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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Sorority Embraces Environmental Stewardship at Kansas Wildlife Refuge

  group shot Zeta Days at Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Monica Green/Zeta Phi Beta

National wildlife refuges across the country are often in full bloom in spring, almost as if nature is pulling out all its stops to attract newcomers. Each spring, refuges welcome leading African American sorority Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., a national partner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and friends for Zeta Days at the Refuge. This joint initiative promotes outdoor recreation and environmental education among Zeta members, including those not familiar with all nature and public lands have to offer. During African American History Month, we revisit last year’s Zeta Days event at Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge in Pleasanton, Kansas.

 

On May 20, sorority sisters and their guests went “wild” at Marais des Cygnes.

Refuge staff provided a warm welcome to a new audience: Zeta’s Kansas City chapter (Alpha Epsilon Zeta), which visited for a special day of family friendly fun exploring the refuge’s more than 7,300 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, shrubland, tallgrass prairie and wetland habitats.

 girl in pink with big smile  Serenity Coleman planting milkweed for monarch butterflies. Photo by Patrick D. Martin/USFWS

An ominous storm was originally forecast, but early rain clouds parted to provide a clear, cool day for Zeta visitors. The event started with a short historical overview of the refuge and the FWS conservation mission. A heart-healthy walk along 2.25 miles of trails then brought the outdoors to life, connecting active lifestyles with adventures on public lands. A service project planting nearly 100 milkweed plants for monarch butterflies further immersed guests within the refuge’s restorative natural settings, including native prairies, surrounded by other wildflowers and fauna.

Refuge manager Patrick D. Martin highlighted native plants and animals throughout the day, while Federal Wildlife Officer Joseph Ferrero helped lead lively discussions about hunting, environmental stewardship and personal values. Recent rains provided ample opportunity to observe aquatic wildlife, including insects and amphibians, near the refuge’s riverbanks and along lush green trails. All the while, our guests enjoyed snapping photos of the scenery, wildlife and each other, making memories that will last long after their visit and remind them to return again soon.

Helen Beteet, lead Zeta Phi Beta organizer for the event, had a blast. “This experience was unique in that I felt part of a national effort to get involved in our community through exploration and appreciation of our national resources. It was both a physical and intellectual experience that was enjoyable by all ages,” she said. Beteet has been a member Zeta Phi Beta since 1979, when she was a student at Kansas University. She currently works with the organization’s youth programs, which teaches girls as young as 4 years old life skills, such as counting money and investigating science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

A former Girl Scout and Camp Fire Girl herself, Beteet is no stranger to the woods. She was, however, a newcomer to the National Wildlife Refuge System, although she’s previously enjoyed state and national parks. “It was an eye-opener,” Beteet explained. Now that she’s aware of refuges, she hopes to spread the word. “I would like to just promote it more--that this is something that’s out there, that’s part of Kansas,” Beteet continued. “I mean these [refuges] are all over the country. I told my husband, ‘When we take a vacation, we’re going to see if there’s a wildlife reserve anywhere around and we’re gonna go visit.’”

Fortunately, Beteet’s husband and family friends shared similar sentiments during the Zeta event. “I don’t think it will be difficult getting them to come back,” she said.

   FWS member and girl sit at edge of waterRefuge manager Patrick D. Martin and 6-year-old Serenity Coleman search for tadpoles. Photo by Helen Beteet/Zeta Phi Beta; 

The event also introduced several youth to outdoor recreation and conservation careers. Butterflies, tadpoles and cottonwoods--the Kansas state tree--were some of the highlights for 6-year-old Serenity Coleman. “I want to learn about ecosystems,” she said after the event, explaining that she enjoys discovering how plants and animals grow and interact with each other. “Maybe my mom will give me a frog,” Serenity cheerfully added. She hopes to volunteer at the refuge again and wants to bring her friends to plant more milkweed.

Sasha Thompkins, Serenity’s mother, was impressed by all that her young daughter learned at the refuge. “She has me interested in visiting because she was so excited when she came home,” Thompkins explained. “She just couldn’t stop talking about the things that she did,” Thompkins said. “I have to go back and we’ll have to take the whole family this time.”

 clump of fungi
Orange fungi by budding nature photographer Andres Molina.   

Beteet would like to learn more about fish and other wildlife next time, and plans to visit additional refuges in Kansas, including Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge. “There really is so much to see and to learn,” she said. “It was very peaceful to me,” Beteet continued. “We could bring a group of people--no matter what their interest was in the outdoors--and they could be comfortable.”

Indeed, Beteet hoped to take youth to local refuges at least twice year. “The time went by so fast. We could have easily stayed longer,” she said of her visit to Marais des Cygnes.

