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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Monarch Conservation’s All about Connections

Monarch butterflyPhoto by Scott Pruitt/USFWS

When we decided to go “all in” on monarch conservation, we knew we’d need the help of every U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program. We have employees with expertise on the complexities of wildlife migration, we have employees skilled at partnering with other federal and state agencies and private landowners, we have employees who educate the American people, we have employees applying the best scientific research and tools available to broaden our conservation reach, and they’re all involved in monarch conservation.

Working cooperatively across programs and offices, we took action to restore and enhance more than 330,000 acres in 2016 for monarchs and other pollinators. That exceeds the goal the Department of Interior set for us of restoring or enhancing 320,000 acres of habitat by end of fiscal year 2017. This accomplishment is the result of several factors, including: 1) our leadership identifying monarch conservation as a Service National Priority both internally to all employees and to external conservation partners, 2) our commitment of $4 million in funding for monarch conservation in 2016, and 3) opportunities to enhance a large number of acres on national wildlife refuges.

Monarch ButterflyPhoto by Tina Shaw/USFWS

“I am proud of our on-the-ground conservation actions for monarchs and other pollinators. It is catalyzing massive conservation effort across North America,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

This was also the first year of full implementation of the Service’s Monarch Butterfly Conservation Initiative, another wing spreading our monarch conservation actions across the nation. We will continue efforts to restore and enhance habitat for monarchs and other pollinators over the next four years through 2020.

It takes every connection to provide a future filled with monarchs. We will use every bit of knowledge we have, but monarch conservation requires a national effort. Everyone -- from from schoolchildren to CEOs -- must be involved.

“We can accomplish great things for the monarch and other pollinators by continuing to work collectively and across the landscape,” says Director Ashe.

Learn more about our conservation actions and how you can help at Save the Monarch Butterfly

Virginia Rivers Opened for First Time in 100 Years

   North Fork Shenandoah RiverRiverton Dam being removed on the North Fork Shenandoah River. Photo bAlan Weaver/VDGIF

As far back as 1670, Virginia prohibited structures like dams that would hinder fish migrating up and down our rivers. Why? They recognized their future depended on the millions of delicious migratory fish swimming our coastal rivers. That changed as growing cities and towns built hundreds of dams and road culverts blocking fish from their spawning grounds. But over the past decade, more than 1,000 miles of river have been re-opened to migratory fish in Virginia.

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A Most Wonderful Time of the Year

   Canaan Valley Refuge sign in snowCanaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia is among the many refuges that welcome winter visitors with open arms. Photo by Ken Sturm/USFWS

If you enjoy clean, crisp air and the great outdoors, winter is a special time of year at national wildlife refuges in northern latitudes. This week’s National Wildlife Refuge System photo essay, “A Most Wonderful Time of Year,” touches on a few of the things that make winter delightful at refuges: invigorating recreation … a chance to glimpse wildlife … a serene respite from the daily grind.

   Cross-country skiing  collageCross-country skiing is offered at dozens of refuges, including Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge (top) in Idaho, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (bottom left) in New Jersey, Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge (middle) in Maine and Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge (right) in Minnesota. Photos by Dorey Rowland, David Sagan, USFWS, Dennis Mudderman  

Snowshoeing can be a blast at national wildlife refuges from Alaska to Oregon to West Virginia to Maine and lots of places in between.  Ice fishing is fun for kids and adults at refuges across Alaska, the northern Plains, the Great Lakes states and New England. Get your heart pumping, your muscles stretched and your lungs refreshed with some cross-country skiing at dozens of refuges.

    Bald Eagles in a treeEight North American bald eagles perch in one tree at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in California. Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS

You can see North American bald eagles at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges along the California-Oregon border, Camas National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland and dozens of other refuges across the country. Check out “Winter at Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges” (video).   

   River otters You might see curious river otters like these at Missouri’s Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, about 90 miles north of Kansas City, and at many other refuges. Photo by Kenny Bahr

“A Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is part of the Refuge System’s series of weekly photo essays that 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 essays are archived here.

Just Like in Retirement Planning, Conservation Requires Wise Long-term Investments

  plover chicks Plover chicks.

There were 28 adult western snowy plovers found in Oregon in 1992. But after 24 years of hard work, dedication and investing in collaborative conservation, you’ll find 375 adult snowy plovers in Oregon. That’s an average annual return of 11.42%. Let’s call it the original “nest egg.”

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Balloons ‘Decorate’ the Desert, Can Hurt Wildlife

   balloons in the desertPhoto courtesy of Betty Mulcahy

Betty Mulcahy, a Volunteer Interpretive Naturalist, shares a story about balloons.

Not long ago we accompanied a few refuge staff members on a hike at Desert National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states, covering more than a million and a half acres.  Consequently, we were able to hike to a remote canyon that is rarely, if ever, visited by the public.  

