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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Directorate Fellow Amy Walsh: Future Solicitor Works on Potential Impacts of Development Projects

   woman with backpack outdoors

Hello! My name is Amy Walsh. I am from a suburb outside of Chicago called Crystal Lake. I am a senior at Washington University in St. Louis studying environmental policy and environmental biology. I am also a part of the softball team there. Outside of school and softball, I enjoy working out, spending time with my friends, cooking and being outdoors. I am eager to finish up undergrad and prepare for attending law school as well as a career with the Service. My goal is to become a solicitor for the Department of the Interior so I will be able to support the FWS from the legal perspective.

Directorate Fellows
During the summer of 2019, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain-Prairie Region hosted nine students that participated in the Directorate Resource Assistant Fellows Program (DFP).

FWS partners with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) every summer to manage the DFP, an 11-week, full-time, paid program where students have the opportunity to work on projects that support FWS conservation priorities. Applicants must be pursuing degrees in biological sciences and/or natural resources management. They must also be soon-to-be college graduates or enrolled in a graduate program.

I just finished my DFP fellowship in the Mountain-Prairie Regional Office in Denver, Colorado. My project focused on developing effects pathways and conservation measures for four species: Canada lynx, white-tailed ptarmigan, whitebark pine and Salt Creek tiger beetle, in Effects Pathways Manager (EPM). Essentially, an effect pathway describes the specifics of how a particular development activity effects a given species. FEPM is a database that contains information regarding potential impacts of development projects on listed wildlife with the intent of making Section 7 consultations under the Endangered Species Act more efficient.

I really enjoyed my experience in the DFP program! I was able to explore a variety of FWS branches and be part of unique experiences that enhanced my knowledge of the Service and its goals. I also got to explore other facets of the FWS through stocking greenback cutthroat trout in Herman Gulch, shadowing opportunities, and visiting Leadville National Fish Hatchery and Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. All have contributed to my life-changing experience that has really shaped me and my interest in a career in the Service.

Aside from work, I have loved being able to explore Denver. I was able to go hiking in a new place every weekend and explore nature in a way that is much different from my experiences in the Midwest. I have also been working at a farmer’s market selling jam. I have enjoyed embracing the Colorado culture and would love the chance to come back. I am very honored and thankful to have had this opportunity through the DFP program!

Canadian Nighthawk (on Way to South America?) is First Bird Detected by Florida Tracking Tower

  bird in someone's handThe common nighthawk that was detected by the Vero Beach Motus tower is tagged and measured in a Canadian lab. Photo courtesy of Elora Grahame

By Ken Warren, South Florida Ecological Services Office 

About 25 days after it was captured and tagged, a common nighthawk migrating from Canada became the first bird detected by a new tracking tower on top of Vero Beach High School in Florida on August 29.

Thanks to the efforts of South Florida Ecological Services Office Supervisory Biologist Tim Breen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service donated the Motus tower to the School District of Indian River County. 

The Motus Wildlife Tracking System is a coordinated system of automated receiver stations, or towers, used to track migratory animals, primarily birds and bats, through terrestrial and coastal environments. The network has more than 350 towers that are currently active across the Western Hemisphere. The tower at Vero Beach High School fills a gap in data collection along the east coast of Florida.

 man on roof with hand on big antenna  The Motus tower is mounted on top of Vero Beach High School by electronics technician Steve Alfano. Photo courtesy of the School District of Indian River County

Robert Michael, of the School District of Indian River County, says: “We think this is great. When Tim (Breen) approached me about installing the antenna and using it for the students to be able to track the birds and learn, we were pretty excited."

This particular nighthawk was captured and tagged on August 4, 2019 in Ontario, Canada, by Elora Grahame, a Ph.D. student from the University of Guelph in Ontario. The nighthawk is an adult male, at least two years old and part of the breeding population at Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve in Muskoka Lakes, Ontario.

“My Ph.D. research focuses on movement ecology for both common nighthawks and eastern whip-poor-wills,” says Grahame. “They’re both secretive species and relatively understudied. I’m researching their breeding ecology and habitat requirements for successful reproduction and migration in order to improve conservation management strategies.”

Grahame says she originally caught this nighthawk at her study site in Ontario in summer 2018. She banded him that year, but unfortunately he didn’t get a tag. This year she was lucky enough to re-capture and tag him.

The Motus system allows Grahame and other researchers to look at factors that influence timing of migration such as weather, wind, temperature, age, sex, etc.

