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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Celebrating National Wetlands Month through Programs and Partnerships

wetlandwith treesPhotos by Kayt Jonsson/USFWS

May is American Wetlands Month.

Although wetlands only occupy about 5 percent of the contiguous United States, they provide a range of benefits to people, from clean water and greater resilience to extreme weather to important habitat for numerous fish, wildlife and plant species. From prairie potholes in the Central Plains, to saltmarshes along the Atlantic Coast, to the intertidal mud flats in Puget Sound, wetlands provide important shelter, feeding, breeding and migration habitat. Approximately 50 percent of our migratory bird species and nearly 50 percent of plants and animals listed under the Endangered Species Act rely on wetlands. Wetlands also provide habitat to other economically valuable species, such as fresh and salt water fish and shellfish. Due to the critical importance of wetlands to our nation’s fish, wildlife and plants, several U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service programs focus on mapping, monitoring and conserving wetlands.  

The Service maps and monitors U.S. wetlands through the National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) geospatial dataset and Wetlands Status and Trends reports. The Wetlands Mapper is the primary public interface to the NWI geospatial dataset and delivers easy-to-use, map like views of the Nation's wetland and deepwater resources. The Wetlands Mapper is viewed 1,200 daily and the geospatial dataset is downloaded for unlimited use more than 36,000 times each year. Produced on a decadal cycle, NWI Wetlands Status and Trends reports provide critical information on recent and historical changes in wetland and deepwater habitat type and acreage that is used to guide U.S. wetland policies. Information provided by the NWI program is used extensively by natural resource managers, throughout the nation, to promote the understanding, conservation and restoration of wetlands.

wetland with grasses growing in it

The Service supports wetland conservation through two grant programs for public and private partners.  The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grants, administered by the Migratory Bird Program, fund projects in the United States, Canada and Mexico that support long-term protection, restoration and enhancement of wetlands and associated uplands habitats, while also supporting local economies, recreation, and family farming and ranching.  The National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program annually provides grants to coastal states and U.S. territories to protect and restore coastal wetlands.  Under the philosophy that users should help support conservation of the resources they use, these grants are funded through excise taxes on fishing equipment and small engine fuels.  Like NAWCA, these grants support conservation of vital habitat areas that provide recreational opportunities and benefit coastal communities. 

 

We are only now beginning to understand the diverse and substantial benefits that wetlands provide people, as well as fish, wildlife and plants. Unfortunately, over half of America’s wetlands have been lost since 1780, and wetland losses continue today. Recent NWI Wetlands Status and Trends reports have found that wetland loss is particularly alarming within coastal watersheds. This highlights the importance of the numerous Service programs that support wetland conservation and restoration through critical partnerships with federal and state agencies, communities, and private landowners. 

Map Reading in the Mimbres Valley

   red bear claw marks on treeBlack bears use Moreno Springs - claw marks on Alder. photo by Craig Springer/USFWS

Craig Springer, External Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Southwest Region

Maps make interesting reading and you can find all genres including poetry, biography and natural history. A map of southern New Mexico’s Mimbres Valley has a little of it all.

First, the verse: There’s poetry in the habit of rivers. The Mimbres River seeks to bend and curl and let its energy go in meanders. All rivers want to do it at some point and riparian ribbons are among the most beautiful shapes in nature.

Biography: Stitzel Canyon steers summer monsoons downhill into the Mimbres, feeding it water and rock with the seasonal freshets. David Stitzel came to New Mexico a Union soldier in the California Column during the Civil War. The rebels had already vacated New Mexico by the time the Californians arrived. Stitzel mustered out in Mesilla, married local and stayed. He killed a man in an argument over a farm implement—manslaughter—and earned a place name.

   frog in waterChirichua leopard frog. Photo by Jim Rorabaugh/USFWS

Natural history: The Mimbres River valley and its springs are home to Chiricahua leopard frog and Chihuahua chub. The Mimbres flows out of the Gila Wilderness and off the west flank of the Black Range, part of a physiographic province called the Mogollon Rim which spans in a massive arc-shaped form over parts New Mexico and Arizona.

After pouring off the cragged mountainsides the river threads through canyons that most anywhere along the way look like scenes on tourism advertisements. The Mimbres feeds otherwise friable flat fields of alfalfa, orchards, pasture and chile.  

What’s left of the river is soaked up by sun and sand well downstream. And the fact that the river naturally terminated on the desert floor leads partly to the valley’s biological diversity. The threatened Chihuahua chub swims nowhere else in the United States, save for the Mimbres. This is a curious artifact of natural history:  The shiny chub persists far to the south in the Guzman Basin of Mexico.

The native chub must compete for food and space with non-native fishes, and that has contributed to its decline. The Chihuahua chub was thought extinct for many years until it was rediscovered in 1975.

What’s harmed the chub has diminished the number of Chiricahua leopard frogs as well, the lack of habitat. “Mimbres” is Spanish for “willows.” The Mimbres River was at a time profusely lined with willow thickets—a sure sign of soppy soils. Those thickets and soils are fewer and so are the frogs.

So, a patch of flat field just upstream from Stitzel Canyon holds the promise of improving the lot of two animals in greatest need. A 208-acre spot of ground owned by The Nature Conservancy encompasses much of Moreno Spring, named for former landowners who left an imprint.

