Facebook icon Twitter icon Flicker icon You Tube icon

Open Spaces

A Talk on the Wild Side.

What’s a Pollinator Ambassador and Why We Need One

   monarchThe monarch butterfly is an ambassador to broaden our support for conservation actions across North America. Photo by Jim Hudgins/USFWS

It’s the end of the migration season for monarch butterflies, and the nation has been keen to aid them on their journey.

The annual monarch migration is becoming a community event. In Minneapolis, conservationists organized educational – but festive – butterfly send-offs. And from Philadelphia to Texas, residents are collecting and planting milkweed and other native nectar plants so winged travelers can survive their journey.

But many pollinators lack the cultural charisma that has made the monarch so popular with humans– you’re unlikely to find any pollen wasp festivals. This is why we are using the butterfly’s star-power to help those often-forgotten insects, even if it draws some attention away from monarchs.

Humans have related to monarchs for centuries. Many Latinos believe the monarchs are the returning spirits of their deceased relatives, arriving in Mexico at the same time each year, coinciding with the Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead.

In Japan, butterflies represent young women who find marital bliss. This is why many family crests have a butterfly in its design. Several Native American tribes believe that if you have a secret wish you must capture a butterfly, whisper your desire into its antenna and release, allowing the butterfly to find the great spirit to grant your wish.

Our next generation is required to learn about the evolution in living systems. Educators rely on readily accessible, practical science to instruct their students. Here lies the monarch butterfly- with its historical abundance across the entire country, simplicity of collecting and rearing, swift life cycle and the capability to return them to the wild.

People constantly look for connections – patterns on a butterfly wing, metamorphosis as a symbol of rebirth. We when find them, a bond tends to form. Monarch’s characteristics make them captivating. They flutter instead of buzz, they are a non-stinging insect and they parade in vibrant colors. Their charisma is able to inspire universal support, making the monarch butterfly an undeniable ambassador for all pollinators.

“This is a great opportunity to engage people around a charismatic animal. Helping the monarch butterfly plays an important role in protecting other pollinators and broadens our reach to support conservation actions across North America,” says Tom Melius, Midwest Regional Director.

Other pollinators face environmental challenges similar to those of the monarch. Urban sprawl has significantly decreased habitat with homeowners using herbicides, reducing native nectar-producing plants. Agricultural land has degraded habitat by using neonicotinoid pesticides, along with transportation sectors mowing during the milkweed growing season. Climate change has also been linked to shrinking the geographic range for many pollinator species.

By protecting one ambassador or surrogate species using a landscape conservation approach, the benefits can trickle down to others. For example, the rusty patched bumble bee, our nation’s first potential endangered bee in the Lower 48 states. This bumble bee, once widespread, is now found in scattered, small populations in 12 states and one Canadian province. Supporting monarchs alongside the bumble bee can provide the needed resources for its recovery. Our campaign to plant native flowers that bloom throughout the growing season is key. If people leave flowers on the stem as long as possible, especially in fall, this makes it possible for the bees to survive the winter and to produce new colonies in the spring.

Or look at a non-pollinator species – the federally threatened eastern massasauga rattlesnake. Habitat loss is the primary threat driving declines of eastern massasaugas. Snakes may be killed while crossing roads as they travel between wetlands or by prescribed fires and mowing when those activities are conducted after snakes have emerged from hibernation. Massasaugas live in wet prairies, marshes and low-lying areas along rivers and lakes. They also use adjacent uplands during part of the year. Using a mix of wetland and upland habitat, supporting habitat for monarchs can offer this rattlesnake increased habitat in both locations as well. Milkweed and native nectar plants grow in almost every soil type and terrain.

Monarchs can provide potential solutions for the recovery of species. So, embrace our orange-black and white winged ambassador; connect it to your conservation actions; and share timely activities that people can contribute toward our conservation efforts.

Visit Save the Monarch to learn more.

