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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Service, Partner Nations to Wildlife Traffickers: There’s Nowhere to Hide

K9 InspectionA Service Wildlife Inspector and K-9 participate in Operation Thunderbird at the Honolulu international mail facility.

Operation Thunderbird, a global anti-wildlife trafficking initiative, recently turned a bright spotlight on the alarming depth and breadth of the planet’s wildlife poaching problem. In just three weeks, this coordinated international law enforcement effort resulted in the identification of nearly 900 suspects and 1,300 seizures of illicit wildlife products. Many of these were made by our own U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officers, demonstrating the significant role our nation plays in both the problem of wildlife trafficking and in implementing the solutions. 

  list of seizures in Operation Thunderbird

More than 60 countries participated including Canada, China, India, Mexico, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and the European Union (EU). The operation highlighted what can be achieved when countries work together to end the illegal wildlife trade.  

  seizures in Operation Thunderbird Photos of enforcement efforts and seizures from Italy, South Sudan, Spain, Ecuador, and Canada

The Service, for its part, not only increased inspection activities and timely reporting of seizure data but also engaged our special agent attachés stationed at U.S. embassies in Beijing, China; Gaborone, Botswana; Lima, Peru; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Bangkok, Thailand. These agents are a relatively new but growing addition to the Service’s arsenal in the fight against poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. They provide several unique international collaborative functions including information-sharing; and training and relationship-building in nations that also can play a significant role in the fight, either as wildlife range states or trafficking consumer states.

  seizures in Operation Thunderbird

In the United States, special agents and wildlife inspectors increased pro-active inspection efforts at multiple U.S. ports, such as Honolulu, Hawaii; New York, New York; Los Angeles, California; Miami, Florida; Newark, New Jersey; New Orleans, Louisiana; Portland, Oregon; and the San Ysidro Port of Entry (at the California-Mexico border).

Service agents worked in concert with Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and other government partners to target shipments and investigate those who attempted to smuggle wildlife. They also strengthened cooperation and information-sharing with partner nations. An example of the many successes of the operation, U.S. authorities in California intercepted an ocean container full of illegal shark fins and began transnational investigations with several other countries.

Operation Thunderbird was conceived during the recent 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Efforts such as Operation Thunderbird represent a positive example of international collaboration, with a message to would-be global wildlife traffickers: The world is working together to combat wildlife crime. There is nowhere to hide.

Wildlife Extravaganzas at Wildlife Refuges

   snow geese

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico is renowned for its Festival of the Cranes, Nov. 14-17 this year, where you can also see a profusion of snow geese. Photo by Diana Robinson

Since its establishment on March 14, 1903, the National Wildlife Refuge System has protected and restored a world of wildlife. Today, the Refuge System is the world’s largest network of protected lands and waters. It manages more than 850 million acres, including five marine national monuments, 566 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts.

Every day – somewhere in the United States – people gasp OMG as they see wildlife spectacles on national wildlife refuges. In celebration of the Refuge System’s birthday, the week’s photo essay, Wildlife Extravaganzas at Wildlife Refuges, takes you on an across-the-country journey to beauty and mesmerizing wildlife.  

Forster’s terns at play.You can see flocks of Forster’s terns at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey in spring and fall. Photo by Bill Lynch= 

In the Northeast:  Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey, stretching 50 miles along the Atlantic flyway, is aflutter with tens of thousands of birds during spring and fall. A 6,000-acre wilderness is nesting and feeding habitat for the rare piping plover, least tern and black skimmer. Every spring, horseshoe crabs lay their eggs on the beach; ravenous red knots, sandpipers, sanderlings and dunlins to feast on the eggs before continuing their long migration north.

manateeManatees live an average of 60 years. Photo by Keith Ramos/USFWS  

In the Southeast:  You can see manatees year-round at Florida’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.  But in winter the sight is extraordinary: Some 600 of these endangered sea cows congregate in the warm, spring-fed waters of Kings Bay.

bisonFloat the Niobrara National Scenic River to get an eyeful of the refuge’s  plants, habitats and wildlife, including bison. Photo by Phyllis Cooper 

In the Midwest: Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in north-central Nebraska sustains the rich wildlife diversity the land has supported for thousands of years. Fossils from more than 20 mammal species – including the giant bison – have been unearthed here. But it’s the 350-animal bison herd that enthralls. You can get a great view from roads and the overlook, where you can also glimpse the year-round elk herd. 

bald eaglesYou might spot bald and golden eagles, northern harriers, and red-tailed and rough-legged hawks when you visit Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuge Complex in northern California and southern Oregon. Photo by Jack Noller 

In the West:  More than 1,000 bald eagles usually winter at Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuge Complex in northern California and southern Oregon. There you will find the largest concentration of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. The complex is a group of six refuges that offer prime eagle habitat. Take the auto tour routes on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake Refuges for second-to-none wildlife viewing.

bears fishingYou can watch sows and cubs fish in summer at Frazer Falls, part of Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS

In Alaska: Nothing says “wildlife” like Kodiak brown bears, genetically distinct from mainland brown bears. Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1941 to protect the animal whose name it bears. The refuge’s rich vegetation and plentiful salmon mean the 3,000 bears flourish.