“I had several nighthawks detected in Panama and Colombia last year so it will be exciting to see if this bird gets detected down there this year!” says Grahame. “Based on what we know about the species wintering grounds, he is probably headed for Brazil, maybe northern Argentina.”

   man at lecttern talking to council meetingSupervisory Biologist Tim Breen tells school board members, teachers, students and parents about the Motus Wildlife Tracking System. Photo by Ken Warren/USFWS

Breen is confident that the Motus tower in Vero Beach will be a great educational tool for students and wildlife enthusiasts alike. “I’m looking forward to coordinating with the school district on developing an educational program based on migration data collected by our very own Motus station,” says Breen.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Skipwith Joins Refuge Celebrations

  woman with butterrfly on fingers Deputy Assistant Secretary Skipwith with a tagged monarch at Masonville Cove in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by USFWS

What did you do this weekend? Aurelia Skipwith, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior and nominee to lead the Fish and Wildlife Service, was busy celebrating National Public Lands Day and Urban National Wildlife Refuge Day.

  woman looks at bird in man's hand Deputy Assistant Secretary Skipwith visits Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. Photo by USFWS

Deputy Assistant Secretary Skipwith journeyed to Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts on Friday to spend the day in the Monomoy Wilderness for National Public Lands Day. Of course, National Public Lands Day would not be complete without some volunteer work, and Deputy Assistant Secretary Skipwith joined in.

   people on a dock pose for photoDeputy Assistant Secretary Skipwith at the Keepin' it Reel fishing event on the Hudson River in Yonkers, New York. Photo by USFWS

She then joined with folks from Groundwork Hudson Valley, part of the Groundwork-Wallkill Connection Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership, at the Keepin' it Reel fishing event on the Hudson River in Yonkers, New York, to celebrate National Public Lands Day and Urban National Wildlife Refuge Day. 

 2 people draw back bows

She also practiced her archey skills.

2 women in kayak   Deputy Assistant Secretary Skipwith kayaking  at Masonville Cove in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by Maryland Port Administration

Finally, Deputy Assistant Secretary Skipwith visited the urban wildlife refuge partnership at Masonville Cove in Baltimore, Maryland.

At Masonville, she did some kayaking, monarch butterfly tagging, and met with partners who are helping nature reach into cities.

Thank you, Deputy Assistant Secretary Skipwith, we hope your sense of wonder got its fill. And we hope everyone was able to take part in these two important celebrations.

Your Public Lands Want You -- to Visit!

   people fishingThe 12th Annual Catch a Smile Senior Fishing Derby at Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery. Photo by USFWS

Looking for something awesome to do this weekend? There’s never been a better time to visit your public lands. You can thrill to the heart-pounding excitement of nature, delight in the peace of the outdoors, and work up a sweat as you help make your lands shine.

Saturday is National Hunting and Fishing Day and National Public Lands Day.

Hunters and anglers have long been some of our Nation’s most passionate conservationists. In addition, both groups financially support conservation through an excise tax on hunting, shooting and fishing equipment and boat fuel.  Those funds are administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration (WSFR) Program and distributed to the states for conservation projects, many of which provide access for outdoor recreation.  When those funds are combined with the state license and tag sales sportsmen and women pay each year, it constitutes the majority of funding for wildlife conservation in North America.

   man and boy both in camo sit in fieldA father and his son hunt at Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brett Billings/USFWS

Earlier this year, Sport Fish and Wildlife Restoration funds distributed by the Service totaled more than $1 billion for this purpose.

RELATED: Learn More About Hunting and Fishing 

Hunting opportunities are available on 381 units in the Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System and fishing on 316. Some lands in the National Fish Hatchery System also offer hunting and/or sport fishing.

For instance, this weekend:

   woman girl and man in reflective vests with bags of trash

National Public Lands Day is your chance to join hundreds of thousands of other volunteers in making your public lands better, whether by picking up trash (at left: last year at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge) or planting trees.

Making this year extra-special: Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge was named a highlighted site by the organization that runs National Public Lands Day.

Since it was established in 2012, Valle de Oro Refuge has been “a refuge established, designed and built by the community for the community.” 

It continues that tradition Saturday with a  Build Your Refuge Day event.

There are many other events around the country. Check with your local refuge or hatchery or visit the National Public Lands Day website to find them.