By Mara Koenig, External Affairs, Midwest Region

Working With Florida Keys Citizens to Save Key Deer from Screwworm Outbreak

   A Key deer eats at one of the medication stations. A Key deer eats at one of the medication stations. Photo by Kate Watts/USFWS

Peter Rea (down from Desoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa to help) and Ken Warren (of the South Florida Ecological Services Office) update us on the outbreak hitting an endangered species.

The fight at National Key Deer Refuge and other areas of the Florida Keys to save the endangered Key deer from the recent outbreak of a parasitic insect called screwworms continues.

To date, most of the more than 1,000 preventative treatment doses of the anti-parasitic Doramectin have been administered to healthy Key deer on Big Pine Key with the help of nearly 200 refuge volunteers.

But while 75 percent of the Key deer population lives on Big Pine and No Name Keys, herds are found in some of the more rural parts of the Keys. These backcountry deer are harder to locate than those in more urban environments, and partners have also been looking at techniques to administer preventative treatment to them.

As of this week, 15 individual medication stations, which were built in-house, have been strategically distributed by Service staff on Cudjoe, Sugarloaf and Big Pine Keys. The stations have a self-applicating roller system, four rollers on each side, which apply a topical anti-parasitic medication to the deer’s neck as it lowers its head to feed on limited amounts of sweet feed. Deer are enticed to the medication stations by sweet feed, which mainly consists of oats, various grains and cracked corn.

   Kate Watts and Erin Myers Fish and Wildlife veterinarians Kate Watts and Erin Myers stand near one of the Key deer medication stations they helped design and build. Photo by Kevin Lowry/USFWS

"We came up with the idea and design for the medication stations through research on the Internet regarding various sheep and cattle feeder designs and ideas from deer tick treatment feeders developed in Texas," says Service veterinarian Erin Myers. "We've seen deer using the feeders. We're still experimenting with the best way to measure and apply doses as well as paint markers to show which deer have been medicated."

These medication stations are along heavily used deer trails on remote sections of the refuge. "We are seeing fewer infested deer in neighborhoods and also in natural areas, as seen on trail cameras," says Kate Watts, another Service veterinarian. "Our volunteers have been critical in implementing the preventative treatment program on Big Pine Key. We're optimistic that the preventative treatments are working."

Myers adds, "The citizen volunteers have been invaluable. They've been assisting non-stop with administering oral doses both around their homes and in other areas far from their homes."

Dan Clark, Manager of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex, based here, agrees, "This community values these iconic deer and is partnering with us to save them from this infestation. I'd also like to thank the nearly 40 Service employees who have deployed down here to work with our local staff in response to this screwworm outbreak. These medication stations are just one indication of how innovative and dedicated they've been throughout this situation."

   A Key deer eats at one of the medication stations. A Key deer eats at one of the medication stations. USFWS trail cam photo

For safety, people are asked to please stay on designated refuge trails, keep pets on leashes and not approach medication station sites. "If folks have any pet concerns, they should contact their local veterinarian. Sites are checked daily to monitor activity of Key deer and to ensure other animals are not getting into the medication station sites," says Watts.

Making the Endangered Species Act Work for All in Texas

   Texas wild riceThe population of Texas wild rice, a local, aquatic grass species limited to only a small segment of the San Marcos River, has doubled since the Edwards Aquifer HCP began in 2013. Photo by USFWS

Deep in the heart of central Texas are many of the nation’s fastest  growing cities and counties. This rapidly growing region is also considered a national biodiversity hotspot. It is home to numerous rare wildlife species found only in Texas, some of which are protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

This unique natural heritage is associated with the Balcones Escarpment, a rugged landscape that houses one of the most productive artesian aquifers in the world, the Edwards Aquifer. The Balcones Escarpment is where the ocean once met the land and is now where the Texas Hill Country meets the prairies of Central Texas. Interstate Highway 35 (I-35) follows the escarpment and passes through rapidly growing cities including Austin and San Antonio. This region, as with most of Texas, is almost entirely privately owned, and a key issue has been to both protect wildlife and facilitate development.