Wildlife Extravaganzas at Wildlife Refuges, 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.

State and Federal Agencies Team up for Tigers


Fighting wildlife trafficking needs federal and state conservation law enforcement agencies. State conservation law enforcement personnel often lack the time and resources to combat illicit online sales of protected wildlife in their state. Likewise, Service special agents require the support of their state and local counterparts when conducting field activities such as undercover operations. In 2014, we worked with Massachusetts on a joint investigation into the online advertisement of tiger claws by a Massachusetts resident.  


Stopping Wildlife Traffickers – The Gift that Keeps on Giving


Wildlife inspectors, says Shelia O’Connor, the Service’s Resident Agent in Charge for Oregon, “provide a real gift to the American public by protecting wildlife for future generations.”

Read about a day of inspections at Portland International Airport.

Going Batty Over Bats!

   father and daughter building bat house
Service employee Mitch Adams and daughter Elouise build a bat house. Photo by USFWS  

Bats need our help. Habitat loss, severe weather and the devastating disease white-nose syndrome are all wreaking havoc on bat populations. Fortunately, there are many ways to help, and recently D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery & Archives in Spearfish, South Dakota, went to bat for bats. 

The “Build a Bat House!” event last month attracted more than 50 people, many of whom were families with children. It kicked off with a very informative presentation by bat biologist Joel Tigner. Tigner conducts bat research and work all over the world. He shared information on bats in general, his international work and bats in South Dakota. South Dakota has 47 types of bats!

Following the presentation, people could help build a bat house or make a bat craft to take home. Parts for the bat houses were pre-cut and stained. Participants worked with volunteers and staff to assemble 16 bat houses. The houses will be installed on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acreage in western South Dakota. Participants could elect to build the bat house for the BLM to use (no cost to the participant), or they could pay $15 to build a bat house to take home with them to install on their personal property. Twelve bat houses were purchased for personal use; four will be put up on BLM land.

Oceans of Trash

litter on beach   Seaborne plastic debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in Papahanaumokuskea Marine National Monument in the Pacific. Marine debris — almost none of it locally generated — is a global problem threatening wildlife. Photo by Susan White/USFWS

Lots of the trash we toss on land doesn’t stay there. Each year, rivers and storm sewers carry millions of tons of it to the sea, where it joins a swirling mass known as marine debris. Abandoned boats and fishing nets add to the menace.

Even in the world’s most remote places, marine debris kills and injures wildlife. You may have seen the photos from Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific, where albatross skim up bright plastic bits from the ocean surface and feed them to their chicks. The young birds starve, their stomachs filled with scrap.

Marine debris puts human health at risk, too. Plastics have entered the human food chain, through the water we drink and the fish we eat. The impact on human health is not yet full known.

cleanup crew on mound of trash on beach   A cleanup crew celebrates the removal of derelict nets from the northwest Hawaiian islands. Photo by NOAA

But we can do something about the problem. Some would argue we have to. Making a real dent in the problem requires action by all of us.

A photo essay from the National Wildlife Refuge System looks at efforts to address the problem and some of the things big and small we can do to help.

Among these: Join or lead a cleanup. Avoid excess packaging. Use cloth bags instead of plastic bags. Dispose of waste responsibly. Spread the word. Read more in the story.

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

Susan Morse, National Wildlife Refuge System communications

Canvasback Connects ‘Sister Refuges’ in Alaska, California

 Heather Bartlett, wildlife refuge specialist; Julie Mahler, refuge information technician;Nathan Hawkaluk, deputy refuge manager;    Yukon Flats Refuge employees Heather Bartlett, wildlife refuge specialist; Julie Mahler, refuge information technician; and Nathan Hawkaluk, deputy refuge manager. Photo by USFWS

Heather Bartlett, wildlife refuge specialist at Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, tells about her visit to “Sister Refuge” San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge in California.

At first glance, an urban national wildlife refuge on the coast of California and a remote refuge in the interior of Alaska don’t seem to have much in common. Take a closer look and the connections become clear and important.

Canvasback. Photo by USFWS

The striking and regal canvasback, the largest diving duck in North America, is the primary species that connects Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge in California – both physically and through each refuge’s establishing legislation. In the 1950s and ‘60s, biologists banded thousands of ducks on what is now Yukon Flats Refuge. Of these banded ducks, 313 canvasbacks were recovered – and 89 of those were returned from the San Francisco Bay area. 

So when refuge staff at Yukon Flats sought to establish a “Sister Refuge” relationship with a Lower 48 refuge - a relationship based on a shared resource - they followed the canvasbacks to San Pablo Bay Refuge in San Francisco’s North Bay. This pairing of refuges provides a tangible opportunity to educate residents in the Bay Area and the Yukon River Basin about how wildlife refuges function together as a national network of lands despite their apparent differences and the great distance that separates them. 

