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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Sixth-Graders Learn About Migratory Birds’ ‘Superpowers’ at Salton Sea

Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Migratory Bird DaySixth-graders get into bird watching. Photo by Kyle Christensen/Wildlands Conservancy

Joanna Gilkeson, External Affairs, Pacific Southwest Region, tells us about a sixth-grade trip to Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.

Surrounded by desert, mountains and farm fields, Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is a much-welcomed oasis for migratory birds passing through the heart of southeastern California. In November, the refuge hosted nearly 100 Sixth-Graders to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty (MBT).

Felicia Sirchia and Peter Sanzenbacher, Service biologists, are passionate about connecting young people with the outdoors. The two led the charge to invite the local sixth-graders to the refuge, many of whom had never visited the area, despite its proximity to their community. “Many of these students are underserved when it comes to experiencing nature. We wanted to teach them tangible outdoor skills – how to use binoculars and scopes and how to identify migratory birds,” says Sanzenbacher.

The day began with discussions about bird migration and the everyday challenges birds face, warming the students up to the idea of wildlife. The sixth-graders participated in an interactive game where they “transformed” into birds so they could learn about and experience the different challenges migratory birds face along their long journeys, including predators and storms. Then the students learned about the “superpowers” of migratory birds, those special physical and behavioral adaptations that allow them to migrate great distances between their breeding and overwintering areas.

Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge Migratory Bird DayService fish and wildlife biologist Gjon Hazard helps new birders.Photo by Kyle Christensen/Wildlands Conservancy

The sixth-graders were finally introduced to the basics of bird identification, both sight and sound, and learned how to use binoculars and scopes to test out their new skills and identify the spectacular birds of the Salton Sea. “Over the course of the day, we saw the students become more confident in their birding abilities, and seek out the awesome diversity of wildlife in their backyard,” Sirchia says. “It was great to see the students become empowered.”

Chris Schoneman, project leader at the refuge, believes that this event can be expanded upon. “It was a terrific example of how we can provide our communities with an even better nature experience when we combine our talents within FWS and our volunteers and refuge Friends groups. Even though the MBT Centennial was the celebration this year, we hope to continue this experience with our local schools into future years."

Thanks to the staff, volunteers and Friends who helped make the event possible. And thanks to the sixth-graders and teachers of Bill E. Young Middle School in Calipatria, California, for their energy and enthusiasm.

A Nose Ring Helps Researchers Studying Importance of Wetlands

   nasal marked duckThe individual in the picture was banded as a duckling in 2008 and subsequently recaptured and nasal marked in 2011. The nasal marker does not affect adult female survival, and the female’s bill is not punctured. There is no septum between the holes in the bill of a duck, so the small pin that holds the two discs on simply slides right through. Photo by USFWS

Visitors to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge may be treated to a rather strange sight during future visits: a duck with a nose ring.

Say what?

That’s right. Researchers are conducting a long-term demographic study of female lesser scaup at the refuge, which supports one of the highest recorded densities of nesting lesser scaup in North America.

The nasal marker, applied in 2011, allows the duck to be easily identified at a distance if she returns to the study site, providing researchers with valuable survival data.

Why go to all this trouble, you might ask?

Across the 11 states of the arid Intermountain West, wetlands are very scarce resources, comprising less than 2 percent of the total area. And nearly 90 percent of wetlands in the region occur on just 10 percent of the land area. If you are a duck in search of water, pickings are slim and far apart.

Researchers know that this female and other ducks across the region need wetland connections. But what this study revealed is the critical importance of female pre-breeding body condition on if, and when, she nests. The earlier she can nest, the more likely she is to successfully fledge young.

The study also demonstrated the cost of that success can be high. When local wetland conditions are good, many females nest successfully and female survival during the breeding season increases. The unfortunate result of this success comes the following winter – female survival during non-breeding seasons is lowest after a breeding season with good wetland conditions. Conversely, during dry breeding seasons, when many hens choose not to nest, survival during the following non-breeding season is higher.

The relationship is likely a result of females investing significant amounts of energy raising a brood in good wetland conditions. They end the breeding season in poor body condition — just when they need to molt feathers and build fat reserves for fall migration, both costly annual events. When females begin these activities late in the breeding season, and in poor body condition, researchers believe it is more difficult for them to prepare for the fall migration, which has a direct and negative impact on their survival rates. 

So, what can we do?