Beteet was optimistic these wild adventures would inspire the next generation of conservationists. “Hopefully one of the kids that attended on this visit (and future kids) will consider being a part of the Fish and Wildlife Refuge as a career option,” she explained. “One of our youth took amazing nature photos of Marais des Cygnes. He's interested in biology as well, so who knows, we may have a future refuge photographer!”

This year Zeta Days at the Refuge takes place during the entire month of May.  

Michael D’Agostino, External Affairs, Mountain-Prairie Region

Anna Comstock: A Force of Nature

 boy in baseball cap looks at dragonfly in a plastic jar while adult looks on  A child inspects a dragonfly he caught before sketching it in a nature notebook at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. The outdoor nature study championed by Anna Comstock continues today on refuges. Photo by USFWS

She may be the greatest nature enthusiast and illustrator you’ve never heard of.

American conservationist and nature study artist Anna Comstock was a trailblazer. Beginning in the mid- to late 19th century, she cultivated children’s love of the outdoors to awaken in them a passion for science and nature.

   spider drawingAnna Comstock included this detailed drawing of a spider in the 1901 book “Insect Life: An Introduction to Nature Study and a Guide for Teachers, Students and Others Interested in Out-of-Door Life,” which she wrote with her husband — entomologist and arachnologist John Henry Comstock. Courtesy Cornell University Library

Comstock’s efforts helped fuel the spread of the Nature Study Movement — a back to nature fervor that reached from coast to coast beginning in the 1890s.

Today, national wildlife refuges help keep alive the outdoor learning tradition that Comstock began. See some examples in our photo essay of artist Anna Comstock .

Look for a new online story about your national wildlife refuges regularly on the Refuge System home page.

 

Sandra Hodala and Ashley Suarez-Burgos, National Wildlife Refuge System communications

Roosevelt’s Game Preserve -- Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

 bull elk in a forest Bull elk at Wichita Mountains Refuge. Photo by W. Munsterman

Once barren of elk, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge now affords once-in-a-lifetime hunting opportunity.

To a mountain range, time ticks by unnoticed.  The Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma stand steadfast, rising up like an island in a sea of prairie.   These are old mountains—older than the mind can comprehend.  Five-hundred million years, so say geologists.  Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge conserves a parcel of the mountains, some 59,000 acres, and all its wild residents. 

 yellow flowers infront of boulders  Wildflowers abound on the bouldery slopes at Wichita Mountains Refuge. Photo by E. Smith

Granite, quartzite and sandstone lie atop of the craggy mountains, worn smooth by wind and rain and time. Oak and cedar stud the mountainsides and the ravines etched into the slopes.  The land plays out in a soft immensity that belies the bouldered soil.  Native sod is a stubborn thing, but this dirt was spared the plow because the earth’s basement is too close to the surface. You’ll know it walking overland. It’s rough going. 

 yellow wildflowers on landscape  Wildflowers at Wichita Mountains Refuge. Photo by N Axelsen

That native soil abounds in native plants than reproduce unfettered, save for drought. That fact becomes self-evident when the spring rains awaken a profusion of flora. Come April, herds of gravid cow elk will drop their calves to be met with a medley of wildflowers that color the land like glass in a church window.

Elk belong here—as much as white-tailed deer and bison and a litany of songbirds that arrive from the south to nest and leave when the earth wobbles back toward the autumn season.  Autumn yields to winter and a season of another kind starts.  A robust population of elk allows hunters an once-in-a-lifetime chance to hunt this largest of big game.  

Wildlife biologists keep tabs on the elk herds and the refuge land they inhabit. Elk numbers naturally fluctuate; this is known because at least every two years U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists fly in helicopters on established routes over the refuge to count the herds. Flying the same routes at the same time over a span of years reveals the number of animals on the ground, and how many can be harvested by hunters to maintain a healthy herd.  

   hunter with elk

This last elk season in December 2017 and January 2018, 178 hunters, like Garret Colwell at left,  harvested 137 elk from a total population numbering near 1,400 animals. Knowing bull-to-cow ratios informs how many licenses are available each season. Hunting licenses are chosen by lottery, administered by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.  

The success rate is high for hunters; over the long term, approximately 67 percent of hunters take an elk, well above typical harvest rates most anywhere.

Hunting is an important habitat management tool. And hunters take home the ultimate in natural, nutritious, free-range organic meat.