If that weren’t enough, Sunday is Urban National Wildlife Refuge Day, which recognizes urban national wildlife refuges for enriching the lives of Americans and their communities.  

Many refuges are holding Urban Refuge Day events, such as San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge’s Fun Day on the Bay, on Saturday.

All of these celebrations and events will help you get the most out of the outdoors. But there is never a bad time to visit a National Wildlife Refuge, National Fish Hatchery or any of your public lands any time of year. Check them out!

P.S. National Wildlife Refuge Week is coming up October 13-19, 2019!

Seeing What Lies Beneath the Pacific Ocean

white object with what looks like webbing on inside   Glass sponge. Photo by OET/NautilusLive

Through September 17, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Holly Richards, an External Affairs officer in our Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office, is a passenger on the E/V Nautilus, a deep sea exploration vessel as it explores the waters around Baker Island, Howland Island and Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuges in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Before you get too jealous of Holly, consider that Baker Island Refuge, the farthest, is about 1,830 nautical miles southwest of Honolulu and accessible only by ship. Nearby Howland Island, only 1,815 nautical miles southwest of Honolulu, also requires a ship journey, although there it did once have a landing strip. In 1937, a runway was built and prepped for Amelia Earhart so she could use Howland Island as a refueling station on her quest to circumnavigate the globe. She and navigator Fred J. Noonan never made it. Johnston Atoll is fewer than 800 nautical miles from Hawaii.

It’s all still very cool, so you can be a little jealous.

   orange spidery things on  white flowery objectsBlack coral and squat lobsters. Photo by OET/NautilusLive

These are some of the most remote islands of the Pacific Ocean, with undersea coral reefs, deep sea mounts, abyssal plains and volcanic features. But don’t think these places aren’t important. 

This part of the ocean represents one of the last frontiers of scientific discovery and exploration in the world and is a safe haven for Central Tropical Pacific biodiversity -- including 28 million seabirds that forage across the vast ocean expanse and nest on the remote island refuges.

Baker is one of the only places in the world where the terrestrial and marine tropical island ecosystems have been restored, conserved and protected. And Howland is one of the last places where the terrestrial and marine tropical island ecosystems are still intact and relatively free of human impacts.  

Johnston Atoll, one of the world’s most isolated atolls, is an oasis for reef and bird life. Green sea turtles feed on the south shore of Johnston Island, one of the highest concentrations of green sea turtles at a non-nesting foraging ground in the Pacific.

Life may have started in the ocean, but given the distances and difficulty of studying the seafloor there is still a lot to discover. The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument conserves seven National Wildlife Refuges and over 400,000 square miles of surrounding ocean habitat! 

   pink starSlime star. Photo by OET/NautilusLive

The Nautilus has been underway since August 26 and is currently en route to Johnston Atoll after exploring the water around Baker and Howland. 

The goal of the trip is to collect data that will help us better understand marine habitats, seafloor composition and the geologic history of these areas. The team will conduct seafloor mapping and collect video biological, chemical and geological samples. 

The best part is: You can be there, and you don’t have to worry about seasickness. The Nautilus streams all of their explorations live online to the public.   Check out these pages for more information: 

Saving the Silvery Minnow: An Ongoing Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge Monitoring Project

channel   The Rio Grande at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS

By Indu Roychowdhury, Southwest Region

Wearing oversized waders and all but clinging to a flow monitoring pole, I found the task of staying upright in the raging Rio Grande to be surprisingly challenging. A few weeks ago, I accompanied some of the Southwest Region hydrology team on one of their many fieldwork excursions: Following a record dry year, an uncharacteristically full river has called for extra monitoring. These trips to monitor the flow and quality of the river are part of an ongoing habitat restoration project at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, some 50 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Each week, the team travels to the refuge and collects data to determine habitat suitability for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.

person standing in water


Dan Shorb, hydrology tech, eyes the Rio Grande. Photo by USFWS  

The Rio Grande silvery minnow is one of the most well-known symbols of New Mexican conservationism; the shimmery little fish is protected by the Endangered Species Act, and requires certain specific habitat conditions to spawn. Two other endangered riparian species, the Southwestern willow flycatcher and the yellow-billed cuckoo, also benefit from river conservation work.

Manmade changes to the river—namely channelization and dam construction—have inhibited the minnow’s natural spawning and migratory conditions. The river lacks the natural floodplains of the past, and as a consequence, the silvery minnow now occupies only 7 percent of its original range. The restoration goal of this project is to create slow-moving backwater channels to flood during the spring and early summer, creating suitable spawning habitat for the minnow.