To arrive at the starting point, we drove quite a distance up a rough dirt road that required high clearance vehicles. We finally parked and left the vehicles and then hiked across the desert several miles to the entrance of the canyon. 

Signs of human activity in this area were limited to pictographs painted on rock walls hundreds of years ago. No other signs of civilization existed. Except, that is, for a string of six Mylar balloons trapped by cholla cactus spines.  

“I never go out on the refuge without finding at least one Mylar balloon,” says Amy Sprunger, manager of Desert Refuge. 

   balloons in the desertPhoto courtesy of Betty Mulcahy

Mylar balloons, as well as latex balloons, can travel miles to the remotest locations before descending to a level that allows vegetation to snatch them and secure them in place. These balloons come in all styles and colors depending upon the event celebrated, and they do not decompose with time. We have stumbled across them in the farthest reaches of deserts, mountains, plains and other remote landscapes, and we have wondered what people were thinking when they released them. Some balloons, of course, escape their tethers; but we have witnessed many released on purpose. 

The last Mylar balloon we rescued from the desert was pink and inscribed with the endearments “Princess” on one side and “Birthday Wishes” on the other. Perhaps the little princess found it difficult to hold onto the balloon. Perhaps it was freed on purpose. Whatever happened, it found its way to a remote desert region generally unspoiled by litter and other waste.  

“Countless balloons are released around the world every day,” says balloonsblow.org.  “Numerous nonprofit organizations and charity groups perform mass balloon releases to raise funds.” That’s not to mention private celebrations that feel compelled to release balloons to document the event. These can have major impact on the environment and its wildlife.  

bird hanging by balloon stringPhoto by Pamela Denmon/USFWS

Balloons injure and even kill marine species as well as terrestrial animals such as tortoises and birds. They are frequently mistaken for food, but these materials are indigestible, often leading to fatal blockages in the digestive system. Balloon strings are cause for additional concern, as animals can become entangled causing loss of mobility or strangulation.

We hope that the public will become aware of the litter balloons can create and the hazards to wildlife. 

And perhaps one day when the little “Princess” grows up, she will be made aware of the effects of releasing balloons. And perhaps she will become involved in conservation of wildlife hurt by balloon releases.

Fighting Wildfires: Exciting but ...

   Melissa TracyMelissa Tracy at the Triple Fire. Photo by Melissa Tracy/USFWS

Melissa Tracy, Wildlife Refuge Specialist at Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota, is more than a scientist.

When I tell people I am going to go fight wildfires, they think I am crazy because “it is dangerous and you could die out there.” If you think I am crazy, you should meet the true firefighters that do this full time.

Firefighting is not my full-time job; I’m a biologist in North Dakota. I maybe assist on four prescribed burns a year on refuges in the Missouri Coteau Prairie, with rolling hills and wetland basins. Here, we use fire to enhance grassland nesting habitat for migratory birds. I enjoy helping out with fire because it’s exciting, thrilling, and a great way for me to contribute on-the-ground conservation, so every year I volunteer for a fire detail.  

looking for hotspots Firefighters search carefully for hot spots on the Triple Fire. Photo by Melissa Tracy/USFWS

On August 1, I headed to Elko, Nevada for a month as part of a Type 4 Initial Attack crew for something different -- helping put fires out to protect greater sage-grouse habitat.

I didn’t know what to expect for my first wildfire and my first trip to Nevada.  I imagined fires blazing across thousands of acres of flat, dry desert, where I would get to fight fire every day. I had one thing correct: It was dry. Nevada is the driest state in the United States.

But I had never imagined mountains there, especially covered with mostly sagebrush and short grass.

Sixteen hours and a thousand miles later, we arrived at the BLM office in Elko. I jumped out of the truck to stretch my legs, then was hit by a wave of intense, dry heat wanting to suck the life out of me.

I was not in North Dakota anymore.

The daily routine for 28 days straight began with pre-inspection of the fire trucks, fire weather and news briefings, then physical training. Lunch would roll around, then by 1 p.m. we were ready, sitting, waiting for our handheld radios to tone. 

   Melissa TracyMelissa Tracy during a morning PT hike up in the Ruby Mountains. Photo by Justin Simpson/USFWS

There were days with no tones, then days we would get half-way to a fire and learn it was a false alarm. To pass time we helped out around the shop and equipment yard, and maybe played a couple of card games.

Two tones that month were real – the North Pass Fire and Triple Fire. They weren’t big and mighty, but they were my first wildfires.

As cool as it was to finally experience firefighting, I also learned about the sacrifices involved. I looked over the Ruby Mountains from Elko at smoke rising one day from the Strawberry Fire, wishing I could be fighting it. My daydream was pierced by reality when I heard about a fallen firefighter named Justin.