Maintaining, improving and restoring wetland connections for when females start heading back south is one of the most important activities we can take. These birds use state and federally managed ‘semi-permanent’ wetlands (i.e., those with open water throughout the growing season in most years) across the Intermountain West as gas stations to ”top off” their tanks during migration, allowing them to rest and recover from their travels. These publicly owned and managed wetlands comprise more than 60 percent of semi-permanent wetlands in the region, creating the connections migratory birds need to travel between breeding and wintering grounds.
Quality management of these wetlands provides the fuel for migration and keeps these linkages intact, so the cycle can repeat itself next year.

And it all begins with data derived from a duck’s nose ornament – ain’t wildlife conservation grand!

Brian Allen, Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, Mountain-Prairie Region; Jeff Knetter, Idaho Department of Fish and Game; Josh Vest, Intermountain West Joint Venture; Jeff Warren, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Mountain-Prairie Region

Wilderness! There’s Nothing Like It

   Oregon Islands Haystack RockHaystack Rock is designated as wilderness for seabirds and marine mammals at Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Visitors can view it from the coast. Photo by Roy W. Lowe/USFWS

Among conserved public lands and waters, wilderness is a category unto itself. It is land and water designated by Congress for special protection under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Designated wilderness is untrammeled … primeval … natural.

   Fort Niobrara Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska offers visitors an opportunity to canoe, kayak or tube through designated wilderness. Photo by Nebraska Tourism

As this week’s National Wildlife Refuge System photo essay, Wilderness! There’s Nothing Like It, explains, “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

 Sunday Lakes   The natural resources of the land now known as the Togiak Wilderness area at Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska have sustained Eskimo and Alaska Native people for millennia. Photo by Steve Hillebrand/USFWS

In the United States, there are 765 designated wilderness areas comprising about 109 million acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages more than 20 million acres of designated wilderness in the Refuge System. There are 75 wilderness areas on 63 units of the Refuge System in 26 states.

“It’s a cliché, but I find that designated wilderness is different from other public lands in a similar way that a church is different from other buildings,” says Jennifer Johnston, a graduate student who has worked in wilderness areas. “To a much greater degree than other public lands, wilderness requires restraint: voluntary limitations on what you can and cannot do.”

   Bitter Lake NM-Inkpot sinkholeInkpot Sinkhole offers a glimpse into the Roswell Artesian Aquifer under the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge wilderness in southeastern New Mexico. Photo by Jeff Howland/USFWS

Wilderness! There’s Nothing Like It 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.

Conservation Law Enforcement Officer Helps More Than Manatees

florida manatee cow and calf   Florida manatee cow and calf. Photo by Keith Ramos/USFWS

The manatee is one of the world’s natural treasures, and people visit Florida every year to see these imperiled animals.

As Manatee Awareness Month wraps up, let’s not forget those who protect these animals and often go far beyond manatee conservation.

Andy Berrey is a Conservation Law Enforcement Officer, or CLEO, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His primary job is enforcing Manatee Protection Zones in Florida, which provide Endangered Species Act protections to manatees

Because the largest cause of human-related manatee mortality in Florida is watercraft collisions, his job is key to manatee conservation.

But speeding boats can be dangerous to more than manatees, and last month, it wasn’t just manatees that benefitted from his patrol in the Harbor Branch Slow Speed Zone.

CLEO Berrey, Federal Wildlife Officer Anibal Vasquez of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, and a Coast Guard officer rescued a woman who had been knocked out of her kayak by a large and dangerous wake caused by several large vessels violating Protection Zone speed restrictions. CLEO Berrey remembers that the woman was “out of breath, fatigued and wearing an oversized life vest that was unzipped.”

The rescuers took the woman to a nearby island where her family was waiting for her. The woman said she was sure she could not have made it to the island or out of that dire situation without the lifesaving skills of these officers.

And yes, the officers also had a chat with the large vessels that were causing the problems.

CLEO Berrey says one of the best parts of his job is “seeing tangible results because of our efforts.” Not much more tangible than a life saved.

Matt Trott, External Affairs, Headquarters

Modeling a Future for Horseshoe Crabs and Red Knots

Red Knot and Horseshoe CrabRed knots feed around a horseshoe crab at Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Photo by Gregory Breese/USFWS

Horseshoe crabs have been around hundreds of millions of years, and in that time they have attracted a lot of fans, especially around Delaware Bay.