Silvery minnow prefer slow, shallow water to spawn. To create these conditions, staff at Sevilleta Refuge mechanically removed the invasive salt cedar in the area and began replacing it with native vegetation: namely, Gooding’s willow and cottonwood. The team also lowered the floodplain, connecting it to the river after decades of dryness. These changes not only create the necessary backwater channels, they also increase habitat for the aforementioned endangered birds. The endeavor, by no means a one-time effort, depends on active monitoring of the river—a task the Division of Water Resources has been undertaking on a weekly basis.

This year has been a particularly wet one for the Rio Grande—but what does that mean for silvery minnow if they prefer calmer waters? This project aims to create enough suitable habitat no matter the amount of water in the river. The channels are built in a sloping fashion: Some are quite deep now but become shallow toward the edges. On a low-flow year, every area of the channel may flow at the correct slow-moving rate. There may be a smaller percentage of suitable habitat, but there may still be enough suitable habitat on the edges.

When I spoke with refuge biologist Jon Erz, he emphasized the necessity of water monitoring during this project: “The reason it’s important to do this monitoring is to see how we need to change our management in the different flood regimes,” he said. “We built it, and now we need to see if we’re reaching the necessary acreage.”

  chanel with piles of dirt on bank The Rio Grande at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS

Indeed, the success of these types of projects depends on active river monitoring and data collection. This particular task would not be possible without the continuous collaboration of many people and organizations: the Bureau of Reclamation, Santa Fe Stream Commission, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff have all worked toward its completion. As the river changes through the years, our monitoring team will be there through it all—safeguarding the home of the plants and animals inhabiting it.

Saiga Antelope, Sea Cucumbers, Parachute Spiders and Pancake Tortoises Get U.S. Support at CITES

  saiga antelope on a beachA saiga antelope. Photo by Andrey Giljov/Creative Commons

This month, delegates from around the globe will meet for the world’s leading forum to debate and discuss issues related to international wildlife trade. The 18th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP18) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, will run from August 17 to 28 in Geneva, Switzerland. This meeting was initially scheduled to take place from May 23 to June 3 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, but was postponed and re-located due to security and other concerns after the heinous bombings of three churches and three hotels in Colombo on April 21.

The United States began its public process to gather and evaluate information related to species involved in international trade and improving implementation of the convention more than two years ago, culminating in the submission of 11 documents we advanced or co-sponsored to be considered by CITES member countries at the meeting. We considered all input as we evaluated documents submitted by other countries and developed negotiating positions on the full agenda of CoP18.

Not sure what CITES is or how it works? Visit our website for a quick overview, or to view each of the documents we submitted or co-sponsored.

Here is an overview of our goals going into CoP18 this year, and a discussion of some of the species that are part of the agenda:

Combating Wildlife Trafficking by Strengthening Protections for Species Vulnerable to Illegal International Trade

Saiga antelope are a species native to Central Asia that live in steppe or grassland habitats. They migrate in large herds that can contain up to 1,000 individuals. Unfortunately, their populations have declined more than 80 percent in the past 30 years. In addition to disease and harsh winters impacting their populations, illegal and unsustainable trade in saiga threatens its survival. Male saiga are targeted and killed for their horns, which are smuggled to other countries and sold  for use in traditional Asian medicine. Thanks to the efforts of Mongolia with support from the United States, the CITES Parties will consider transferring saiga antelope to Appendix I, which would provide the species with the greatest level of CITES protection.

  pancake tortoise in small crack in rockA pancake tortoise. Photo by Thomas Leuteritz/USFWS

At the last meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties, the United States achieved increased CITES protections for six African and Middle Eastern softshell turtle species, by working with Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Liberia, Mauritania, Nigeria and Togo. Following on these successes, the United States will co-sponsor a proposal with Kenya to transfer Pancake tortoises to Appendix I. This species gets its name from its flat and flexible shell, which in addition to its speed, allows it to hide and rest under rock crevices. Decreasing availability of suitable of habitat for pancake tortoises and their value in the pet trade are the key threats to their survival. Evidence shows that when protections for freshwater turtles and tortoises are strengthened in one region, demand in other regions for unprotected species increases. The United States supports a strategic, global approach to freshwater turtle and  tortoise conservation, to stay ahead of this trend and curb this boom-and-bust cycle.