The spring emanates over a large spongy area with hummocks of dry ground between pockets of mushy soil with some open waters interspersed. The Mimbres River probably at a time not too distant meandered into the foot of a low bluff where the spring now exists. The spring may be a relic of a former river channel.

The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife ervice’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program teamed up to improve Moreno Spring for the benefit of Chihuahua chub and Chiricahua leopard frog. Partners for Fish and Wildlife is a cost-share program whereby private landowners volunteer to conduct wildlife conservation work in partnership with the expertise and funding provided by the Partners Program.

   Men stands in pond with backhoe and workers on land

That expertise came through Service biologist Angel Montoya (At left, Angel Montoya waist-deep Moreno Spring. Photo by USFWS). Montoya facilitated the spring rehabilitation alongside Martha Cooper representing the landowner, The Nature Conservancy.  The project yielded more fish and frog habitat—habitat used by a litany of other creatures as well.

“The return on investment was significant,” said Montoya. “You could see right away dramatic results; the leopard frog responded and chubs swim in the open-water pools and the spring-run to the river.”

What had been akin to a bog was transformed into a glade with a dozen pools of varying sizes, shapes and depths. Chiricahua leopard frogs have more habitats to loaf and breed, and deeper water where they dive to escape predators. The spring has a reliable open source to the Mimbres River where Chihuahua chub can swim to and from.

Inspired by the work completed and the conservation benefits readily apparent, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish amplified what had been done. Using a State Wildlife Grant provided through the Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, more chub and frog habitat was added along the Mimbres River.

  WOMAN OUTSIDEMartha Cooper is a biologist for The Nature Conservancy. Photo by Craig Springer/USFWS

“Backhoes using rock, trees and root masses reconfigured river banks toward a natural shape and reconnected the Mimbres to the floodplain,” said Cooper. “Small, off-channel ponds built on the floodplain next to the river are prime habitat for Chiricahua leopard frog. They will offer frogs much-needed safe refuge during high flows.”

Cooper noted another benefit. Water slowed up in soppy soil and off-channel swales keeps the water on the land a little longer. That’s good for wildlife—but it’s also good for people downstream—particularly those who irrigate crops.

There’s another genre in map-reading: autobiography. Place names are our story, a transcription. The Mimbres River and attendant Moreno Spring on this piece of private land reside on a contour that’s coming around full circle—to the way things used to be—for the betterment of fish and wildlife.

 


 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwestern Native Aquatic Resources and Recovery Center in Dexter, New Mexico, remains pivotal in the conservation of Chihuahua chub. Some 400-plus individual fish are held on station at present. These are the brood stock used to produce future fish that make their way back to the Mimbres River. Since 1992, the federal fisheries facility as stocked 50,385 Chihuahua chub into the Mimbres to augment the natural population. The facility is also a refuge of sorts, a place to ensure the security of the rare fish in time of need. Witness the devastating Silver Fire of 2013 that sent slugs of ash flowing down the Mimbres River.


If you would like to learn more about conserving wildlife on your property, be it game animals or imperiled species, through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, visit https://www.fws.gov/partners/contactUs.html  Or contact Matt Filsinger at 703-358-2011 or matthew_filsinger@fws.gov

Stopping Leatherback Decline in Cote d'Ivoire

big black turtle on a beach   A leatherback sea turtle lies on the beach. Photo by USFWS

How Americans Like You Have Helped Make This Project Possible

Tiger StampProjects such as this one would not be possible without the funding generated from proceeds of sales of the “Save Vanishing Species Stamp,” also known as the “Tiger Stamp.” Through programs administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tiger Stamps have helped fund projects that benefit tigers, sea turtles, great apes, rhinos and elephants in 35 countries. Since 2011, purchases of stamps have generated more than $4.6 million in funding for international conservation projects. Learn more and purchase Tiger Stamps from the U.S. Postal Service. Thank you for your support!

If you have ever been to the oceanfront, you have likely seen a wide variety of animals along the beach. Flying above your head there were probably different kinds of seabirds. Scuttling along the ground there were likely crabs, and in the distance, you might have seen dolphin fins poking through the waves. What you probably wouldn’t expect would be a five-foot long, 500-pound sea turtle slowly crawling into the ocean waves.  But, at the right time and place, you might see one.

The leatherback sea turtle is the largest species of seven found throughout the world. Although leatherbacks and other sea turtles spend a majority of their time at sea, female leatherbacks come ashore searching for sandy, undisturbed beaches during nesting season.

Western Africa in particular is the location of many important nesting and feeding sites for the leatherback, including Mani Beach in Cote d'Ivoire. Although the female leatherbacks lay many eggs along Mani Beach, few survive to adulthood. Human stressors, such as poaching for the turtle’s eggs or meat and accidental capture by fishermen, have tipped the carefully balanced scale of leatherback populations toward decline in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Part of the problem is also that enforcement measures which protect these majestic giants are either scarce or do not exist. 

   a line of baby sea turtles from nest in sand to oceanBaby leatherbacks head to the ocean. Photo by Sebastian Troeng, Conservation International

The Leatherback Population Begins its Path to Recovery

Noticing the lack of official law enforcement, the non-government organization, Conservation des Especes Marines (CEM), with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, stepped up to the challenge of combating leatherback and other sea turtle population decline in Cote d'Ivoire.