Wherever the trend in the number of elk goes on the refuge in the future, one must remember that it effectively started at zero. No elk. Unregulated commercial and subsistence harvest eliminated the animal from the Wichita Mountains and the present-day refuge by 1875.  In 1901, President McKinley declared much of the mountains the “Wichita Forest Reserve.”

black capped vireo in nest
A black capped vireo nests at Wichita Mountains Refuge. The refuge has been important to the recovery of this endangered bird. Photo by L. Hancock  

In 1905, the spectacled conservationist-in-chief, President Teddy Roosevelt, authored the book, Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter and he wrote a decree that set the mountains on a different course: “…it appears desirable that the entire Wichita Forest Reserve be declared a Game Preserve,” Roosevelt penned in Presidential Proclamation 563. He further stated that the lands “…shall be recognized as a breeding place therefor, and that the hunting, trapping, killing or capturing of game animals and birds upon the lands of the United States within the limits of said area is unlawful, except under such regulations as may be prescribed from time to time...”

Today, science guides modern-day regulations for harvest. But it took quite some time to get there. Elk were reintroduced to the refuge in 1908—a single bull from a zoo in Wichita, Kansas. The remaining seed stock of 16 animals, cows and bulls, came from Jackson, Wyoming in 1911 and 1912.  But 1969 marked the year that the herd could confidently withstand hunter harvest.

sky of orange and blue over tree   Sunset’s afterglow starts to burn in the sky over the mixed grass prairie at Wichita Mountains Refuge. Photo by R. West

The fact that elk can be harvested where slightly more than a century ago there were none stands as a testament to scientific wildlife management. Though time ticks on unnoticed by a mountain range, it is a place not forgotten. Its splendor and its wild residents will consume your senses and remind you that you are alive.

Craig Springer, External Affairs, Southwest Region 

First Deer Hunt at Buffalo Lake Wildlife Refuge

  youth in hunter orange with gun on tripod

By Al Barrus

After extensive population surveying, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists at Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge opened the refuge to two youth hunters selected through a lottery. One of the hunters, 14-year-old Gavin Paschall (pictured) of Fort Worth, Texas, successfully harvested a mule deer at the northern Texas panhandle refuge Dec. 2.

Hunting is not available at all national wildlife refuges, but we are expanding hunting opportunities at refuges when compatible with wildlife management goals. Before deer hunting could be allowed at Buffalo Lake, biologists observed deer populations to assess stability. Hunting is a tool for wildland managers to balance game populations.  

“Working very close with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, our sister state agency, I began going on spotlight surveys and assisting them on data collection,” said Buffalo Lake Refuge Manager Jude Smith. “From these surveys, I determined that two deer should be harvested. And that the first hunt should be for youth.”

Hunting has roots for most human civilization. One of the most valuable things hunters bring to non-hunters is lobbying for the expansion of public lands. Hunting gear is taxed federally, and those funds go to conservation efforts that benefit both hunters and non-hunters. The practice of hunting encourages future generations to value public wildlands, wildlife and other nature conservation values.

  father and son hunter in hunter orange with harvest

“Hunting with my son means a great deal to me,” said Gavin’s father Shawn Paschall (pictured with Gavin). Shawn is a criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth.

“Not only do we get the benefit of spending time together and creating lifelong memories, it also provides an incredible teaching opportunity,” Shawn said. “Hunting is not easy. It takes preparation, planning, effort and discipline. It is important to me to hunt in an ethical manner. I try to instill in him that second to safety, the humane taking of game is the goal. That means training with the firearm to ensure a humane kill and recovery of the game, exercising discipline not to take low percentage shots that might wound, preparing for the hunt by studying the geography and our quarry, taking care to preserve the meat for consumption, following all the laws all the time no matter if someone is watching or not.”

Hunting is a wildlife management tool for wildland managers, as state game and fish agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seek to keep delicate ecosystems in balance.

“There have been several examples of when deer and elk populations exploded, and they basically ate themselves out of habitat, then the populations dropped off because there wasn’t enough food,” said Dr. Gary Roemer,  a professor of wildlife ecology at New Mexico State University.

Opening even a limited hunting opportunity at Buffalo Lake is a highly appreciated addition to a state where less than 1 percent of the landmass is public. Making hunting more accessisble means turning more people on to wildland conservation values.

“A big issue is that in Texas there is very little public land and a lot of hunters or potential hunters,” said Jude Smith. “Most of these hunters have relatively few places to hunt, and have to either acquire a lease to hunt on private land, which can be expensive, or to hunt on public land in other nearby states such as New Mexico or Colorado, which can also be expensive.”

Legal hunting on a grand scale adds value to wildland conservation throughout the country, an advantage for both hunters and non-hunters alike.

“The money spent by hunters in the form of excise taxes on ammunition and other gear goes to the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The money then goes back to the state game and fish agencies to manage hunted populations” Dr. Roemer said.