The United States will also consider providing Appendix I protections to other species such as several Asian species of otters, black crowned-cranes, several butterflies, and a variety of reptiles, including lizards, geckos and turtles.

Following the successful uplisting of pangolins to Appendix I at CoP17, the United States  continues to support improved implementation of the Appendix I protections, including actions that further conservation of pangolins in range countries and combating  trafficking in pangolin scales. Similarly at CoP18, the United States will strive to maintain and improve implementation of strong protections for other species impacted by wildlife trafficking including elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, eels, coral, sharks and rays, great apes and jaguars, among others. The United States supports efforts to combat wildlife trafficking through a variety of strategies, including law enforcement, financial assistance, behavior-change and awareness-raising initiatives, and capacity-building.

Ensuring Animals and Plants are Legally and Sustainably Traded to Benefit  People  for Generations to Come

  blck sea cucumber  with white spots on ocean floorOne of the species of sea cucumber proposed for inclusion in CITES Appendix II. Photo by Lesley Clements/Creative Commons

Sea cucumbers have been harvested from oceans for hundreds of years as food. They are an important source of nutrition in Asia and their derivatives are also sometimes incorporated into medicinal products. They have an important ecological role,  too, which is similar to that of earthworms. You might describe them as recyclers for the ocean. Their economic value and the ease of collecting them from the ocean floor without needing complex fishing techniques or expensive equipment makes them vulnerable to over-collection. Despite local protections and legal fishing seasons and limits, in some parts of the world illegal fishing has led to depleted populations of sea cucumbers. There are more than 1,700 species worldwide. Three species found in the Indo-Pacific region, known as teatfish, are distinguished by protrusions from their bodies that make them easier to identify. Available data indicate that they are among the sea cucumber species most threatened by increasing trade and demand in the past 25 years. The United States is co-sponsoring a proposal with the European Union, Kenya, Senegal and the Seychelles to add these three species to Appendix II, to bring the strength of the global community to the task of ensuring these sea cucumbers are only internationally traded if it is legal and sustainable.

 gray  and blue gecko with orange spots and big eyes A tokay gecko. Photo by Marcus Budak/Creative Commons

Tokay geckos are colorful lizards native to Asian countries. They are frequently traded for use in traditional Asian medicine and as pets. They get their names from their territorial call, which sounds like “tok-ay.”To ensure that trade can be sustainable in the long term for these geckos, the United States is co-sponsoring a proposal with the European Union, India and the Phillipines to include them in Appendix II, which would provide CITES protections to regulate the trade.

tan spider withelectric bluelegs with splashes of yellow  A parachute spider. Photo by William Foster/Creative Commons

Ornamental / Parachute spiders are a type of arboreal tarantula native to Sri Lanka and India.   Some of the spiders parachute down from trees with their silk, giving them their name.  They are often large and beautiful colors, making them a popular animal for pets and collectors, and are therefore, targeted by traders. To date, the international trade in this group of spiders has largely been unregulated, which combined with habitat loss, constitutes the main threat to the survival of these species. The United States and Europe are key importers of the spiders. Sri Lanka submitted a proposal co-sponsored by the United States to list all 15 species of ornamental parachute spiders in Appendix II to ensure these spiders are internationally traded legally and sustainably.

Other proposals for CoP18 would move species to Appendix II, so they would receive some new protections or go to a lower level of protection due to recovery of species populations. Some of the higher-profile documents and topics that the United States will follow include proposals to list giraffes, several species of trees and the wooly mammoth. While the wooly mammoth is an extinct species, its remnant tusks are traded and some speculate it could be used to launder elephant ivory.

  GIRAFFE AMID TREESA giraffe in South Africa. Photo by Danielle Kessler/USFWS

Giraffes – of which there are nine subspecies – live in at least 18 African countries, and are now extinct in at least five African countries. Giraffes have a low reproductive output, making them vulnerable to overexploitation. Females become sexually mature at three to four years of age, but the average age at first birth is 6.4 years. In the wild, giraffes can live to about 25 years. While international trade may not be the primary cause of decline in wild giraffe populations, it may have an additive effect when combined with the main causes of habitat loss, civil unrest, poaching for bushmeat--- and ecological changes.

A proposal submitted by the Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Senegal would include giraffes in Appendix II. By doing so, CITES would provide a mechanism to regulate and monitor trade in giraffes, while generating - for the first time - the data needed to ensure that this trade is not detrimental to the survival of the species.