I didn’t know him, but I felt deeply for his family, fellow firefighters, and those around me with looks of fear and tears in their eyes … that day I felt the harsh reality of fighting wildfires.

Wisdom Returns to Midway Atoll and…She’s Expecting

   Wisdom and her eggWisdom, identified by her red, plastic auxiliary band on her right leg (Z333) incubates her egg. Photo by Kristina McOmber/Kupu Conservation Leadership Program & USFWS

Wisdom, the world's oldest known, breeding wild bird, has returned to her home on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial – and the Laysan albatross, at least 66 years old, has already laid an egg.

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Wisdom photos and videos

The Right Seed in the Right Place at the Right Time

   Pale purple cornflowers, white false indigo and prairie sage bloom at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa.Pale purple cornflowers, white false indigo and prairie sage bloom at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. Photo by Karen Viste-Sparkman/USFWS

It’s not an accident that pale purple cornflowers, white false indigo and prairie sage bloom in the spring and summer at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa.  For decades, refuge biologists have paid careful attention to collecting and planting the right native seeds to recreate native prairie.

The National Seed Strategy is doing the same thing on a national level, with the National Wildlife Refuge System leading the way for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  You can read many of the details in this week’s online feature from the Refuge System here.

The National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration is designed to encourage more effective, resilient habitat restoration.  The strategy was issued in 2015 by the Plant Conservation Alliance, a coalition of 12 federal partners and more than 300 private organizations, companies, tribes, and state and local governments.  The strategy provides a coordinated approach to ensure that genetically appropriate seed reserves are available when and where they are needed to restore healthy plant communities and sustainable ecosystems. 

   Before and after at Montezuma RefugeThese photos show the same marsh at Montezuma Refuge five years apart. On the left, the dominant plant is cattail. The photo on the right shows water plantain interspersed with cattail. Photos by USFWS

In other words, it aims to ensure that the right seed is available in the right place at the right time.  

Over the next year, a seed assessment will be conducted on all federal lands that provide or use native seeds, including refuges.  The assessment will identify the types and quantities of seed each site needs for its restoration projects.  Many national wildlife refuges – including Neal Smith Refuge - have already been figuring out what seeds they need and how to grow, collect and store these seeds even before there was a national strategy.  Their experiences will help other refuges and partners just beginning the process. 

In one of the largest aerial seeding efforts in an American salt marsh, grass seed from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Seed Bank was used to restore salt marsh at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware after Hurricane Sandy. Meanwhile, in 2012, more than 2 million acres of sagebrush habitat burned in four western states. Restoration of burned sagebrush is one of the most important land management issues federal land managers and private landowners face today (See what’s involved in this three-minute video here.)

   Girls gathering seedSome refuges host family events or school field trips when volunteers collect seeds. Here two schoolgirls gather native prairie seed in Wisconsin at Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Photo by Paula Ogden-Muse/USFWS 

Well-trained volunteers and interns are key to collecting seed on many refuges. Many refuges have regular seed-collecting events and training programs geared to empowering volunteers to help enhance our public lands. 

You can further the goals of the National Seed Strategy by volunteering to collect locally native seed, paying attention to the source of seeds you use at home, learning more about how your community manages its natural areas and encouraging local organizations to become Plant Conservation Alliance Cooperators.

If You Build It, They Will Come: Bitter Creek Refuge Creates Habitat for Giant Kangaroo Rat

   giant kangaroo ratHabitat improvements on Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge leads to first capture of a giant kangaroo rat. Photo by Larry Saslaw/CSU Stanislaus

This fall, a giant kangaroo rat was captured on Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in California, the first-ever sighting of the species on Bitter Creek. The brief encounter with the elusive giant kangaroo rat did not happen by chance. It was the result of years of planning and a couple of strategic partnerships to provide habitat enhancements for giant kangaroo rat and San Joaquin kit fox population. While there have not been any sightings of the giant kangaroo rat since September, it seems like both the giant kangaroo rat and San Joaquin kit fox will either become regular visitors or make Bitter Creek their new home in the near future.

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A New Beginning: Puerto Rican Parrots Reintroduced into Maricao Commonwealth Forest

Puerto Rican Parrot in flightA Puerto Rican parrot in flight. Photo by Jan Paul Zegarra/USFWS

Maricao Commonwealth Forest in the west-central mountain region of Puerto Rico welcomed home a onetime resident last week. The Puerto Rican parrot, the only native parrot left in the United States, was once abundant, but through the years, deforestation, predation, diseases and poaching caused the population to crash. A captive-breeding program and other recovery efforts have helped the population to more than 500 birds. Maricao Commonwealth Forest marks the third wild locations for the parrot.

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