What’s an HCP?
A Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) is one tool the Service uses to protect species and habitat with any nonfederal landowner like a private individual, corporation or a municipality. If worried that its actions might accidentally harm a protected species, an entity (or individual) can apply for an Incidental Take Permit. To get the permit, they have to have an approved HCP. Among other things, the HCP describes potential harm to listed species, how it will be avoided and minimized, how it will be mitigated for, and how the HCP applicant will pay for the conservation. In return, the Service gives the applicant “no surprises” assurances. That means the Service will honor the HCP—and not require more conservation—as long as the applicant does likewise. An HCP is one way the Service conserves the nation’s imperiled species in light of developmental interests.

Landscape-Level Conservation Planning

Texas is a place of innovation, and a model for making the ESA work for people and wildlife. Breaking new ground in 1996, the Service issued its first ESA permit for a landscape-level, regional Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) in the nation: the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP). To offset the development that has taken place throughout the area, the BCCP has guided the strategic acquisition of habitat preserves in and around Austin for the benefit of 46 species, including the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo, through a collaborative partnership with the City of Austin, Travis County and numerous other key partners.

Following the lead of the BCCP, landscape-level conservation plans in nearly 10 adjacent I-35 corridor cities  and counties have taken root over the past 20 years. These plans, managed by local governments, have proved to be  an efficient way of administering the ESA, effectively applying the concepts of Strategic Habitat Conservation.

Community-Based Collaboration and Incentives

These landscape-level plans provide locally driven solutions with the Service as a partner. Each of these plans has developed solutions to potential conflicts through community incentives such as regulatory certainty, permit streamlining, species recovery, water quality protection, regional water supply security, property tax benefits for participating landowners and open space preserves, which provide economic benefits to local communities through trails, recreation and youth education.

In Travis and Williamson counties alone, almost 700 projects have taken advantage of HCPs for a streamlined process  that affords regulatory certainty, while providing a benefit to rare species covered by the plans.

Additionally, these plans provide landscape-scale conservation benefits that far exceed the time-consuming, project-by-project permitting. Almost 100,000 acres of preserves and open space have been strategically protected through the BCCP, and these acres support conservation preserves established by the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge and City of Austin watershed protection lands. These preserve lands protect the endangered golden cheeked-warbler, black-capped vireo and numerous rare cave-dwelling species, along with the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, which benefits central Texas’s beloved Barton Springs, home of the endangered Barton Springs and Austin blind salamanders.  The BCCP’s preserve system also  plays a critical role in educating future generations about conservation; over the past three years more than 14,000 young people attended 285 individual events hosted by the BCCP.

   Houston toadMany species, including the Houston toad, are found nowhere in the world but Texas. Photo by USFWS

The Bastrop County HCP has provided many of its participants the ability to utilize Texas’s property tax exemption law that allows landowners to realize property tax reductions when they enroll in a Service-permitted plan that benefits a federally protected species. The state tax law and HCP have served as a strong incentive for landowners to enroll in this HCP, seeking the financial incentive associated with conservation actions that benefit the endangered Houston toad.

The Edwards Aquifer HCP is restoring Texas wild rice, a local, aquatic grass species limited to only a small segment of the San Marcos River. Its population has doubled since the HCP began in 2013. The HCP provides water security to the 2 million users of Edwards Aquifer, including the seventh largest city in the United States, San Antonio, through the Edwards Aquifer water market. The water market helps to maintain spring flow at Comal and San Marcos springs, the two largest springs in Texas (and the southwestern United States) through a voluntary irrigated agriculture suspension program. The water not pumped for agriculture is dedicated to spring flow.

  girl at a monarch festival
Austin is just one of the major cities along I-35 working to conserve monarchs. Photo by Adam Zerrenner/USFWS

What’s Next?

One thing is certain, implementing the ESA in Texas requires thinking big and continually identifying new solutions that work for local communities, private landowners and Texas’s natural heritage. Leveraging past successes, the I-35 corridor is now quickly becoming a conservation model for the monarch butterfly. Many major metropolitan cities along I-35 have voluntarily agreed to implement a variety of monarch conservation actions.