Improving the Way CITES Works

 class poses Participants in a recent cohort of the CITES Masters Course. Photo by International University of Andalusia Baeza

In addition to listing species in CITES Appendices, the United States and other countries will discuss documents and proposals aimed at implementing CITES more effectively. Among them is a document submitted by the  United States that calls for increased transparency, accountability and effectiveness in CITES capacity-building efforts.  It proposes a three-year process for development of a  framework for capacity-building, which will assist the Convention in prioritizing and monitoring progress of investment in countries targeted for improved CITES capacity.  CITES is only as effective as each country’s ability to administer it.  The needs are significant and CITES authorities often lack adequately trained personnel  and tools to effectively ensure legal and sustainable international trade. For the United States, improving global CITES implementation is key to our efforts to combat wildlife trafficking, recognizing that if CITES is the global framework for legal and sustainable international trade is strong, trading wildlife illegally will be harder.  We have partnered with the International University of Andalucia (UNIA) in Spain to strengthen CITES authorities in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean through the CITES master course, which provides conservation professionals with practical training in CITES.  The impact of the course is demonstrated by the extensive network of graduates who hold key leadership positions in the CITES community.

  stacks of  lumberConfiscated rosewood that was destined for illegal non-permitted shipment. Photo by Wildlife Conservation Society

The United States is supportive of changes to species protections at CoP18 that maintain conservation benefit while reducing the regulatory burden on businesses. For instance, there are a number of documents focused on amending commodities subject to CITES controls under the current timber listings to reflect sensible policy for large groups of species such as rosewood, which is used in a variety of wood products including musical instruments, furniture,and even pet coffins. This year, a proposal to list Spanish cedar will need to be considered such that it balances conservation for the most threatened species of these trees with a more practical understanding of the potential permitting demands it could create.

Along these lines, the United States has also co-sponsored documents with several countries that reflect an ethos of “smart regulation.” Documents for frankincense, marine ornamental fish and songbirds are intended to collect data through CITES and countries so that it can be ascertained whether species currently in trade need to be listed. Finally, seahorses are listed in CITES Appendix II, and the United States has co-sponsored a document with Monaco to present a road map on how to improve CITES implementation that ensures sustainable trade in seahorses.

Be sure to check back for other CITES news and topics of interest in the coming weeks.

Taking Care of Our Own

man in uniform with black dog  Federal Wildlife K-9 Gino and Federal Wildlife Canine Officer (FWCO) Darrin Speegle. All photos by USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes care of those who provide public safety on the lands and waters it manages – and that includes its four-legged corps. 

shaggy black dog looking at camera with ears up and  mouth open

When Federal Wildlife K-9 Gino — partner to Federal Wildlife Canine Officer (FWCO) Darrin Speegle — had a spinal stroke in March, he was rushed to a top veterinary hospital in Georgia. The 83-pound German shepherd went through weeks of rehabilitation to overcome the paralysis of his hind legs, but he suffered more strokes and eventually passed away in June, having served nearly nine years as a Federal Wildlife Canine (FWC).

The loss was as personal as it was professional. “We traveled all over the Southeast together, on wildland fires, on Operation Border Support in Arizona, finding lost kids and sometimes lost hunters,” Speegle says. “Even though canines are a law enforcement tool, they are so much more. I probably spent more time with him than with my family. Gino always had my back.”

The Federal Wildlife Law Enforcement Canine program, now composed of nine units, accepts only 1 percent of eligible canines. Canines complete 420 hours of rigorous training with their handlers because FWCs perform a much broader range of responsibilities than most working dogs: They help locate people, evidence, contraband and wildlife. They must be friendly ambassadors with the public. They are rarely kenneled — as most law enforcement canines are — but instead are with their handlers 24/7.  The FWCO motto is, “Wherever we go, they go.”

  officer and dog look at back of pickup in a gravel lot

FWCO Speegle, with the Service since 1989, has been a canine handler since 2003. He grew up just seven miles from Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama, where he has served his entire career.  His first FWC was Jax, with whom he gained invaluable experience. Then came Gino, who was “over the top enthusiastic about doing the job.”

officer and dog in woods; dog has front paws on tree

Speegle and Gino served not only Wheeler Refuge, but the greater Southeast region to provide security at wildland fire responses, special law enforcement operations, hunting and fishing safety checks, and routine patrols.

