-water pools, which also offers relief from human disturbance associated with boating and marina activities.

“This means manatees will continue to have a very large and somewhat safer warm water refugium in Southwest Florida and that the restoration elements of the project are actually improving habitat foraging opportunities. It’s cool to see a plan come together after years of planning. Kudos to Kim and our CERP partners for making this happen for an iconic species like manatees,” says Bob Progulske, the Service’s Everglades Restoration Project Leader.  

 

By Ken Warren, External Affairs, Southeast Region

Thank You, Volunteers! ‘Working Together We Accomplish Many Things’

child kneels next to a white dog wearing a yellow bandana. He holds certificate saying Certified BARK Ranger   A volunteer and his dog are ready to take to the trails of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. Photo by USFWS

We are celebrating National Volunteer Week and our volunteers – nearly 42,000 – who give more than 1.5 million hours to help conserve the nature of America.

Of course, volunteerism has always been a part of America.

Just ask French researcher Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the United States in 1831.

Describing the new country growing up over the Atlantic Ocean, he wrote in Democracy in America: “I have often seen Americans make great and real sacrifices to the public welfare.”

Folks on the front lines of conservation see those sacrifices every day. Listen to just a few of them:

• “On Alligator River and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuges, volunteers provide the manpower to accomplish most of our biological and maintenance work, as well as interpretive/educational programming. They also staff our Visitor Centers 100 percent of the time, so they are literally the ‘faces’ for our national wildlife refuges! Our jobs would be impossible without them!” Bonnie Strawser, visitor services manager, Alligator River/Pea Island National Wildlife Refuges in North Carolina

   man works on a project with two kids. All wear rubber glovesBerk Moss dedicated 15 years to volunteering at Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS

• “At Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, we depend on volunteers for so many things, from mowing around freshwater ponds to staffing the visitor contact station to working in the pollinator garden to constructing boardwalks and bridges, and so much more! We could not accomplish much of what we do without the hard work of our volunteers.” Laura A. Bonneau, visitor services manager, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas

• “Volunteers are integral to Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Working together we accomplish many things!” Sarah Inouye-Leas, volunteer coordinator, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge

• “At John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia, volunteers are cherished assets to the refuge. Early this year, volunteers made up of 36 brave pups with 72 people participated in the first class of B.A.R.K. Rangers! After learning some safety tips and receiving their bandanas and certificates, the new ambassadors were ready to hit the trails! B.A.R.K. is an acronym for Bag your waste; Always wear a leash; Respect wildlife; and Know where to go. The volunteer program’s debut was a huge success in building shared stewardship and community trust with both new visitors and a longtime user group. The program will help in management efforts to keep trails clean and litter free.” David Stoughton, visitor services manager, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum

• “Our volunteers not only supplement all aspects of our work, but, in many cases, provide core work usually done by permanent staff. In 2018, we had 20,600 hours of donated time. That’s the equivalent of 10 staff members, doubling the size of our workforce.” Lori Iverson, supervisory outdoor recreation planner, National Elk Refuge in Wyoming

• "Volunteers are critical to the work and mission of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex, helping staff our visitor center, assisting with environmental education programs, performing important maintenance of our facilities, and keeping our public trails clean!" Chris Barr, deputy manager, San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex

  2 young women look at object in the palm of one's hand

Or consider Salmon Camp at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Volunteers are vitally important to the refuge’s award-winning program. (At left, youth volunteer and former Salmon Camper Nia Pristas helping at camp.) At Salmon Camp, the volunteers gain almost as much as the campers.

“I feel like I will never be able to put how meaningful this summer has been into words. I know that my job here has been to teach, but I feel that I learned even more,” Ashleigh Lusher wrote at the end of her experience.

For some volunteers, their impact carries on long after their death. Berk Moss dedicated 15 years to volunteering at Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge near Portland, Oregon. Take a look at the pictures on the wall of the refuge’s Discovery Classroom and you can sense his joy of helping thousands of youth connect with nature in very real and meaningful ways. It’s a legacy that’ll live for generations.

As we celebrate National Volunteer Week, we thank those whose gifts help us do our job better. We also thank volunteers everywhere who make sure de Tocqueville’s vision of America endures.

