By Jim Kurth, Acting Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Now that I have been sitting at a desk and pushing paper around the headquarters office for 15 years, some might be surprised to learn that I still consider myself first and foremost a conservationist. Although it has been a long time since I was out in the field wearing a uniform and “saving dirt,” I connected with conservation early, and I’ve never looked back.
Going to school at the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point, I immersed myself in the land ethic pioneered by Aldo Leopold in nearby Sand County. Leopold taught me the need to recognize our intertwined relationship with the natural world and tend that relationship with great care. And so I enthusiastically embarked on my career in conservation as a steward of wildlife and the wild land and waters.
This calling has taken me all across the nation, from my first U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service job at Mississippi SandhiIl Crane National Wildlife Refuge in 1979 to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to my stints in Washington, DC, and many places in between.
At each one of those stops, I’ve taken something unique away that further cemented my connection with nature, sometimes in unexpected ways.
At Arctic Refuge I saw the hawk owl. In a way, it became my very own hawk owl.
I was exploring the refuge’s Firth River Valley with a few colleagues, enjoying the peaceful nature of the place. The bird flew low along the horizon to the south. Someone quickly identified it as a hawk owl, and I recalled a biological survey of the Firth conducted some 15 years earlier.
The survey recorded a hawk owl nesting in nearly the exact location we were exploring. I wondered if the hawk owl soaring above us was the grandson or great-granddaughter of that bird.
Had this bird’s ancestors seen the first humans, or the scimitar cat and the short–faced bear? Did they hear the thunder of the mastodon? And I thought about my descendants, and whether they’ll be lucky enough to see a hawk owl if they visit the Firth generations from now.
My hawk owl captivated me and connected me to the past and future of nature.
So did a clutch of mallard eggs.
My first trip to the field after moving to Service Headquarters in 1999 was to Windom Wetland Management District in Minnesota. It was a beautiful spring day at Windom, full of songs of meadowlarks, bobolinks and red–winged blackbirds. I joined refuge staff and walked across a waterfowl production area, when a hen mallard flushed a few feet ahead of us.
One of our group gently pulled back some of the grasses, and there it was—the nest with the eggs.
I remember feeling incredibly happy and proud. Those eggs were a reminder of the past—we successfully worked to protect wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region for waterfowl. But they also reminded me of an uncertain future. With new and accelerating old threats, it’s hard to envision what the Prairie Pothole Region will look like a hundred years from now.
Working to secure a better future for wildlife in the Pothole Region and across North America is why I conserve and am still excited to come to work every day for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Every Service employee has similar touchstones that have shaped their career and outlook on life. For Craig Springer in our Southwest Region, it’s native trout. Kate Miyamoto in our Mountain-Prairie Region chased butterflies as a child in Texas and now hopes to give the next generation the same spark butterflies gave her. You can read these and other compelling stories about why we do what we do in this issue of Fish & Wildlife News.
We have incredibly challenging jobs (even me!), but we are also truly lucky. We get to “play in the dirt,” to experience the blessings that nature offers, some of us on a daily basis. Even when others of us are cooped up in meetings, we can take some solace knowing that we are still conserving the nature of America.
Thank you for all you do.