CEM began this effort by establishing the “Brigade Anti-Braconnage,” or Anti-poaching Brigade. Led by project officer DAH Alexandre and assisted by the Naval Police, the brigade consisted of volunteers selected and trained to act as patrols for Mani Beach. Split into teams of two or more people, the recruits patrolled the beach during sea turtle nesting season. Between the months of September and March, the patrols diligently paced the 18.6 miles of Mani Beach’s sandy shores for more than 400 hours a week. 

Patrols also relocated sea turtle nests at risk of harm from four-wheeled vehicles and erased sea turtle tracks to discourage poachers. Relocated sea turtles were placed into one of two nesting hatcheries, which were purposefully built to enhance the project’s surveillance of the turtle populations. While on duty, the patrols tracked and recorded sea turtle nests and other indicators of sea turtle presence. In addition to the patrols, CEM worked with local fishermen to decrease sea turtle bycatch. 

   people help and watch sea turtle return to oceanA patrol rescues a leatherback at Asseoufoue Beach. Photo by CEM 

Before CEM’s efforts, nearly all sea turtle nests on Mani Beach were poached and many turtles were slaughtered. Throughout the duration of the project, the number of turtles killed dropped and the various sea turtle populations found near the beach began to grow. In the 2010-2011 nesting season, reports indicated that there were only about 10 leatherback nests on Mani Beach. Yet during the 2015-2016 nesting season, the number of leatherback nests increased to about 100.  Other sea turtles, such as the olive ridley, also had drastic population increases, with the number of olive ridley nests increasing from about 100 nests in 2010-2011 to just under 500 nests in 2015-2016. 

Not only did CEM’s efforts result in increased sea turtle populations in the area, but they also helped raise public support for sea turtle protections. Ultimately, the Department for Wildlife Protection helped with the passage of a local law protecting sea turtle populations. Validated by village chiefs, the law forbids the sale of sea turtle meat or eggs in local markets and establishes a list of punishments for violations. Since the passage of this law, several poachers have faced penalties.

However, protections do not exist for all sea turtle populations in Cote d'Ivoire. Adjacent beaches and villages continue to engage in harmful fishing practices and the levels of poaching in these areas remains high. Therefore, CEM continues to work on conserving the endangered sea turtles by refining existing conservation methods and incorporating new ones, such as utilizing the benefits of ecotourism. Through the work of vigilant organizations such as CEM, we will continue to see leatherbacks today and tomorrow. Similarly, through Tiger Stamp funds, we will continue to see successes like this for sea turtles in other areas, too!

By Deborah Kornblut, an intern with the Service’s International Affairs Program

 

 

 

 

 

Veteran Guides Other Veterans on Turkey Hunt

   2 turkeys looking at each otherA pair of wild Rio Grande turkeys — a tom (left) and a hen — have eyes for each other at Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Photo by Robert Burton/USFWS

Many in the Fish and Wildlife Service demonstrated a commitment to protecting our nation through military service long before they began their quest to protect wildlife and wild places.  Because of this kinship – this shared experience in adversity and sacrifice - veterans hold a special place in the collective heart of Service employees.

The opportunity to recognize and honor the sacrifices of those who have served in the nation’s military doesn’t just happen – it takes deliberate effort and planning, a network of like-minded partners, and the unwavering support of organizations and individuals to honor those sacrifices.

One small but poignant gesture took place in March at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. David Maple, the deputy refuge manager, shares the story: 

After planning with such partners as the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), Candlelight Ranch and the Friends of Balcones, it was time for the hunt.

 4 people stand   Participants in the 2018 Turkey Hunt: (L to R) Charlotte Larson, David Larson, Landon Davis, Matt Davis. Photo by Robert Linder

Air Force serviceman Matt Davis and his teenage son, Landon, joined up with Army soldier David Larson and daughter Charlotte at the refuge March 30 to kick off a weekend quest for Rio Grande turkeys and much more, including an impromptu welcoming ceremony complete with a presentation of mementos to commemorate the event.

After a tour of Candlelight Ranch, a local ranch that “provides therapeutic and educational nature-based experiences to at-risk youth, children with disabilities and their families,” the hunt party had the opportunity to try their luck at enticing some Lake Travis largemouths to bite at the facility’s fishing dock.

 sitting on couches, 4 hunters learn about calls from fifth personRobert Linder explains the fine points of box calls at Candlelight Ranch. Photo by David Maple/USFWS

The group then learned the fine points of turkey calling using box and slate calls from NWTF Past-President Robert Linder, and by the end of the session the participants knew how to call. They were ready.

The Hunt

For the uninitiated, turkey hunting starts in the wee hours of the morning – so the party was on the road early to link up with me at the hunt area. The Larsons and guide Linder began in a nearby blind 200 yards north of a small waterway – while the Davises followed me to a second blind. The hunters quickly settled into the darkness to await the coming of day - and the clucks, cackles and gobbles of roosting turkeys.

They didn’t have to wait long.

The faint light of dawn prodded the roosting birds into their calls – soft and occasional at first, but building to a full blown chorus of turkey symphony by the time it was light enough to distinguish shrubs from potential predators. The hunters at both locations watched as several hens and a big tom pitched down from a roost to an area laid bare by a recent prescribed burn. Another gobbler flew down to join a lone hen in a sunflower field. Linder and I each plied the birds with a mix of calls – pleading with and promising the birds that good times awaited if they would only join the decoys near the hidden hunters.

No dice.

Turkey hunters will tell you that it is nigh impossible to call a gobbler away from a hen he can see to a hen he can’t see. Calling proficiency doesn’t matter. Being early in the season didn’t help much, as there were still receptive hens to hold the male’s interest. And this was definitely early season.