Cliff Schleusner Talks WSFR, Archery

   man holding bow and arrows  and kneeling behind a harvested caribou

Cliff Schleusner, Chief of our Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program (WSFR) in the Southwest Region, has been with the Service   24 years. He is an avid bowhunter and recently checked in with The Archery Wire. Take a read:

Five Minutes with Cliff Schleusner

[Video] New Film Showcases Effort to Combat Trafficking of Scarlet Macaws

  bird with red, yellow and blue feathers in a tree A wild scarlet macaw. Photo by USFWS/Christi Lowe Productions

In the dangerous Moskitia region of Honduras, poachers seek out the chicks and eggs of wild scarlet macaws. Their goal: Sell them in the lucrative illegal pet trade. To counter the traffickers, brave community members have united to patrol and protect the nests, recognizing that in some ways, their own fates are tied to those of the birds. Poachers and Protectors: The Story of Scarlet Macaws in Honduras puts a spotlight on the wildlife trafficking crisis in Latin America, and introduces us to some of the heroes who are willing to risk it all for these iconic birds. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service International Affairs Central America Program has supported INCEBIO, One Earth Conservation and their community partners in this critical conservation effort. Our financial support has helped make this initiative the largest community-patrolled parrot conservation area in Latin America. Prior to the implementation of the community patrols, eggs and chicks from every known nest were poached. The patrols have been effective, with an estimated 80 percent reduction in the number of eggs and chicks poached since the project began. Learn more about our efforts to protect scarlet macaws. 

Poachers and Protectors: The Story of Scarlet Macaws in Honduras was produced by Christi Lowe Productions and premiered at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital. 

Watch the short film below in English, Spanish or with audio descriptions:

English version

Spanish version

Audio-described version

Jim Gale Honored with Prestigious National Law Enforcement Award

   3 men, one holdng a plaque, and one  woman stand on a stagePictured left to right: Edward Grace, Assistant Director of the Service’s Office of Law Enforcement; Jim Kurth, Service Deputy Director for Operations; Retired SAC Jim Gale; and Amanda Bassow, Director of the Northeastern Regional Office for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Photo by USFWS

More than 100 years after Guy Bradley became the first wildlife officer killed in the line of duty, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Jim Gale became the federal recipient of the 2019 Guy Bradley Award.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) annually presents this prestigious award to one state and one federal recipient, “to recognize extraordinary individuals who have made an outstanding lifetime contribution to wildlife law enforcement, wildlife forensics or investigative techniques.”

Jim Gale retired from the Service in December 2018. At that time, he served as OLE’s Acting Deputy Assistant Director and was the Special Agent in Charge of the Special Operations Division.

RELATED: 2014 profile of Jim Gale

“Effective conservation of wildlife depends in large part on the leadership and professionalism of wildlife law enforcement officers such as SAC Jim Gale,” says NFWF Executive Director and CEO Jeff Trandahl. “Jim’s tireless efforts to develop increasingly advanced enforcement capabilities at the federal level will leave a lasting legacy for conservation in the United States and abroad.”

Gale led Operation Crash, an award-winning investigation into rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory trafficking.

Curator’s Corner: Irwin Allen and Rachel Carson, Paunchy Tiger, Fooling Whoopers, Leisure Suits

The Ultimate Irwin Allen Film

movie poster of The Sea Around Us featuring diver in trunks and helmet batling sea serpeant     Have you ever seen a movie that was directed or produced by the late, great Irwin Allen? Several decades ago, he was the king of big budget disaster movies. The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea are just a few of his excursions into the exciting world of the larger-than-life, dramatic movie genre. Irwin also made Rachel Carson’s book The Sea Around Us into a movie! It includes bombastic, dramatic narration and vivid videography, as would be expected from one of his films. We have a framed movie poster from this particular film in our museum collection, and it is proof that Rachel Carson knew how to write movie worthy books along with the best of authors. Eat your heart out, J. K. Rowling.

 

Paunchy Tiger

rearing mounted tiger

An adult pouncing, mounted tiger in our collection is a favorite of those touring the archives. Visitors love to take selfies standing by the outstretched claws of the massive beast. One visitor, a biologist and tiger expert from India, told me that our tiger was definitely a zoo specimen. It is. She knew because its fur is worn in patches at its elbows from continual resting on hard surfaces like cement. In addition, it has a paunch from regular zoo feedings and lack of exercise. I can attest that, I, and many adult visitors might also be a bit paunchy! Does that mean that we live a life of captivity also?