During a routine hunting stop, the two encountered a man who decided to run rather than go through the routine safety check. He turned himself in the next morning because he said, “Every time I closed my eyes, I saw that dog.” The man had several outstanding warrants for methamphetamine production and distribution.

On another patrol, Speegle stopped a group of men who were illegally night hunting on Panther Swamp Refuge  in Mississippi. Gino became fixated with the bottom of their truck. “What in the world is wrong with this dog,” Speegle thought. Outcome? Gino found drugs — a rock of crack cocaine about the size of a #2 pencil eraser — that the men had thrown under the truck. These men also had outstanding warrants for their arrest.

Gino helped ensure that Darrin would come home every night to his wife and four children, including son Jack, who formed a special bond with the FWC after difficult surgeries when he was a young boy.

Beyond fighting wildlife crime, Darrin and Gino were community assets. For example, they annually visited a garden club, where they perform an obedience and scent discrimination tracking demonstration. One garden club member was so impressed, she offered to buy a FWC for the Service. Gino and Darrin also worked annually at Wheeler Refuge’s Summer Day Camps for ages 8-13 and were highly visible as they traveled as partners in the K-9 truck with its special logos.

“Darrin and Gino were true ambassadors for the Service,” says Federal Wildlife Canine Coordinator Adam Rawlinson. “From talking to families and kids as they traveled from refuge to refuge, to catching the bad guys, they exemplified what it means to be public servants. Gino had an outstanding career and will be long remembered.”

Atlantic Sturgeon Reproducing in the James River, Virginia

   man all bundled up holding a fishAlbert Spells, Virginia Fisheries coordinator for the Service, didn’t believe Atlantic sturgeon were gone from the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Photo by USFWS

Many believed the Atlantic sturgeon were gone from the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They hadn’t been sighted in rivers that fed the bay for decades. But a few experts, including Albert Spells, Virginia Fisheries coordinator for the Service, thought otherwise, and they worked to recover this fish, engaging concerned citizens, scientists, commercial watermen, state and federal agencies, nonprofit groups, educators, graduate students and volunteers.

Conservation, however, takes commitment to playing the long game, especially when the species you wish to restore is long-lived and doesn’t reproduce until it’s at least 10 years old. But, winning is possible with great partners, a lot of volunteers and dedication to solving unknowns.

fish swim underwater   Atlantic sturgeon are coming back in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Photo by Ryan Haggerty/USFWS

Atlantic sturgeon, one of the oldest and largest fish on earth (growing upward of 14 feet long and weighing more than 800 pounds) were once found in huge numbers along the Atlantic Coast and coastal rivers from Canada to Florida. They were an important food for indigenous peoples along the coast and likely saved Jamestown colonists from starvation.

During the great “Caviar Rush” or “Black Gold Rush,” in the late 1800s, Atlantic sturgeon became a highly prized fishery. Harvest peaked at 700,000 pounds in Chesapeake Bay waters alone in the late 1890s with a total of 7 million pounds in landings from all East Coast states. By 1989, a mere 400 pounds were reported in all of the United States, with few records of them returning to the Chesapeake Bay. Within a hundred years, a species that had lived on the planet for hundreds of millions of years had been overfished.

But Spells and Jim Owen at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) didn’t think it was gone. “You know,” Owen said to Spells one day “they’re catching sturgeon on the James and the York [rivers], but the watermen aren’t gonna tell you about it unless you put something in it for them.” Spells agreed and began cobbling together pots of money from the Service, Virginia, Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) to implement a reward program, “so we could verify if sturgeon were returning to our rivers and tag them,” Spells says. “In 1997, a $100 reward (later $50) administered by VIMS was offered to commercial watermen who caught an Atlantic sturgeon in Virginia and kept them until the Service could tag and release the sturgeon back into the rivers. In less than a year, they had caught 303 fish, including 2-and 3-year-old fish,” he adds.

  small sturgeon in clear box that is sitting on a ruler Young Atlantic sturgeon. Photo by Matt Balazik

“We learned that there was a larger population of sturgeon using Virginia waters than previously realized, and we had evidence of successful spawning. Our efforts encouraged others to start looking for sturgeon in the bay.”

The reward program in Virginia ended after two years, but the coast-wide tagging program that began in 1992 with more than 31 participating agencies from Maine to Georgia continues. Coordinated through the Service’s Maryland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, the program allows the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to delineate migratory patterns and learn where sturgeon may be spawning successfully.