I issued periodic clucks and yelps to entice the lone hen to join his little band of decoys, and bring her paramour along for the ride. After several minutes of steady pleading, the hen accepted the invitation and made a beeline for the waiting hunters. Unfortunately, the gobbler hadn’t studied the script – he joined the others on the strut ground there. At least the hunters got to enjoy the show as the hen pecked and clucked and scratched like a barnyard chicken for several minutes in full view of Matt and Landon.

Blind luck

Sensing a growing frustration among the hunters, I told them that the morning might not be a bust. Sooner or later, one of the hens might break off from the group to go her own way and would probably join us at the blind. Seeing his increased chances with a lone hen away from the watchful eye of the dominant tom,the smaller subordinate gobbler would follow.  Matt seemed skeptical but accepted the imagined scenario.

About an hour later, Matt excitedly whispered, “Here comes the hen across the dam.” And 10 minutes later he hissed in an even more excited voice, “Here HE comes.” Sure enough, the gobbler that had frustrated us at daybreak, decided to follow the plan after all. The hen slowly made her way straight to the decoys as if on a string. The gobbler moped along at a snail’s pace as if to feign indifference in the object of his low-speed pursuit.

As the hen reached the edge of the field, she made a minor course deviation. The hunters, attention fully fixed on the drama unfolding before them, all realized that if the tom continued following her, his course would take him just outside of shotgun range. They held their collective breath and willed the bird to choose a path to the decoys rather than chase after the hen.  Time stood still as the gobbler weighed his options: follow the silent aloof bird that had so far eluded him - or begin afresh with the two dainty ladies that clucked and yelped sweet nothings his direction? He chose the decoys!

 teenager with harvested turkey

The tom’s attention swung to the two hen decoys and he began to swagger closer. I leaned in to Landon and whispered, “Let him come closer – don’t shoot as long as he is still coming.”

The big bird broke out into a strut – fanning his iridescent tail feathers and dragging his wingtips along the ground to impress the newfound objects of his attention. Seeing no response from his new hen friends, he elected to drop his strut and wow them at closer range. I whispered, “Wait ‘til his head comes up and shoot him just below the beak when you’re ready.”

What seemed like about an hour later, young Landon conquered his jitters and slapped the 12 gauge’s trigger. Before the sound of the report even died away, the gobbler lay slumped on the ground. Father and son exchanged a “fist bump” and excited “congratulations” as Landon fought to control his trembling fingers.

The Davises made their way out of the blind and down to where the bird lay a scant 30 yards distant. The rich hues of the iridescent feathers morphed from deep bronze to black to shiny green as they examined and positioned their prize for pictures in the morning’s soft light. The tom was a heavy mature bird, sporting a beard that looked to be over eight inches long and spurs just under an inch. Landon tried to keep a serious face during the picture taking session, but his grin couldn’t be contained as he beamed at his trophy (left).

The Stalk

Knowing that it was unlikely that other turkeys would make an appearance so soon after the noisy activity and that the other gobbler was likely still strutting just across the creek where he had been all morning, Matt asked if it was possible to try to stalk closer to the strut area and attempt to bag a second bird. I agreed.

 father and son with harvests

Landon elected to take his bird to the truck - and the hunter and guide began the stalk, following a circuitous route to take advantage of the terrain to hide their approach. Despite a number of missteps and getting “busted” twice by the wary birds, Matt finally eased into ambush position near the oblivious flock. As he eased the final few feet around a plump juniper tree, a wary hen caught the motion. Predictably, the discovery of the hunter’s presence at a mere 20 yards sent the hens sprinting for cover. Knowing the gobbler would be bringing up the rear, Matt swung the shotgun to where he figured it would appear, and was rewarded with the sight of the tom in full sprint. He took the shot and the tom fell dead. This bird was even bigger than the previous tom – and sported a beard over nine inches long and sharp-pointed spurs that exceeded an inch and 3/8. A broad smile broke over the hunter’s face, as he smoothed the bird’s feathers for pictures. “I only wish Landon had been here,” he said.  And with a long pause, he added wistfully, “he’s a good kid.” (At right: Father and son wuth harvest)

A fellow named Jose Narosky once wrote, “[I]n war, there are no unwounded soldiers.” It was painfully obvious at that moment that the Patriot who was striding beside me with a boss gobbler slung over his shoulder was recalling the times he had spent in deployments away from family – and, at the same time, reveling in the time he had spent with his son that morning. Bittersweet memories newly formed. Watching his teenage son bag his first turkey – then wishing the boy had been alongside when the second bird was brought to bag. For me, that encapsulated the lot of those who serve.  

Not on this Hunt, But …

Regrettably, the second pair of hunters didn’t enjoy the smile of Lady Luck during their Balcones hunt. They experienced the sights and sounds, the struts and the gobbles, the early rising and the midday nap, the adrenaline rush that goes with birds close by, and the disappointment when the birds come no closer. David and Charlotte experienced the pursuit of turkeys, and bagged a trophy hunt if not a trophy gobbler. David asked to be invited back next year to serve as an “Alumni Cook” for the 2019 participants. I have a feeling he’ll be here.

Another Day

 father and daughter with harvests

Later, I got an email from David. He and Charlotte went hunting the following week on a private ranch and both got turkeys.  (At left: Father and daughter with harvest. Photo courtesy David Larson)                     

 

David Maple served as an Airborne Ranger Combat Engineer Captain with the 2nd Armored Division. Essayons!