The Service is also working proactively with its Texas partners to get ahead of potential species listings by using the Species Status Assessment process. This framework allows the Service and partners to use the best available science to get an early look at a species’ future viability. The Service and partners then can collaborate on important scientific research and conservation tools for species in need, and leverage strategic resources for high priority species conservation.

Texas is setting the stage for creative ways to approach conservation and  these conservation strategies may  well become the way of the future for successful ESA implementation across the nation and beyond.

ADAM ZERRENNER, Austin (Texas) Ecological Services Field Office, Southwest Region

Fish & Wildlife News   This article appeared in the fall issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine.

Pangolin Protection Strengthens, and MENTOR-POP Can’t Wait

   pangolinsPangolins (fake and adorable) at CITES. Photo by MENTOR-POP

The 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was held in Johannesburg, South Africa from September 24 – October 5, 2016.  All nine Fellows and the Coordinator of MENTOR-POP (Progress on Pangolins), an 18-month program by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Zoological Society of London, were there, and they went straight to business on their agenda: ensuring that all three Central African pangolins as well as all the other pangolin species (there are eight species of pangolin in total) were uplisted to Appendix I in CITES, which provides the highest level of protection afforded by the treaty. As part of our MENTOR-POP blog series, Euphemia Ewah Fosab, one of the MENTOR-POP Fellows, offers a personal account of her experience at CoP17.

  MENTOR-POP Fellows with FWS Director Dan Ashe. MENTOR-POP Fellows with FWS Director Dan Ashe. Photo by MENTOR-POP

All nine Fellows saw our participation at the CITES CoP17 as a unique learning opportunity where we could hone our conservation skills, network and establish exciting new contacts, and – most importantly – make a difference for Central Africa’s pangolins. As soon as we arrived at CITES CoP17, we plunged into learning, networking, disseminating information, and advising as many countries as possible to vote for pangolins.

 pangolinTree pangolin, also known as African white-belllied pangolin. Photo by Tim Wacher/Zoological Society of London

Based in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Zoological Society of London, MENTOR-POP (Progress on Pangolins) is developing a trans-disciplinary team of nine early-career Central African and Asian conservation practitioners with academic and field-based training and internships to champion the conservation of the three Congo Basin pangolin species. To find out more about the Service’s other MENTOR programs, please visit: https://www.fws.gov/international/pdf/factsheet-mentor.pdf.

And it worked! Pangolins were uplisted on September 28 to Appendix I of the CITES treaty. The most exciting part was the near-unanimous support the pangolin changes received.

MENTOR-POP has focused on pangolin conservation in Cameroon. Three of the four species of African pangolins occur in Cameroon. The country is also believed to be a major hub for pangolin trafficking from West and Central Africa. In June, for example, more than 4 tons of pangolin scales coming from Cameroon were confiscated in Hong Kong. We also have many partners aligned for pangolin conservation in Cameroon. It is the right place to test innovative methods to address national and regional pangolin bushmeat trade, and international pangolin trafficking. 

So we were thrilled by the support from the Cameroonian delegation to uplist the African pangolins. Until the very last moment, we were unsure what Cameroon’s position would be, but thanks to persistent efforts by Francis Tarla, the Coordinator of MENTOR-POP, Cameroon voted YES for pangolins, to the relief of all range states. 

The uplisting will help law enforcement officials, who until now faced confusion in distinguishing between pangolin scales of protected as opposed to non-protected species.

   pangolin meetingFellows keep working for pangolins. Photo by MENTOR-POP

But there is still so much left to be accomplished for Central Africa’s pangolins. The MENTOR-POP Fellows are working on projects to come up with appropriate methodologies to assess pangolin strongholds and populations in Cameroon, to reduce local, regional and international demand for pangolins, and finally, to ensure that existing and new legislation is properly implemented to guarantee that the trade in pangolin species ends – stay tuned for future updates! 

With the large amount of seizures recently recorded both in and aound Cameroon, Appendix I is a safer place for this harmless, scaly anteater. The MENTOR-POP Fellows look forward to better days ahead for our pangolin species, and above all, are anxious to see how the CITES outcome on pangolins plays out in our national laws. 