“Non-hunters should know hunters are a great advocates for the preservation of wild lands: they are vociferous about maintaining healthy ,landscapes which can support healthy wildlife populations because they not only love to hunt, but they love to just go out outdoors,” said Roemer.

 

Al Barrus, External Affairs Southwest Region

Public Lands are the Perfect Backdrop to a Great Love Story

Last year's video

The Department of the Interior is getting ready for its annual Valentine’s Day video and needs your help. Send your videos and photos of your weddings, proposals and special moments with your significant other in national parks, national wildlife refuges and other public lands to newmedia@ios.doi.gov. Please remove watermarks, list the location and submit videos and photos no later than Monday, February 5, for a chance to be in the always special Valentine’s Day video.

Student Placement: ‘I want to do this forever’

two women, one holding alligatorStudent Conservation Association intern Taylor Franklin, left, and Texas A&M intern Marissa Ortega hold a young alligator at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast.  Photo by Jena Moon/USFWS

Student internships and volunteer opportunities on national wildlife refuges can change lives.

Just ask Emarie Ayala-Diaz.

She got her first taste of refuge conservation as a Career Discovery Internship Program intern at Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Maine in 2009. “That experience was amazing,” she says. “I really loved it. I was, like, I want to do this forever.”

Now she’s a refuge biologist at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.

At Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, wildlife refuge specialist Alfredo Soto can relate. He first came to the refuge as a student intern with a different program in 2012.

“I found more than a home with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” he says. “I found family — and most importantly, a purpose.”

woman in red coat and cowboy hat standing kneedeep in pond holding a long metal poleWilderness Fellow Alicia Thomas installs a swim-in trap to capture ducks for banding at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. Photo by Traver Detras

A photo essay from the National Wildlife Refuge System looks at some of the many student internships and volunteer opportunities available on national wildlife refuges.

 Look for a new online story about your national wildlife refuges regularly on the Refuge System home page.

 

 

Susan Morse, National Wildlife Refuge System communications

Wishes Come True at ‘Ding’ Darling Refuge

 girl in hat and boy in sunglasses raise right hands facing 2 FWS workers  Ayana and her little brother are sworn in at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society

The staff at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida were honored last year to swear in children as refuge managers for the day, and we sure hope it becomes a trend.

Two children, critically ill, wanted to visit the beach and see wildlife, and through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the refuge and community worked together to make the wishes become reality -- one family in June and another in November.

“We definitely get just as much from these wishes as the family does,” says Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland. “We are grateful to do it.”

Westland calls the Make-A-Nature-Wish day “a full day of wildlife surprises,” and it starts at 9 a.m. with the swearing-in of the children (siblings get to be deputies).

 girl in hat and boy in sunglasses with father talk to 2 FWS workers  Ayana was the first child to take advantage of the refuge’s Make-A-Nature-Wish. Photo by “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society

Packed into the day are photos with Puddles the Blue Goose, mascot of the National Wildlife Refuge System; gifts from the local Friends group; ranger-led tours and crafts; an up-close educational experience with native wildlife; a custom lunch provided by a local restaurant; and a boat tour by the refuge’s concessionaire.

“It's always a great day,” Westland says. “It's filled with surprises and lifelong memories for the staff and the whole family.”

Make-A-Wish says on its website: “Whatever the odds, whatever the obstacles ... wishes find a way to make the world better.” It sounds like they have at Ding Darling.

Partners Restore Utah’s Otter Creek

 healthy creek  A portion of the project area after stream restoration and grazing management. Photo by USFWS

Utah is the second driest state in the nation with wet habitat making up less than 1 percent of the landscape, especially across Utah’s sagebrush sea, a habitat vital to the greater sage-grouse and many other species. Water can mean life in the West, and wet areas in the sagebrush steppe are disproportionality important to the landscape. But, although Utah is predominately public land, these are mostly privately owned. Understanding this, conservation partners are working with landowners across the sagebrush landscape to restore and enhance these wet areas for wildlife and communities alike that rely on them to water crops, livestock, and boost economies through recreation.