Helping Fish Get By

Like many birds, some native fish are big-time travelers and they must migrate to complete their lifecycle — sometimes thousands of miles each year. 

Fish migration depends on free-flowing connected waterways that allow fish to reproduce, feed and escape predators. This migration is not as easy to observe as flocks of birds making their way south, but it is just as critical to the long-term sustainability of the world’s fish and other aquatic species.

Migration success has been inhibited as more and more infrastructure was built to divert water for other priorities.  Millions of dams and culverts have been built over the past 200 years, disrupting the flow of rivers and streams.

If these migratory waterways don’t support fish migration pathways critical for fish lifecycle needs, it could affect the ability for some species to survive.

Native species are part of America’s original heritage, ecologically important, neat to catch and good indicators of great water quality.

Fish Passage

Veazie Dam RemovalThe Veazie Dam in Maine is breached. Photo by Meagan Racey/USFWS

When fish populations decline because their migration is blocked, animals that share their habitat often struggle, too. That’s a big reason why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners work to remove stream barriers and improve fish passage.  Over the past 20 years the Service and more than 2,000 partners across America have been improving connectivity of waterways through fish passage projects that remove or modify barriers. The Service’s National Fish Passage Program has removed or bypassed 2,933 of the country’s estimated 6 million barriers, and reconnected more than 52,592 stream miles and 192,361 wetland acres.

These projects benefit people too, reducing flood risk, improving water quality and boosting access to fishing.

Connecting fish, rivers and people is the theme of World Fish Migration Day April 21; let's celebrate!

Four aquatic species helped by fish passage projects:

Atlantic Salmon

  person holds an Atlantic salmon Photo by USFWS

Atlantic salmon, once found widely in coastal rivers of the Northeast, are migrating champs. After spending a few years in the rivers where they are born, the young head to sea. After one or more years at sea, the fish return to their home rivers to spawn. Because of overfishing, pollution and river damming, fewer than 1,000 adult salmon are now making the journey home each year. The species is on the edge of extinction with the last wild populations of this endangered fish in the United States in the Gulf of Maine.

In 2017, thanks to the work of the Service and many partners, 849 salmon were counted that made it past two dam removal sites along Maine’s Penobscot River.

Projects like those on the Penobscot River, where the river system is open once again to Atlantic salmon runs, shows promise for the species to recover. 

Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout   

 Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout on ground  Photo by Craig Springer

Once common in Colorado and New Mexico, this brightly colored native trout now occupies only about 10 percent of its historic habitat. Small, remnant populations are isolated because of water withdrawals for agriculture, and because many culverts are too small or set too high for fish to migrate.

The Service is helping to identify where better fish passage is needed, and then working with partners like Trout Unlimited and others in the Western Native Trout Initiative, as well as private landowners. Making good conservation even trickier is the fact that Rio Grande cutthroats don’t compete well with the aggressive non-native brown and brook trout that may also occupy their habitat. Biologists must balance improved stream connectivity against increased contact with rival species.

Carolina Heelsplitter 

  2 MUSSELS AND SNAKE IN STREAM Photo by Jonathan Wardell/USFWS

Fish aren’t the only animals whose lives depend on stream connections. Freshwater mussels, the unsung champs of river filtration, can’t complete their strange lifecycles if their host fish can’t swim upstream, with mussel larvae attached. 

Take the colorfully named Carolina heelsplitter. Loss of habitat, pollution and dams have all led to heelsplitter’s sharp decline.

This is the most endangered species in South Carolina. Orangeburg National Fish Hatchery in South Carolina is working with multiple federal, state and private partners to boost the heelsplitter population.

In 2015, when the hatchery first started breeding them, there were estimated to be only 154 individuals left in the wild

The Service and partners recently released 300 endangered mussels into Gills Creek in the Catawba River basin. Now comes the hard part: waiting four to six years for mussels to mature to learn if the effort succeeded.  But just stocking rivers with mussels – or any species – is futile if you don’t reconnect waterways. 

Topeka shiner   school of shiners Photo by Bruce Hallman/USFWS

It’s not just big fish that need good passage. In the prairie streams of the Midwest, including Iowa and southwest Minnesota, the tiny Topeka shiner is struggling to hang on.

What’s hammered the rare minnow, in part: diverting and channelizing streams. Some oxbows (bends in the river) have been disconnected due to poor agricultural practices that go back to the 1800s.Endangered Topeka shiners use the oxbows to spawn, rear their young and overwinter. Without easy passage between oxbows and the river, they can’t meet their seasonal needs.

Service biologists are working in Windom Wetland Management District in Minnesota, alongside private landowners to reconnect oxbows and streams. Clearing or modifying dams and reconnecting oxbows is the first phase. The second is replacing misplaced or mis-sized culverts.

Since the work began on shiners in 2010, Service staff has seen their numbers improve where oxbow connectivity has been restored.

Thank You to Volunteers Everywhere

  man holfing a bird to his chest as he measures a leg Dr. James “Jim” Montgomery Jr. collects waterbird data. Photo by USFWS

Last year, we highlighted a group of “super volunteers” who had donated more than 10,000 hours to FWS and conservation.

Recently, we learned that one of those super volunteers had passed an incredible threshold.