   A Tule elk forages at San Luis National Wildlife RefugeA Tule elk forages at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in central California. Photo by Doug Ridgway

From Wyoming to California to Alaska, from Washington state to the Rockies, from the upper Midwest to northern New England, national wildlife refuges are home to many thousands of antlered animals. Among them are elk, caribou, moose, white-tailed deer and mule deer. 

And who doesn’t love antlers? 

This week, with the holiday season approaching, the Refuge System presents Antlers! – a dozen factoids about antlers. 

   Moose are found at Agassiz National Wildlife RefugeMoose are found at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in northern Minnesota. Photo by USFWS

Maybe you don’t know an antler from a horn. Maybe you’d like find out how fast antlers can grow, what they are made of, what their biological purposes are and if size matters. Maybe you’d just like to browse through the beautiful photographs. Whatever the reason, if you’re curious about antlers, the full photo essay is for you.

   National Elk RefugeNational Elk Refuge, where thousands of Rocky Mountain elk spend each winter, could be considered the antler capital of United States. Photo by Lori Iverson/USFWS

“Antlers!” is part of the Refuge System’s series of weekly online stories that use photos to highlight the conservation work and visitor opportunities at national wildlife refuges, wetland management districts and marine national monuments. A new photo essay is posted on the Refuge System home page each Wednesday. The stories are archived here.

After CITES Experience in South Africa, Megan Reed Ready for Next Conservation Adventure

Megan Reed and elephants Megan saw elephants!

When preparing for her recent trip to South Africa, Megan Reed, a Special Assistant in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), told folks that she wasn’t coming back until she saw an elephant in the wild. She saw plenty, but it turns out that wasn’t the highlight of her trip.

Reed was in Johannesburg for part of September and October to take part in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) 17th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP17) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Youth Forum for People and Wildlife that preceded it.

The youth forum brought together 34 young adults (18-25 years old) from 25 countries who are working on wildlife issues to discuss conservation (more tuned in online.). “Being surrounded by so many young people who are all working to conserve species was a very inspiring and humbling moment,” Reed says. It got even better.

Megan Reed at CITESMegan and Director Ashe at CITES. 

Recognizing that educating and connecting the next generation of conservation leaders is key to success, the United States introduced a document at CoP17 to encourage youth participation in CITES. Reed had the privilege of presenting it to the 3,000 attendees.

“It’s not my favorite experience because I was able to speak to so many people from all over the world or because it was well-received and accepted by other countries,” she says. “It’s my favorite because as I introduced it, I was sitting with the USFWS Director, Associate Director and Assistant Director of International Affairs, and I could feel how much they value engaging the younger generation.”

Megan Reed at CITESMegan and lots of USFWS folks.

“Their support that day was more than I could ask for, and showed not only me, but other countries how important youth are in conservation and that we are stakeholders of these resources, too.”

The member nations of CITES agreed, adopting the resolution Reed introduced. The move sets CITES on a clear path to ensure that the voices of youth are heard in this vitally important conservation forum.

elephantsAnd it’s not as though seeing elephants in the wild was bad. It was “one of the most memorable moments of my trip,” she says, in part because of her earlier attendance at the USFWS Ivory Crush in Times Square in 2015. Reed put a piece of ivory onto the belt to be crushed, “showing that ivory has zero value as an ornament.”

“Remembering that moment as I witnessed elephants in the wild was powerful and strengthened my commitment to conservation,” she says.

That commitment took root early in her life as a result of her family moving every two years because her dad was in the military. In every new state or country, Reed says, “I always found it interesting how places and animals could be so different, yet have so many similarities.”

She remembers “sitting on my grandma’s porch with my great uncle, and we would watch monarch butterflies land on him. I was mesmerized by every creature, big and small.”

Reed didn’t know it then, she says, “because I didn’t realize someone could have a job saving these animals and the places they live, but looking back, it was pretty obvious I would work in a conservation field.”  She soon found out about conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By now, though still young, Reed, could be considered a veteran of conservation work. She started her career with the USFWS when she was just 16 at Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge in her hometown of Warsaw, Virginia, doing such things as leading nature walks and conducting bobwhite surveys. She also worked at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts and Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in New York before taking on her current position in Washington, DC, as Special Assistant to both the Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System and the Assistant Director for External Affairs.