The fishing industry uses them as bait in the conch and American eel fisheries on the Atlantic Coast.

The pharmaceutical and medical industry uses them for their blood to produce a clotting agent that helps detect pathogens that could hurt people.

The red knot, a migratory shorebird, is also a big fan — the bird feeds on horseshoe crab eggs to fuel their 9,000-mile migration from wintering grounds in South America up to breeding grounds in the Arctic. And they migrate at the same time of year every year, landing in the Delaware Bay right when horseshoe crabs are spawning.

So much demand puts tremendous pressure on the horseshoe crab population and red knots.

During the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, there was a huge decline in shorebirds on the Delaware Bay when horseshoe crab harvest rates rose dramatically. The Delaware Bay is home to the largest population of horseshoe crabs in the world and in spring, hosts the second largest population of migrating shorebirds in North America.

The drop in shorebirds led to a series of harvest restrictions as well as intense debates for the next 15 years, and in 2006, New Jersey and Delaware asked for help from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in regulating the harvest of horseshoe crabs.

A team of scientists, led by Dr. Conor McGowan from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) along with Dr. David Smith (USGS), and Drs. John Sweka and Mike Millard of the Service, came up with a way to make decisions about horseshoe crab harvest, while safeguarding the survival of the red knot.

The solution is an amazing mathematical model of the unique relationship between two species, which also considers the economic value of the horseshoe crab fishery. The scientists weaved together the ecology and biology of the red knot with the ecology and biology of the horseshoe crab to come up with predictions for the survival of red knots based on the abundance of spawning horseshoe crabs. And once the scientists had the basic model, like the lead character in the movie Martian, they “scienced the &*%# out of it” to come up with a model that describes important ecological and economic features.

One such feature: Horseshoe crabs need about 10 years to mature. The number of adult spawning crabs harvested in any given year will affect the number of crabs reaching adulthood to spawn a decade or more later. And the number of spawning crabs affects the number of eggs produced, which affects the red knot’s primary food source during their migration.

Besides the science, the team worked with stakeholders to make sure that affected parties understood how the model worked and could trust future decisions.

“Over the past 15 years, the single-species approach for managing the horseshoe-crab harvest was frequently mired by conflicting values among the various groups. This collaborative resolution is helping to reduce that conflict,” says Millard.

As an adaptive management framework, says ecologist and statistician Smith, “one of the features that makes [the model] so useful is that it allows ‘learning’—new information is added into the model, which improves management over time.”

Like all global migrants, the red knot population faces many threats outside of Delaware Bay. But the new model will help ensure that its migration super-food remains available.

CATHERINE GATENBY, Fish and Aquatic Conservation, Northeast Region

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

Wild Facts About Wild Turkeys

   wild turkeys wichita mtns nwrWild tom (male) turkeys parade with fanned tail feathers at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. A tom is also known as a gobbler. Photo by Larry Smith, Flickr Creative Commons

What more is there to know about those funny birds that help define Thanksgiving?

You’d be surprised. Odds are turkeys are even wilder than you thought. 

Amuse your holiday guests with some offbeat turkey trivia presented by the National Wildlife Refuge System. 

Then, when you’re ready to walk off your feast, consider pointing your feet toward some scenic outdoor spots where you might see the native game birds in the wild. Some of the best of those turkey-hangout spots: national wildlife refuges, dedicated to conserving habitat for America’s wildlife. Refuges are closer than you think.  In the same photo feature, we tell you just where to look.

   wild turkey minn valley nwrA wild turkey folds its iridescent feathers, mimicking the look of abstract art, at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Copyright Mike Williams

Test yourself. Here’s a sample Q from the story: 

How can you tell a turkey’s sex and age?

  1. By the number of its tail feathers.
  2. By the shape of its droppings.
  3. By the length of its wattle.

And the answer is….. B. Yes, the droppings have it. Male droppings are j-shaped; female droppings are spiral-shaped. No kidding. The larger the diameter, the older the bird.  

How about places to maybe catch a glimpse of turkeys at large? 