Jim Montgomery has been volunteering at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico longer—since 1985—than any currently serving volunteer or staff member at Bitter Lake. In January, Jim passed the 25,000-volunteer-hour mark at Bitter Lake across his 33-year tenure (Related: 25,000 hours and still counting: A faithful volunteer at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge).

   Man holds binocuars at chestFrank McGilverey volunteers at Patuxent Research Refuge. Photo by USFWS

Meanwhile, former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Frank McGilverey, Patuxent Research Refuge's 2014 Volunteer of the Year, is another generous volunteer, having given more than 26,000 hours to Patuxent in Maryland. He continues to collect data that is helpful in determining wetland wildlife populations.

Just the other day, Frank ambled down to Cash Lake with his team to identify some birds in the distance that they could not quite make out. Even after his 60 to 70 years in the field, he still finds his work fascinating.

We are indebted to Jim, Frank and each one of our 42,000 volunteers, who contribute more than 1.5 million hours of work.

  wwoman with red-tailed hawk on arm Lena Chang, senior fish and wildlife biologist with Ecological Services in the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office in California and volunteer with the Ojai Raptor Center, works with Rosie the red-tailed hawk, a non-releasable education ambassador for the center. Photo by Tom Clancey, courtesy Lena Chang

As we celebrate National Volunteer Week, we also are highlighting our staff members who volunteer. Some started their career of service with the Peace Corps. Others perform a difficult job and then spend their time giving back to others.

Photo Gallery: FWS Employees who Volunteer

Story: Taking Care of Rabbits

From all of us, thank you to all volunteers everywhere.

In Memory of Sparky, the World’s Toughest Bison

Sparky the BisonSparky the bison at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Karen Viste-Sparkman/USFWS

We have some sad news from Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. Sparky, the bison that survived a lightning strike in 2013, died this week. Sparky was born at the National Bison Range in Montana and moved to Neal Smith when he was 2 years old. He spent 12 years roaming the Iowa prairie.

Sparky received international attention after surviving a lightning strike in July 2013. Although he was badly scarred for the rest of his life, he remained part of the social structure of the herd and became a symbol for the strength and endurance of his species. Wild bison typically have a lifespan of 15 years, so at 14, Sparky had a full life despite the lightning strike.

Sparky fathered three calves prior to the strike. He will be missed by his many fans. We invite you to join others and share your thoughts and memories of Sparky on Neal Smith’s Facebook page.

 Sparky the bison closeup  A portrait of Sparky in May 2016. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

Bringing Back Borneo’s Orangutans

  orangutan in tree Photo by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation

How Americans Like You Have Helped Make This Project Possible

Tiger StampProjects such as this one would not be possible without the funding generated from proceeds of sales of the “Save Vanishing Species Stamp,” also known as the “Tiger Stamp.” Through programs administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tiger Stamps have helped fund projects that benefit tigers, sea turtles, great apes, rhinos and elephants in 35 countries. Since 2011, purchases of stamps have generated more than $4.6 million in funding for international conservation projects. Learn more and purchase Tiger Stamps from the U.S. Postal Service. Thank you for your support!

Imagine being in the jungles of Borneo and looking up to see a human-sized nest balanced on a horizontal branch in the jungle canopy. The nest looks more like a mattress with inward bent branches woven together as a base, while leaves and twigs create a softer inner lining. Sitting within the nest, you notice an orange-furred great ape eating a ripe durian, a yellow fruit found in East Asia with a spiky exterior and foul odor. In this case, you would likely be looking at the Bornean orangutan.

Orangutans are highly intelligent apes. Studies have found that groups of orangutans exhibit distinct and unique cultures in which older apes will typically teach younger apes behaviors, such as how to make umbrella-like structures, through social and observational learning. Orangutans are also similar to humans in their genetic code and have been described as one of our closest animal relatives.

Orangutans, though, and the Bornean orangutan in particular, are under threat due to habitat destruction. Land conversion, typically for palm oil plantations, destroy the lush forests orangutans depend on for safety and food. Wildfires are also destroying habitat. Additionally, illegal hunting and trafficking have contributed to the decline of the slow-reproducing orangutan. According to a study published in the journal Current Biology, more than 100,000 orangutans died between 1999 and 2015 due to habitat loss. Since their population has decreased by 25 percent in the last 10 years, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List™ changed the classification of Borneo orangutans to critically endangered.

   orangutan looks out vehicle window at forestAn orangutan that has been rescued on the final leg of his journey back to Borneo. Photo by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation

The orangutans can be rescued ... but then what?

Although managing the issue of habitat loss has been difficult, officials have had some success with addressing threats from trafficking. Captive orangutans, a majority of which are under 7 years old, are sometimes confiscated from illegal operations. Many of these rescued orangutans have suffered both physical and psychological damages including feelings of isolation. After rescue, an orangutan is evaluated to determine if it is healthy enough to be released back into the wild or if its injuries necessitate a period of rehabilitation at a facility. If placed into a rehabilitation facility, the orangutan is able to recuperate while data is gathered and analyzed about its behavior.