How to Fool a Whooping Crane

   Whooping Crane   costume, puppet

The whooping crane and Sandhill crane are the only two crane species in North America. The whooping crane was pushed to the brink of extinction with only 21 specimens remaining by 1941 because of habitat loss and unregulated feather trade and egg collection. Now, thanks to the conservation of significant portions of their range, such as the breeding grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and the wintering grounds at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas along with laws such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act regulating the taking of birds and bird parts, there are more than 800 of these majestic birds. Captive breeding efforts have been used to rear and reintroduce the species to portions of its former range. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center just wrapped up 50 years of captive breeding efforts, and now all captive breeding is done by private facilities such as the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin. In captivity, one rearing method that was developed involved humans feeding chicks by hand while wearing outfits with whooping crane puppet heads so that they will not get used to or imprinted upon humans. We have an entire costume, a wooden puppet head and an arm puppet head from various captive breeding centers. I guess baby cranes are easily fooled! Oh well, so are curators!

Hot Outfits

   brown suit coat with four poskets on front, Service logo on arm

Back in the 1970s, the official Service uniforms were made of polyester, which was very popular back then because it did not wrinkle and lasted forever. The uniforms were actual leisure suits, and boy, did they convey that hip ‘70s vibe. Far out! We have a collection of them from a retired manager from National Elk Refuge whose wife ordered him to get rid of them. She said that if the house ever burned down, there would be a charred pile of molten plastic in the closet where the suits resided! My lasting thought on these horrible fashion statements is that it must have been highly uncomfortable to wear a polyester suit on a stifling, humid summer day on a refuge down South. This uncomfortable situation would never, indeed, be the definition of leisurely!

Previous Curator's Corner

Jeanne M. Harold, former curator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Museum and Archives at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, says the history surrounding the objects in the museum gives them life. Jeanne retired in November but provided articles to keep Curator's Corner going.


Fish & Wildlife News  
  • This article is from the upcoming spring issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine.

11 Ways Wildlife Refuges Make Life Better

RAFT floats down a river surrounded by green treesNational wildlife refuges generate billions of dollars in economic activity through recreation visits. (Photo of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska by Ian Shive/Tandem)

Even if you’ve never set foot on one of the country’s 567 national wildlife refuges, you’ve probably benefited from its existence.

How could that be? That’s because national wildlife refuges add to the economic and social and physical well-being of the country.

Refuges generate billions of dollars in jobs and services, filter pollutants from our air and water, provide top-class outdoor recreation, enrich learning, and reduce fire and flood risk to communities.

kids in green shirts, some with goggles, gather around USFS employee planting a plant; 2 girls hold purple watering canNational wildlife refuges connect Americans to nature — inside their communities and out. Photo by Ian Shive/Tandem

Our story highlights these and other key ways that national wildlife refuges improve the lives of everyday Americans.

Look for a new online story about your national wildlife refuges every Wednesday on the Refuge System homepage.

 

Susan Morse and Bill O’Brian, National Wildlife Refuge System communications

Refuge Animals From A to Z

 alligator crawling into river  A is for alligators. This one is at Anahuac Refuge National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Photo by Norman Welsh

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conserves land and water on national wildlife refuges for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 1,000 species of fish. Our Refuge System home page story “Refuge Animals From A to Z” includes a sampling of them.

  seal with mouth wide open P is for pinnipeds. This seal is at Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Ian Shive/Tandem  

Pinniped is the scientific term for seals, sea lions, walruses and other meat-eating marine mammals. Pinnipeds haul out of the water to rest at national wildlife refuges along the West Coast, including Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge in California, Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge in Washington and Togiak National Wildlife Refuge and Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

   zebra mussels Z is for zebra mussels. These freshwater mussels are an aquatic invasive species that threaten the health of inland waters and other mussel species. Photo by Dave Britton/USFWS

“Refuge Animals From A to Z” is part of the Refuge System’s series of online stories that highlight the conservation work and visitor opportunities at national wildlife refuges, wetland management districts and marine national monuments. New stories are posted on the Refuge System home page on Wednesdays. The stories are archived here.

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