These jobs have enabled Reed to use her degrees in Wildlife and Fisheries Science and Public Administration and have helped her on the path to her “dream job”: conducting landscape conservation and working on conservation policy. “It is extremely important to look at conservation on a landscape scale,” she says, “because the wildlife we conserve don’t necessarily stay in one place or know political boundaries.”

These jobs have given her many memorable experiences, including “helping provide veterinary treatment to Sonoran pronghorn antelope, teaching the next generation about archery, and shadowing every refuge manager I’ve worked for.” And while her work supporting youth engagement at CITES is currently her favorite conservation moment, who knows what the future holds? All Reed knows is that it is going to be good.

Megan Reed at CITESMegan and Director Ashe at CITES.

“I'm not sure what will be around the next corner, but I'm excited to continue my career with the Service because of its conservation mission and dedication to young professionals like myself.”

And wherever her career takes her, rest assured that  Reed’s voice, and that of all young people, will be an important part of the usfws’s conservation conversations. “Our leadership truly understands that these resources belong to my generation just as much as they belong to everyone else.”

-- Matt Trott, External Affairs

Life and Environmental Justice through the Eyes of 107-Year-Old Dancer Virginia McLaurin

Most people probably know 107-year-old Virginia McLaurin for her dance moves – earlier this year, the centenarian (then 106) starred in a video from the White House dancing with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. What’s the secret to dancing at 106, the President asked her. “Just keep movin’,” she replied.

McLaurin sure does.

  Virginia McLaurin at her birthdayVirginia McLaurin at her 107th birthday. Photo by Jake Suppe

A Senior Corps volunteer, she puts in 40 hours a week, and people throughout Washington, DC, know her as “Grandma.” Through the United Planning Organization Foster Grandparent Program, she joins her 197 colleagues by providing community service in schools, youth programs and hospitals. They arrive by bus, subway, and car and by foot at 39 locations within the lowest income areas of the city to help the city’s kids – about 4,500 in 2015-16.

McLaurin walked to work until she gained national attention. “Volunteering keeps you young.”

At the Fish and Wildlife Service, we know another side, although it is one totally in keeping with her role as Grandma. During National Fishing and Boating Week, kids from the DC area spend time fishing on the National Mall at Constitution Gardens. Years ago, McLaurin arrived by school bus escorting students with disabilities to the pond.

  Virginia McLaurin at the fishing eventVirginia McLaurin at the fishing event on the mall. Photo by USFWS

Parking was several blocks away from fishing location. One employee recalled their initial conversation that sizzling hot June day, “Ms. Virginia, would you like to hold on to my arm? We have a ways to go.” McLaurin – in disbelief, standing straight as an arrow – replied, “Does it look like I need help?” and swiftly strutted away. The employee held her head down in shame.

But McLaurin came back and is still a regular at area fishing events.

Since her birth March 12, 1909 – the same year that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed – McLaurin has been a witness to change. She has lived to see 18 Presidents. “I remember the times before President Hoover. I remember when we didn’t have electricity. I had a kerosene lamp. I remember the first car model Ford. I was so little. There was no running water in the house. We’d have to draw water from the well.”

When she was born, there were only 46 states and 55 National Wildlife Refuges. Now there are 565 refuges, with at least one in each of the 50 states.

Environmental Justice means that everyone, regardless of race or income, has a healthy environment with fresh air, clean water and more available to them to live healthy lives and raise families.

Historically, Environmental Justice has been a weak point for this country.

More must be done, and the Fish and Wildlife Service and other government agencies are determined to change this.

  Virginia McLaurin at the fishing eventVirginia McLaurin at the fishing event on the mall. Photo by USFWS

McLaurin herself advances Environmental Justice by sharing her love of fishing. “I will continue to help kids know the joys of fishing. My soul glows when they hook that fish, I burst in laughter.”

The upcoming Environmental Justice documentary produced by the Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group will be dedicated to Ms. Virginia McLaurin.