 2 men in surgical masks opening a box and release orangutan in forest  A rescued orangutan is reintroduced into the wild. Photo by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation

The ultimate goal of many facilities is to reintroduce the orangutans into the wild once they recover. For orangutan conservation efforts, reintroduction is crucial because it helps re-establish populations in areas where the population has either disappeared or is too small to sustain itself. Recently, reintroduction has come to the forefront of Indonesia’s National Strategy and Action Plan for Indonesian Orangutan Conservation 2007-2017. The plan emphasizes the need to stabilize wild orangutan populations, in particular through orangutan reintroduction. 

   orangutan baby on mother's lap

One organization in particular has demonstrated its commitment to the conservation of orangutans and their habitat: the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF). From 2013 to 2015, BOSF began a reintroduction initiative in three districts of East Kalimantan in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service International Affairs Program. The effort focused on the reintroduction of 27 formerly captive orangutans that had either lost their habitat or were rescued from cages. Although some of the reintroduced orangutans experienced difficulties in re-adapting to the conditions present in the wild, many were able to live a fully independent life 12 months following their release. In some cases, a recently released orangutan observed the behaviors of a previously released orangutan and acquired the necessary survival skills that way.

Contributing to the general success rate of the program, a female orangutan, gave birth to a baby female orangutan in July 2015. The baby was born in the wild, which indicates that the reintroduced orangutans are able to survive and reproduce once they are released. Photo at left by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation

 

Through their two rescue centers, BOSF has helped more than 680 orangutans recover. They declared 2017 as the “year of orangutan freedom.” Without their efforts, many of the rescued orangutans would have likely died in poor conditions or been killed. While BOSF’s work and that of similar programs is helping to save the imperiled wild Borneo orangutan population from extinction, the overarching process of recovery of Borneo’s orangutans is far from complete. Reintroduction efforts need to continue, and long-term protections have to be established for the orangutans and their habitat in order to create a self-sustaining wild orangutan population. Proceeds from the Tiger Stamp are making this possible.

 

By Deborah Kornblut, intern with the International Affairs Program.

A Wolverine’s 15 Minutes of Fame

   wolverine close-up Photo by Daniel Brachlow

High altitudes. Lots of trees. Deep snow. Frozen animal carcasses. No people.

These are a few of a wolverine’s favorite things. 

And for one particular wolverine in Wyoming, being on camera rounds out the list. 

snow-covered mountains   Wolverine habitat in Wyoming near where our video footage was captured. Photo by Mike Mazur/USFWS

The Wind River Reservation in Wyoming is an astoundingly beautiful place that provides the right habitat conditions for the wolverine, as well as its favorite prey species like elk, moose and mule deer. 

Working with local tribes and partners, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists selected the reservation to conduct studies of the snow-dwelling species. These studies are part of a larger collaborative effort to determine where wolverines are found in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington.

The Setup

When studying wolverines, the first and perhaps most difficult step is to find one of the elusive creatures. So the biologists devised a plan:

  1. Find a cold, isolated spot high in the mountains that is suitable for wolverines but not other species, like scavenging birds.
  2. Hang a deer carcass in a tree, and hang it high enough that it won’t get buried in snow. 
  3. Set up a trail camera nearby.
  4. Wait for wolverines.

“The camera site was located at an altitude of 11,000 feet, near the convergence of the Absaroka and Owl Creek Mountains and in the heart of big horn sheep, moose and elk wintering range,” recalls Mike Mazur, one of the biologists working on the project. “It’s a great place for hungry scavengers.”

   person looks around snow covered mountain with binocularsBiologist Pat Hnilicka scopes out a location for the wolverine camera. Photo by Mike Mazur/USFWS

Here, high in the mountains in the dead of winter, the wind blows at speeds of 30 mph on a calm day.

“We tucked the camera in a thicket of trees. There was already three feet of hard-packed snow on the trees when the camera was set up, and the deer carcass was suspended another six to eight feet up the tree in the hopes of keeping it above the snow,” says Mazur. “We had to remember to park our 4-wheelers facing downwind so they didn’t freeze up.”

They couldn’t have anticipated that the wolverine who would wander into their setup would put on such a show.

Showtime

The following videos are the first time a wolverine has been captured on camera on the Wind River Reservation.

This clip shows the wolverine discovering the carcass just after 10:00 a.m. on March 11, 2017. It’s exhibiting some pretty standard behavior:

All video is public domain footage courtesy USFWS and the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho nations.

However, in the next clip, the wolverine does something unusual: it sees the trail camera, sniffs and adjusts it!

Why would a wolverine notice a camera and behave that way?

According to biologist Pat Hnilicka, it’s all in their nature.

“As scavengers and hunters always looking for their next meal, wolverines are naturally curious and likely to check out novel things, like an unfamiliar camera hanging from a tree,” Hnilicka says.

Our final clip shows the same wolverine returning later in the day for dinner. It puts on a good show, climbing with dexterity and gnawing fiercely. When it’s done, the wolverine rolls like a furry snowball down the hill:

This footage from last season has wildlife officials inspired for 2018.

“Knowing that there are still some wolverines on the reservation has both councils and a lot of enrolled members from both tribes excited,” says Arthur Lawson, Director of Fish and Game for the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. “ I hope we can further the study on the Wind River Reservation and gain more knowledge about the wolverines in our range.”

This year, Hnilicka, Mazur, Lawson and others will establish three new camera stations. Their goal is to increase the number of observations of wolverines on the Wind River Reservation and to see some new faces on camera.

“We’re convinced there are more wolverines than the one individual we’ve detected so far,” says Hnilicka. “We want to observe them and obtain hair for use in genetic sampling.”

Healthy landscapes, like the alpine forests on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, ensure that wildlife like the wolverine can survive, and partnerships allow curious wildlife biologists to learn ever more about equally curious species. 