If you thought you had to live in the Northeast or Midwest to see turkeys in the wild, think again.  Here, for example, are two spots with turkeys galore:

St Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

To boost your chances of seeing turkeys, drop your car speed to a crawl. “Turkeys are sensitive to the movement of vehicles,” says ranger David Moody. Or get out and walk, slowly. Turkeys like the open terrain of the longleaf pine sandhill ecosystem along the Florida National Scenic Trail, almost 50 miles of which go through the refuge.

   wild turkeys texasA 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

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge , New Mexico

Hundreds of Rio Grande turkeys hang out here. The North and South Auto Tour Loops are good places to spot some. Other good spots: along the Rio Viejo Trail, the John Taylor Memorial Trail or the bike trail on the east side service road of the Low Flow Conveyance Channel.

Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy your feast and our online story — one of a series of photo features that highlight the wildlife and recreation at national wildlife refuges. A new story is posted on the Refuge System home page each Wednesday.

Read the story at https://www.fws.gov/refuges/features/WildFacts.html

Susan Morse, National Wildlife Refuge System communications

Thanksgiving: Brought to You By Pollination

Thanksgiving is almost here and before we know it, we will be gathered around the dinner table surrounded by friends, family and neighbors, sharing what we are all most thankful for. While we usually take the time to be thankful for our loved ones, how many of us take the time to thank the small critters who have a big role in our lives?  

Bumblebee pollinating flowerPhoto by USDA

Take a Moment to Thank a Pollinator

When you pass the cranberry sauce down the table or are waiting to dig into the delicious feast, take a moment to notice just how much of our Thanksgiving foods are the product of successful pollination. Hard-working animals like hummingbirds, bats, bees and butterflies pollinate more than 75 percent of our flowering plants and nearly 75 percent of our crops. What better way to share this powerful message with others than by cooking and eating, something we all love!

Thanksgiving pie Photo by Nate Pesce at Forte Meade

Everything including the pumpkin pie, the onions and celery in the stuffing, broccoli and cauliflower, the rub on the turkey, even the glaze on the cornbread is the product of pollination. This doesn’t even count the dozens of spices we use or the after-dinner coffee!

Ways to Thank a Pollinator:

  1. Create a pollinator garden

  2. Reduce pesticides wherever possible

  3. Join citizen science efforts around pollinators

  4. Learn more about work to save the monarch

What is Pollination, Really?

Pollination involves the movement of pollen from one plant to another when animals travel from flower to flower. This pollen transfer allows most of our fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds to develop and grow. Without this process, many plants would not produce food for humans and wildlife alike.

The monarch butterfly, a well-known pollinator species, serves as an indicator of our environment’s health. Its population is declining, which means other pollinators and their habitats are, too, but all is not lost -- you probably won’t have to do without blueberries (another food requiring pollinators). The charismatic monarch may be the answer. Because they rely on habitat throughout the United States during their magnificent migration to Mexico each fall, conservation for monarchs protects other pollinators like bees, bats, moths and flies.

Monarch Butterfly and Bumble Bee on Swamp MilkweedPhoto by Jim Hudgins / USFWS

With preparations for Thanksgiving well underway, take a moment to thank a pollinator this season. The video below shows how different our Thanksgiving would look if it were not for these powerful critters. To help support monarch and pollinator populations, plant flowers that are native to your area and reduce your use of pesticides! Learn how you can help save the monarch and other pollinators.

Happy Thanksgiving! We’re thankful for you!

On the Wings of Change: Bringing Some Predictability to the Uncertainty of our Changing Climate

  wood trush, grasshopper sparrow  Wood trush, grasshopper sparrow. Photos by Scott Whittle


When I was a young biologist, more than 30 years ago, I was stationed on Adak Naval Air Station at Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge (now part of Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge). Out in the Aleutians, the weather was always changing. It could be dead calm one minute and gale force winds in another. Rain squalls would blast from above, pelting your face with millions of icy needles for a few minutes and then the sun would break through. Heavy fog could roll by on 50-knot winds for days on end, and then skies would suddenly clear. The weather was so variable that the Nightly Navy News weather report was called, “Today’s Weather Was…” The unpredictability of the Aleutian weather was, well, predictable and thus, something we were well-prepared for.

  • Rising to the Urgent Challenge of Climate Change
  • Thinking like a Spruce: The Case for Stewarding Ecological Transformation
  • Conserving Monarch Butterflies in a Changing Climate
  • Moving from the Dire to Stories of Inspiration and Optimism
  • One Salt Marsh at a Time: Building Coastal Resiliency after Hurricane Sandy
  • Rewetting Pocosin Peatlands to Mitigate Climate Change
  • Working Toward Carbon Neutrality
  • Planning for Future Changes in America’s Heartland
  • The Kenai Mountains to Sea Partnership: A Local Effort to Address Climate Change at a Landscape Scale
  • The National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy
 • WHAT YOU CAN DO: What’s Your ‘Climate Handprint’?