Kim Lambert manages FWS’ Environmental Justice Program


Sensational Birding in South Texas

Southernmost Texas – where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico -- is a birding paradise. This week’s National Wildlife Refuge System feature story, “Birding Means Business in South Texas,” shows why.

Geography and wind currents funnel a host of migrating birds into the region, while colorful neotropical birds like the green jay and the great kiskadee visit from Mexico and points south.
a great kiskadeeA great kiskadee, another Rio Grande Valley specialty bird, snags a frog at Resaca de la Palma State Park, near the three Rio Grande Valley refuges. (Photo: Steve Sinclair)

Factor in the warm winter weather, and it’s no wonder tourists come from the world over, making stops at three national wildlife refuges here:

Altamira orioles at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife RefugeAltamira orioles tend a characteristically long nest at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas. (Photo: Steve Sinclair)

For the region, that nerdy birdy excitement means big bucks.  Nature tourism generates more than $344 million a year in business and more than 4,400 jobs, found a 2011 Texas A&M study. The economic boost is vital in this predominantly poor area, where one in three people live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data.

But some worry a development boom under way could put nature tourism at risk.

That could happen, observers say, if growth impinges on already scare natural habitat.

buff-bellied hummingbird pauses from feedingA buff-bellied hummingbird pauses from feeding its hungry chick near Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The only hummingbird that routinely nests in southernmost Texas, the buff-bellied is a “Rio Grande Valley specialty bird” — a native species rarely found elsewhere in the United States. (Photo: Steve Sinclair) 

“South Texas has lost over 95 percent of its original native habitat” since the 1930s, says Marion Mason, lead ranger at Laguna Atascosa Refuge. Conservationists feel South Texas can’t afford to lose more.

Birding in South TexasAt left, attendees at the annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival crowd an overlook along the Laguna Madre Nature Trail on South Padre Island. (Photo: Steve Sinclair) At right, festival attendees head down the Chachalaca Trail at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, with binoculars and camera gear at the ready. (Photo: Larry Ditto)

See a photo story plus a short video
 about South Texas birding and nature tourism.

- Susan Morse, National Wildlife Refuge System communications

Spotted! A Coyote and Badger Hunting Together

Recent sightings of a coyote and badger on the prairie surrounding the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center brought attention to a fascinating example of partnership. 

Coyotes and badgers are known to hunt together and can even be more successful hunting prairie dogs and ground-squirrels when they work in tandem.  

Coyote and badger at Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center. Kimberly Fraser, USFWS 

Studies have shown that this unusual relationship is beneficial for both species. The coyote can chase down prey if it runs and the badger can dig after prey if it heads underground into its burrow systems. 

Coyote and badger at Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center.

Each partner in this unlikely duo brings a skill the other one lacks. Together they are both faster and better diggers than the burrowing rodents they hunt.

These partnerships tend to emerge during the warmer months. In the winter, the badger can dig up hibernating prey as it sleeps in its burrow. It has no need for the fleet-footed coyote.

Coyote and badger at Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center. Kimberly Fraser, USFWS

Coyotes and badgers have a sort of open relationship. They will sometimes hunt together; but they also often hunt on their own.
Coyote and badger at Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center. Kimberly Fraser, USFWS

Each species is a treat to see, but together is even more fascinating and special!

El Dia de los Muertos Celebration Connects Kids to Culture and Monarch Conservation

Miracle Monarch Migration in Southern California

El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated each November across Mexico and the United States in remembrance of loved ones who have passed away and to celebrate the annual return of their spirits to Earth. During this same time of year, one of the world’s most recognizable species - the monarch butterfly - takes a 3,000 mile journey from Canada and the United States to the central highlands of Mexico.  Some monarch butterflies migrate west of the Rocky Mountains to coastal California to spend the winter. 

Monarch butterfly crafts

In some Hispanic cultures, these miracle migrations represent the souls of ancestors on their spiritual journey. 