Besides overfishing, other factors were impacting the sturgeon’s survival — pollution, loss of spawning grounds due to heavy siltation, bycatch (fish caught in fishing gear targeting other commercial species) and ship-strikes.

 sturgeon breaching  Atlantic sturgeon breaching in the James River. Photo by Don West

In 1998, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission called for a moratorium on sturgeon fishing, and all 15 states complied. The goal was to protect sturgeon for 20 years, allowing them to reproduce and their populations to grow. Then in 2012, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries listed four populations of Atlantic sturgeon as endangered, one of which was the Chesapeake Bay.

“Our coast-wide tagging program helped us learn where sturgeon go, but we still weren’t finding evidence of spawning or young of year fish,” fish born in that year, says Spells. Finding these super young, less than a year-old fish is significant because it indicates where the adults have been spawning.

   two men in boat netting a fishThe Service’s Albert Spells (left) and Matt Balazik, with the Engineer Research and Development Center for the Army Corps of Engineers, collect sturgeon. Photo by Charles Frederickson/James River Association

Matt Balazik, biologist with the Engineer Research and Development Center for the Army Corps of Engineers, and his team with the Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Rice Rivers Center, collected 153 young of year Atlantic sturgeon in the James last fall. “This was the first finding of young of year that anyone can recall since…March 2004,” Balazik says. Before that, “the last time we had evidence of sturgeon spawning in the James was 1979,” he says.

“Through Matt’s research, we learned a lot” Spells says. “For example, we discovered that the sturgeon spawn in the fall, when everyone thought they only spawned in spring.”

“There’s no way, however, we would have learned all that we know now if not for the many partners advocating and working to save this species.”

Whether it was a researcher developing fishing gear to reduce bycatch but keep striped bass fishing effective, partners building spawning reefs or finding better sturgeon sampling techniques, Spells says, “It took univer­sities (VIMS, VCU, University of Maryland), NGOs (CBF, James River Association), the states, Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, Virginia Sea Grant, and many volunteers working together to find and recover Atlantic sturgeon.”

Atlantic sturgeon may have been pulled from the brink, but they aren’t recovered yet. It may take decades for them to rebuild their populations. But through science, environmental regula­tions, improvements to spawning grounds and outreach, we are saving this amazing prehistoric fish, just as it once saved Jamestown.

CATHERINE GATENBY, Fish and Aquatic Conservation, Northeast Region


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

Boaters Keep Washington Waters Clean, Safely Disposing of Nearly 11 Million Gallons of Sewage

 :  man on boat hooking up a tube  A boater uses a free public pumpout facility at the Port of Olympia-Swantown Marina, which was constructed with funding from the Washington Clean Vessel Program. Photo by Washington State Parks

With funding from the Service’s Sport Fish Restoration Clean Vessel Act Grant Program, pumpout stations help divert sewage from coastal and inland waters throughout the country by giving recreational boaters a place to offload their sewage quickly and safely, preserving water quality.

In the state of Washington, boaters diverted nearly 11 million gallons of sewage from coastal and inland waters last year. In recent years the number of pumpouts in Washington has increased as boater demand has risen, and more stations are planned. The newest Clean Vessel-funded pumpouts are set to be completed this summer at the Shaw General Store in the San Juan Islands.

WSFR logo

In addition to funding the construction and maintenance of more than 140 pumpouts, dump stations and floating restrooms across the state, the Washington State Parks Clean Vessel Program has been a key partner of Pumpout Washington — the public outreach program managed by Washington Sea Grant. Over the last decade, the Pumpout Washington team has engaged tens of thousands of boaters, explaining the importance of properly disposing their sewage. With support from the Clean Vessel Program, Pumpout Washington has distributed more than 10,000 pumpout adapter kits to boaters, making it easier for them to empty their boat’s head.

Improved sewage management has led to better water quality for fish and wildlife, a lowered illness risk to people recreating in the waters or eating locally caught fish or shellfish, and greater protection of public health. The improved water quality allowed the Washington Department of Health to remove shellfish harvest restrictions on nearly 700 acres of commercial shellfish beds, including portions of commercial shellfish areas around 20 Puget Sound marinas, deter­mining that they would no longer be classified as prohibited.

The Washington Clean Vessel Act program is part of the Clean Vessel Act of 1992 administered  by the Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration’s Program. Money for the grants comes from the Sport Fish Restoration Fund.

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

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