Today, climate change is throwing an increasing number and magnitude of unexpected extreme weather events at wildlife and land managers. Our uncertainty about the impacts of such change is something managers need to get a hold of so that we can prepare for and respond to such change. In 2011, the Service partnered with NASA’s Ecological Forecasting Program and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to look at the potential impacts of climate change and extreme weather on bird populations on national wildlife refuges in the continental United States.

Birds, and all wildlife, are now experiencing a higher frequency of extreme events, such as droughts or heavy rains, in some places where extreme events were once rare. When combined with higher temperatures, an extreme event can affect the availability of critical resources and be more than a species can bear. As a result, wildlife may move to more suitable areas, abandon breeding attempts or even die. In a recent paper, Dr. Sebastian Martinuzzi and others reported that droughts are expected to become more frequent on some wildlife refuges, particularly in the Southwest, where increasing temperature may already be pushing the limits of some species, so we know we will need strong management there.

   map of Current suitable climate space vs. projected suitable climate space for breeding wood thrush. Current suitable climate space vs. projected suitable climate space for breeding wood thrush.

Even in other areas, drought may have a profound effect on birds. Drs. Brooke Bateman and Andrew Allstadt developed models suggesting that drought and precipitation are particularly important  in shaping the suitable climate range for breeding wood thrush. The projected increase in drought conditions in the southern United States may influence the loss of the region’s suitability as future breeding habitat for the wood thrush by the end of the century. Suitable climate conditions, however, are projected to expand north and east.

   map of Current suitable climate space vs. projected suitable climate space for breeding grasshopper sparrow.Current suitable climate space vs. projected suitable climate space for breeding grasshopper sparrow.

The grasshopper sparrow needs a more even combination of temperature and precipitation conditions, although it appears to favor wetter conditions like those projected for the Midwest in the future. So while its suitable climate range is projected to shrink in the south and west, it is also projected to expand north and east.

Armed with projections like these, we are better able to think about alternative actions the Service can take in response to climate change.

Even in the face of an uncertain climate future, knowing the potential magnitude of change allows the Service to better prepare and act with intention.

Contributing: Anna Pidgeo, Volker Radleoff, Steve Vavrus, Brooke Bateman, Andy Allstadt and Sebastian Martinuzzi, all from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Wayne Thogmartin, U.S. Geological Survey; Tom Albright, University of Nevada-Reno; and Resit Akcakaya, Stony Brooke University

PATRICIA HEGLUND, Division of Biological Resources and Regional Refuge Biologist, Midwest Region

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

One Salt Marsh at a Time: Building Coastal Resiliency after Hurricane Sandy

   Susan Adamowicz, Ph.D.  and Toni Mikula read a surface elevation table Susan Adamowicz, Ph.D. and Toni Mikula read a surface elevation table in a Maine salt marsh. Photo by USFWS


Dr. Susan Adamowicz is standing on a salt marsh along the shores of the Webhannet River at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. This refuge is practically her home, where she has worked for the past 13 years as a land management and research demonstration biologist for the Service.

  • Rising to the Urgent Challenge of Climate Change
  • Thinking like a Spruce: The Case for Stewarding Ecological Transformation
  • Conserving Monarch Butterflies in a Changing Climate
  • Moving from the Dire to Stories of Inspiration and Optimism
  • On the Wings of Change: Bringing Some Predictability to the Uncertainty of our Changing Climate
  • Rewetting Pocosin Peatlands to Mitigate Climate Change
  • Working Toward Carbon Neutrality
  • Planning for Future Changes in America’s Heartland
  • The Kenai Mountains to Sea Partnership: A Local Effort to Address Climate Change at a Landscape Scale
  • The National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy
 • WHAT YOU CAN DO: What’s Your ‘Climate Handprint’?

Coastal marshes are a habitat she has known and loved since she was a child. But today, salt marshes are facing new and unprecedented threats from climate change. We asked her to talk to us about the important role salt marshes play in protecting coastlines and building coastal resiliency.

Q: What are salt marshes and what makes them important?