Monarch butterflies that overwinter along California’s central coast serve as iconic reminders of El Dia de los Muertos tradition for Hispanic communities within the region. This year, Curren School in Oxnard, Calif., a coastal town in Ventura County north of Los Angeles, partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to host El Dia de los Muertos Monarch Butterfly Festival to celebrate the migration of the monarch butterfly and to educate the public about the risks facing the iconic species.

Celebrating and Learning About the Monarch
Kelly Castillo, Principal of Curren School, which teaches more than 1,100 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, says the school is a model for enriching youth in urbanized areas through environmental studies. “The monarch butterfly migration has been a huge point of conversation. Most of our students have heritage in Mexico, so for them to know about the four to five generations it takes for a butterfly to migrate to Mexico back - it really connects with them,” Castillo said. 

Throughout the day-long festival, students, teachers, families, and members of the Oxnard community celebrated El Dia de los Muertos and the monarch butterfly through a school-wide parade, music, arts and craft activities about monarch biology, native pollinators and plants, and educational stations about the monarch butterfly life cycle and migration. Children also created an ancestor’s tree by writing the names of loved ones lost on the wings of paper butterflies. 

A Dia de los Muertos Monarch Butterfly Festival volunteer showcases the Life Cycle of a Monarch Butterfly activity for kidsA Dia de los Muertos Monarch Butterfly Festival volunteer showcases the Life Cycle of a Monarch Butterfly activity for kids. Photo by Pamela Bierce/USFWS.

Service fish and wildlife biologist Lara Drizd worked with teachers to develop the festival’s activity stations. “It’s incredible to be able to connect with that many students at once,” Drizd said of the 1,100 plus students who participated. “Monarchs are a gateway to experiencing the outdoors. Between serving as ambassadors for the Schoolyard Habitat program and the monarch festival, these students are building the foundation for a lifelong enthusiasm for the outdoors.” 

Planting a Future for Monarchs 
In the spring of 2015, Curren School teachers and students worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists to design and develop a native pollinator garden funded by the Schoolyard Habitat Program to replace a grass lawn on the school’s property. The garden is filled with drought-tolerant plants, which require less watering than the grass lawn, and also serve as an outdoor classroom to learn about the monarch butterfly life cycle and other pollinators. 

“We all worked hard on these plants,” said fourth-grader Nicholas Escamilla, as he peered at a chrysalis hanging from the stem of a native milkweed plant in his school’s native pollinator garden. “Monarchs have a really cool life cycle and they have beautiful wings.”

This fall, after an overnight soaking from much-needed rainfall on the eve of El Dia de los Muertos, the garden flourishes. Nicholas and a few of his fourth and fifth grade peers delicately pointed out several caterpillars and a chrysalis as they proudly showed off their garden and its inhabitants to festival visitors.

Bernice Curren students examine one of their narrow-leaved milkweed plants in their Schoolyard HabitatBernice Curren students examine one of their narrow-leaved milkweed plants in their Schoolyard Habitat. Photo by Ashley Spratt, USFWS

Service biologist Michael Glenn said the native pollinator garden coupled with the fact that many students have family connections to parts of Mexico where the monarch butterflies overwinter, served as the inspiration to host the El Dia de los Muertos Monarch Butterfly Festival at Curren School. 

“Over the year as we were working on planting the native Schoolyard Habitat and learning about monarchs, the students shared with me stories of El Dia de los Muertos told by their grandmother or grandfather, or their mom and dad. They were beautiful stories,” Glenn said. “In talking with the kids and their teachers, we decided as a group to hold an El Dia de los Muertos event at the school to educate students, their families, and the community, about the threats facing the species, and how people can help support monarch butterflies by planting native milkweed and nectar plants in our own backyards.”

Principal Castillo looks forward to continuing the El Dia de los Muertos Monarch Butterfly Festival tradition in coming years, and hopes to continue to spark dialogue about the cultural and social aspects of environmental studies with students who come through the hallways of Curren School. “The students are committed to ensuring that they are doing their part to help the monarch butterfly and the environment it depends on for survival.” 

Photos and videos from event: https://flic.kr/s/aHskMrY74G

-- by Ashley Spratt, Public Affairs Officer

More Entries