 4 people working in and near a stream  Partners work with the landowners to plant willows to line the stream.  Willows once lined the stream and will provide bird habitat, beaver forage and building material, and shade the stream to decrease water temperature for fish. Photo by USFWS

In Piute County, Utah, one family decided to collaborate with local conservation partners to improve conditions for livestock and wildlife. For most of the decade, the landowners have worked with the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the Utah Division of Wildlife, Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and Utah Department of Agriculture and Food Grazing Improvement Program.

 before and after shots of one area of creek  One area of the project: in September 2010 (left) and in August 2017.  Photos by USFWS

Several generations of the family have grown up around the Otter Creek property and have a strong connection to the landscape. The property serves the family as a place to get away, connect with the outdoors, teach the next generation the principle of work, and feed livestock.

man in stream as bulldozer digs   Work begins on rebuilding floodplain terraces and bankfull benches. Photo by USFWS

On the property Otter Creek meanders through a valley bottom with adjacent wet meadows and then moves up a slope into sagebrush/grass communities. Since 2010, partners have been working with the landowners to improve upland, wetland, and river habitat, and grazing opportunities. On the river, the team worked to rebuild banks, floodplain terraces, bankfull benches and floodplain connectivity. They then moved onto planting and seeding of native riparian vegetation including missing woody vegetation such as willows and sumac.

mchine lifting tree into stream   Adding a tree trunk for habitat diversity in-stream. Photo by USFWS

Tree trunks were put in-stream to create fish and macroinvertebrate habitat. Riparian pasture fencing was installed to provide future grazing management to those plant communities separate from the uplands. A hardened crossing was installed to give livestock access to water and other pastures on the property. In the uplands, seeding and targeted thinning of rabbitbrush and sagebrush were done to increase herbaceous vegetation for grazing and wildlife.

creek runs past fence   A hardened crossing provides the landowners a way to access other parts of the property as well as livestock access to water and access to other pastures. Photo by USFWS

The financial burden for the project has been shared by all partners, including the landowners and could not have been done singlehandedly. The landowners have spent money out of their own pocket and spent countless hours building fence, and planting and seeding.

  beaver dam In 2017, beavers started building dams on the property. Beaver dams have been absent for decades. These dams will help reconnect floodplain habitat, wetlands, increase water table and water storage, as well as add diversity to in-stream habitat. Photo by USFWS

As we start the eighth year of the project it’s satisfying to see how the wildlife, and the landowners’ family, is responding to the project. The landowners now have a house trailer and small structure on the property with beds and a fireplace to spend weekends and holidays together enjoying the fruits of their labor. Wildlife visitation is increasing as well. Sage-grouse with GPS trackers are confirming their affinity for the project site, more waterfowl broods being seen, herons fishing, big game browsing, pollinators buzzing about from flower to flower in the wet meadows, more songbird singing, and a colony of beavers building dams.

Casting a wide net to bring in a variety partners helps address needs in all habitat types, the landowners’ farm or ranch operation, and wherever else there may be a resource need. Working like this can increase innovation and the probability of a sustainable and successful project.

 

By Clint Wirick, Wildlife Biologist, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program

Rivers: America’s Lifeblood

moose standing in riverA bull moose crosses a side channel of the Green River at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. The Green River is a major tributary of the Colorado River, which fuels economies downriver. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS

How do rivers sustain you?  In many vital ways, even if you live far from one.

How could that be? It’s a timely question on the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, which protects more than 12,000 miles of our nation’s rivers. Some of these are on national wildlife refuges.

For a glimpse of why rivers — all rivers — matter, join our visual refuge tour.

twisty river with lots of green on banksAn aerial photo shows the twists and turns of the Selawik River in Alaska’s Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Steve Hillebrand/USFWS

A photo essay from the National Wildlife Refuge System looks at the many spheres of life that depend on rivers. These critical areas of life include food, transportation, commerce and recreation.

 Look for a new online story about your national wildlife refuges regularly on the Refuge System home page.

 

Fisheries People Needn't Fish for Compliments; They're Great!

Meet Your Fish and Wildlife Service

Fisheries people are unique and awesome individuals.

man with microphone interviewing man in FWS uniform on a boatJim Smith is interviewed by NPR’s Richard Rodriguez at the base of the Red Bluff Diversion Dam. Photo by Steve Martarano/USFWS

Jim Smith, project leader for the Red Bluff Fish and Wildlife Office, left Humboldt State University more than 40 years ago with a Bachelor of Science in Fisheries but shows no indication of wanting to slow down.  

The people he has had the pleasure to work with over the years keep him going. And then there’s the fish.

“The fish will fool you,” he likes to say, and Jim Smith likes deciphering that fish puzzle.

woman writes on clipboard in front o stream, while someone roots through crateWhile bearded, hatted men are common, more women are joining the ranks. Photo by Katrina Liebich/USFWS

The deadline for the seasonal fisheries technician positions has passed, but read this if you want a good look at what fish biologists in Alaska do. Like Jim, it’s the people and the challenges.

In Alaska, you also have, as one biologist says, “The opportunity to work in spectacular, pristine, remote locations that very few people ever have the opportunity to visit.”

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