Susan: Salt marshes are exciting places to work! They are dynamic areas. Salt marshes form where rivers meet the sea and where the velocity of water is slow enough to allow the sediment to deposit and for plants to take root. Over time, as salt marshes continue to grow, they rise in elevation and expand outward horizontally.

They support a wide variety of wildlife that’s specialized to live in this salty, tidal environment, everything from micro biota to birds such as the saltmarsh sparrow to numerous species of mammals and fish. They also provide excellent services, such as storing carbon, filtering water and providing natural defenses against storms by buffering the force of both storm surges and storm waves.

 interns in the field  Susan Adamowicz shows interns marsh surface elevations that support healthy vegetation growth at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS

Q: Let’s talk about storms—how did Hurricane Sandy change the way we think about protecting coastal communities?

Susan: The coast was forever changed as was our perception of what it means to live along the coast. We saw the tremendously destructive force of what nature can do, but we also saw how this force can be lessened by having salt marshes in place to protect our shores.

After Hurricane Sandy, I think many of us woke up to the challenge of having to think about our coastal systems in new ways. How might we redesign our coasts so that in some areas we could restore the natural systems, like salt marshes, that can provide more natural flexibility and protection from storm surge, big storm waves or even additional rainfall?

Q: How do we prepare for future storms and sea-level rise and stay resilient?

Susan: Salt marshes play a vital role in the resiliency of coastal systems. Imagine if this salt marsh was not here. There would be no buffer from the turbulence of storms. And because healthy salt marshes can grow higher in elevation, they can provide a continuing protection to human communities if sea levels don’t rise too high too quickly. By being able to handle the force of storms and recover quickly, we say that salt marshes are resilient and they pass this protection on to surrounding human communities.

We’re also using all kinds of new techniques to restore coastal marshes and improve resiliency. Thin-layer deposition is one example. It uses clean dredge sediments to build up the marsh surface elevation to a height that’s optimal for the salt marsh grasses to continue to build the marsh on their own over time. We have several thin-layer deposition projects on national wildlife refuges as a result of Hurricane Sandy funds [for example, at John Chafee National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island and Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey].

Q: You’ve worked in coastal marshes for a long time—how has your work changed and what do you see for the future?

Susan: A lot has changed. We no longer talk about restoring a salt marsh to the configuration it had in the 1600s. Now we talk about restoring the trajectories of salt marsh-building forces so that a salt marsh can sustain itself and have a high degree of integrity over time.

 The salt marsh crew   The salt marsh crew at Rachel Carson NWR search for fish. Photo by Sarah Fensore/USFWS

With super storms, climate change and their effects, we’re seeing unprecedented forces placed on the coast. It’s like Godzilla is walking all over our picnic and we are trying to figure out how best to prepare ourselves, how best to respond to this climate change Godzilla.  I may be exaggerating a little bit, but maybe only a little bit because it has been such a challenge to us.

Some of the models predict that our coastlines are going to be entirely changed by sea-level rise in the next 100 years and I worry a great deal about the kind of planet that my nieces and nephews and their children will inherit.

I take hope in realizing it is not just me alone, but within the family of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and my family of other professional scientists, there are a lot of us that are concerned about the same thing. We want to pass on a healthy planet to future generations. If we can bring these salt marshes 50-75 years into the future, I think we will have done a service for the next generation of scientists, wildlife lovers and folks that live on the coast, a service that they can then build on.

ANNE POST, External Affairs, Northeast Region

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

Thinking like a Spruce: The Case for Stewarding Ecological Transformation

white spruce   This is the only known white spruce north of the Brooks Range to have not been deliberately planted. Photo by Janet Jorgenson/USFWS

By Dr. John M. Morton

White spruce and moose co-exist over most of the North American boreal forest, except northern Alaska. There, long-legged moose have almost finished their colonization of arctic Alaska, following wind-dispersed willows northward as they respond to temperatures warming twice as fast as those in the Lower 48. Invading the treeless tundra just a half century ago, moose are now so common they’re recreationally hunted along the Colville River. Balsam cottonwood, another boreal species, spreads through glacial valleys in the Brooks Range, its seeds dispersing in warming winds.