“We greatly appreciate the tribes’ willingness to allow us to help conserve their magnificent landscape and the abundant fish and wildlife that reside there,” says Hnilicka. “We’re looking forward to another exciting year!”


To learn more about the wolverine, visit our wolverine website. To obtain these and more wolverine trail cam clips, email the author.

By Jennifer Strickland, a Public Affairs Specialist with FWS in Lakewood, Colorado.

‘Sustained Conservation Begins and Ends with Kindness’

 FWO with man in bed covered witth fleece
Refuge Federal Wildlife Officer Michael Whitney of Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge gave Elder Pius Sipray one of the blankets made by Alaska Law Enforcement Chief Jim Hjelmgren’s sister. Photo by Elder House  

“Positivity.”

You don’t have to talk to Alaska Refuge Law Enforcement Chief Jim Hjelmgren very long before you hear the word — several times, in fact — when he talks about the relationship between Alaska Natives and the 13 full-time Federal Wildlife Officers (FWOs) who work “in the woods and on the rivers” to protect natural resources across 77 million acres within 16 national wildlife refuges in the state. The law enforcement contingent in Alaska also includes two zone officers.

“Positivity” wasn’t always the byword for Refuge Law Enforcement in Alaska. “About six years ago, our philosophy changed dramatically,” says Hjelmgren, who has held his position since October 2007. Contacts with the local community then were often confrontational: boat chases, protests, sometimes threats against officers in communities where hunting and fishing mean putting fish and meat onto drying racks and into smokehouses for months of way-below-zero weather.

“It was dangerous for both sides,” recalls Hjelmgren, who has worked in natural resource law enforcement since 1987. “The only time we would show up in a village is when we had a problem.” 

The turning point came in 2013, a difficult fishing year when the State of Alaska and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to severely restrict fishing based on biological assessments of Chinook salmon runs. In many remote locations across the state, about 70 percent of Alaska Native people’s diet is fish.

“We were asking folks to wait weeks before they could fish. They watched the prime time for drying their fish pass,” said Hjelmgren. “It turned into a ‘no fishing opportunity’ for extended periods, and people had experienced that pre-season assessments sometimes don’t pan out.”

The law enforcement response?

“We showed up on the beach and in villages in full duty gear as a show that we are wide open, that we are here to listen,” recalls Hjelmgren. “There was lots of anger, lots of anger. We let it go. ‘We’re here to listen and to help,’ we told the villages.” Not long later, the outreach programs began.

FWO Kelly Modla of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge organized the Service’s first Federal Wildlife Officer Camp in Alaska in 2014: 45 kids, grades 4-6, enrolled for two days of archery, air rifle instruction, wildlife forensics, search and rescue demonstrations to show how an officer can find a lost hiker, and wildlife identification. “Teach an officer to teach archery to kids, and it’s complete magic,” says Hjelmgren.  

 officer bending down to help child shoot an air rifle  Refuge Federal Wildlife Officer Steve Steinger of the Northeast Region taught youngsters all about air rifles during an archery camp at Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS

The programming grew. Today during fishing season, at least one patrol boat is used to go into villages to bring archery, air rifle and boating safety instruction. “We bring positivity to the villages. Over a two-week period, we have a dozen to 20 mini-camps in villages, and the people love it. It’s an out-of-the-park hit.” FWOs work with several hundred villages across Alaska, some as small as a handful of residents.

FWOs have been trained to understand how cultural difference play out in interviews when an incident occurs. “We teach our officers that Alaskan Native people respond differently than people from other cultures. A world-renowned expert on Native culture helped produce a training video.”

More law enforcement outreach programs are coming, including nutrition and one to combat domestic violence. But the impact of relationship building is already clear.   

female  officer helps child shoot a bowRefuge Federal Wildlife Officer Kelly Modla gives one campers special instruction on archery. “Teach an officer to teach archery to kids, and it’s complete magic,” says Alaska Refuge Law Enforcement Chief Jim Hjelmgren. Photo by USFWS

Two years ago, the opportunity to fish again became an issue. One village planned to protest. This time, Hjelmgren had advance notice and the chance to meet with the Tribal Council. “After our conversation, after I assured them that when the biology says it is OK, they will have the opportunity to fish.” When it came time to decide on the protest, every Tribal Council member voted to delay.

“The same tribal leadership that wouldn’t talk to us five or six years ago, now invite us into their villages,” says Hjelmgren. “We spend time with their kids. As big government, we have to learn how to be neighborly. I always says, it’s like a Seinfeld episode (on TV), we just talk to them about nothing. … We learn things from them that you will never read in a book.”

Enter Hjelmgren’s sister act.

“When I went home last summer, I asked my family if they would help make some polar fleece scarfs and hats for the kids and elders in bush Alaska who may be in need of a long lost smile. I came back to Alaska with a bounty of 30 hand-made, polar fleece hats and scarfs,” Hjelmgren smiles.

A few months later, he got a text from his sister, a delivery room nurse in his home state of Minnesota, who said she had made 120 blankets to give the elders and youth. “I thought it was a typo and she meant 12 blankets. ‘No, she said, 120.’”

When Hjelmgren opened the packages, they contained more than 200 blankets. His first stop was the Elder House in Bethel.

“True conservation, sustained conservation, begins and ends with kindness, empathy and trust,” says Hjelmgren. “You have to give positivity.”

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