The white spruce is working hard to catch up to its boreal brethren—moose, willow and cottonwood—which have leapt northward in the warming climate. Tree-rings from spruce on the leading edge of the boreal forest in western Alaska show great growth in recent decades, more so than their counterparts in interior Alaska. But spruce expansion northward is checked by the extreme alpine climate in the Brooks Range, the topographic barrier separating the Arctic Coastal Plain from subarctic spruce forests.

   spruce forestThe white spruce forest thins north of Coldfoot, Alaska, because of the harsh alpine climate. It's quite plausible that a caribou hunter or camper traveling up the Dalton Highway collected firewood near here (as did the author), unintentionally transporting a cone that germinated on the North Slope circa 1999. Photo by John M. Morton/USFWS

Slicing through this barrier, the Dalton Highway (aka “Haul Road”) extends due north 414 miles from just outside Fairbanks to Deadhorse. Sometimes  paved but mostly gravel, it cuts through spruce-covered hills before crossing the Yukon River—heart of the Far North—with a 2,300-foot wooden-decked bridge. Entering the land of midnight sun as it crosses the Arctic Circle, the Dalton Highway passes through Coldfoot—start of the longest service-less road segment (245 miles) in North America—eventually climbing the 4,800-foot-high Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range before descending to Galbraith Lake. Here, the Dalton Highway stretches 130 miles northward across the Arctic coastal plain to where the Trans-Alaska pipeline originates near the Arctic Ocean. 

   onetime northernmost spruce
This 273-year-old white spruce, girdled by a vandal in 2004, once delineated the northernmost extent of the boreal forest along the Dalton Highway. Photo by John M. Morton/USFWS  

Along the way, the white spruce forest thins, challenged by a harsher climate as the Dalton Highway traverses northward and upward in elevation. Just north of Coldfoot, as the road ascends the southern flank of the Brooks Range, a wayside sign alerts occasional travelers of the “Farthest North Spruce Tree.” This tree, now girdled in a random act of vandalism, no longer holds that crown. Spruce have sprouted further upslope, moving one woody cone at a time, perhaps 200 meters a year, a Herculean effort to reach the other side of the mountains where the climate becomes more boreal with each passing year. Modeling suggests that goal might happen in 1,000 years if left to natural dispersal in a world of anthropogenic climate change.

White spruce can survive on the coastal plain beyond the mountains. Bob Marshall, wilderness advocate, unsuccessfully sowed spruce seeds above the treeline in the Brooks Range back in 1939. They’ve since been experimentally planted at Toolik Lake, a long-term ecological research site on the coastal plain, where they grow but have yet to produce cones. And in 2008, a single white spruce seedling was found growing along the Dalton Highway near Galbraith Lake, a popular site for caribou hunting on the other side of the mountains. This tree almost certainly sprouted from a cone on a branch that was collected for firewood by hunters or campers as they drove north through spruce forests en route to the North Slope.

A novel boreal ecosystem is indeed fledging on the Arctic Coastal Plain, albeit a depauperate one. Populated by wind-dispersed woody plants such as willow and cottonwood, spruce forests are conspicuously absent as moose work to evade predators and high winds.

   Looking south as the Dalton Highway climbs the 4,800-foot-high Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range.  Looking south as the Dalton Highway climbs the 4,800-foot-high Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range. This mountain range is the topographic barrier that prevents white spruce from "naturally" migrating to the arctic coastal plain during the coming millennium. Photo by John M. Morton/USFWS

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  • The Kenai Mountains to Sea Partnership: A Local Effort to Address Climate Change at a Landscape Scale
  • The National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy
 • WHAT YOU CAN DO: What’s Your ‘Climate Handprint’?

So why don’t we just transplant spruce, accelerating what is just a matter of time?

We ‘ologists tend to be cautious, not wanting to display hubris about heady decisions like deliberately manipulating biological communities. So we try to control Old World invasives such as white sweetclover creeping up the Dalton Highway, even as we hesitate to manipulate our native spruce. Our inaction allows the random act of a camper or hunter to move the tree beyond the mountains, a decision that could and should have been thoughtfully weighed. Even after the deed is done, the ‘ologists who documented the first spruce to make it to arctic Alaska in the last several thousand years mused about “whether to protect or pull this likely human-introduced seedling or leave its future to chance.” So much angst about naturalness in a world in which its very climate is no longer natural.

When Aldo Leopold penned “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering,” Leopold almost certainly didn’t envision the sixth extinction. Perhaps climate change needs more emphatic recognition as the unidirectional driver it is to better understand that we are part of nature—like it or not—and helping spruce over the mountain is the transformational thinking needed now to ameliorate the unfolding Anthropocene.

DR. JOHN M. MORTON, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska Region

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

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