Last week marked the official start to the Sister Refuge partnership between Yukon Flats and San Pablo Bay Refuges. Three Yukon Flats Refuge employees – Nathan Hawkaluk, deputy refuge manager; Heather Bartlett, wildlife refuge specialist; and Julie Mahler, refuge information technician – migrated to the canvasbacks’ wintering habitats in the North Bay with a simple goal: to reach a new audience, and in doing so, get more people to recognize that Yukon Flats Refuge exists. Although a seemingly basic message, most people are unaware of this hidden and yet vitally important conservation gem in Alaska. 

Nathan, Heather and Julie took the first step toward this goal by presenting to Bay Area classrooms, refuge staff and Friends group members, and attendees of the 21st Annual San Francisco Bay Flyway Festival. These presentations showed how integral Yukon Flats Refuge is to the waterfowl flyways as well as to the residents who subsist on the refuge’s resources. 

   Nathan and Julie show homemade bootsNathan Hawkaluk and Julie Mahler with some homemade boots. Photo by USFWS 

Julie, who has spent her entire life within the Yukon Flats basin, captivated audiences young and old with stories about raising her family while living off the abundant, but challenging, resources in the wilds of Alaska.  Bay Area residents could only imagine the isolation and self-reliance that are the reality of living in such a remote place. A home without electricity, running water, a grocery store or a gas station – not to mention the nearest neighbor a 3-day boat ride away! Julie brought examples of her homemade handicrafts to demonstrate her and her family’s reliance on the Yukon Flats resources: a hat made of lynx fur, boots sewn from caribou and moose hides, and mittens she lined with beaver fur. 

   Julie with 4 high schoolersJulie Mahler shows off some Yukon Flats attire. Photo by USFWS  

Through the stories of Julie’s personal experiences and connections with the land, as well as the information about Yukon Flats Refuge presented by Nathan and Heather, Bay Area residents gained a better understanding about this treasured place in the heart of Alaska.  These stories revealed and confirmed that even today in modern America, wild and unaltered landscapes still remain for the American public to enjoy. This is the legacy of the Yukon Flats today – and tomorrow.

Providing Essential Migratory Waterfowl Habitat for 80 Years in Missouri

   mallardsMallards at Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS

Since 1937, Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which turns 80 today, has been an integral part of the state’s wildlife conservation history. With more than 3,000 acres of wetlands, the refuge provides habitat for hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, and other wildlife, such as river otter, white-tailed deer and more.

Maxie the Canada Goose. Photo by Brett Billings/USFWS

But it’s known for its waterfowl.

Many outdoor enthusiasts from Missouri will tell you they shot their first Canada goose at the refuge, and Sumner, the refuge’s hometown, has the world's largest Canada Goose statue in the city park. Maxie stands 40 feet-tall, has a wingspan of 61 feet and weighs 4,000 pounds! Sumner calls itself the "Goose Capitol of the World.”

Happy Birthday!

Read More

FWS and Greening Youth Foundation Place Members of Phi Beta Sigma, Zeta Phi Beta in FWS Internships

   Lee Irvin and Kharisma Day Lee Irvin has spent two summers at Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Kharisma Day scouts the wildlife at Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. Photos courtesy of Lee Irvin and Kharisma Day

For several summers, Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex has hired interns through the Wildlife Refuge Exposure to Diversity (WiRED) Initiative at the Greening Youth Foundation, which reaches out to diverse, underserved and underrepresented youth to develop a new generation of natural resource stewards. WiRED is a Service-only initiative that placed 11 interns this past year.

backs of young bird watchers
  • From the Directorate: Connecting Our Constituencies
  • Harvesting the Power of Co-management for Bird Conservation in Alaska
  • Building Connections for Wildlife, People, Environmental Resilience in Baltimore
  • Arctic Youth Ambassador Wants Everyone to Feel ‘Power of Nature’
  • Increasing Native American Participation

Diane Borden-Billiot, the visitor services manager at the complex, says, “The Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex has been fortunate to host [these interns]. It is a great way to obtain and become familiar with different perspectives regarding what we do every day.”

In 2014, the Service joined forces with leading African American fraternity Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., to help youth experience the natural world and promote interest in conservation and the biological sciences. A year later, the Service inked a similar partnership with Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., the sister organization of Phi Beta Sigma. Since then, refuges, hatcheries and other Service offices have teamed up with local chapters of the fraternity and sorority to engage youth in outdoor recreation, biological sciences and healthy activity in nature. Service leadership has also attended the groups’ meetings, with then-Director Dan Ashe speaking at Phi Beta Sigma’s International Conclave in 2015. The internships are an extension of this outreach.

Lee Irvin, a member of Phi Beta Sigma and student at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, has interned at the complex the past two summers. Fellow Pine Bluff student Kharisma Day, a member of Zeta Phi Beta, just finished her first summer internship.

Borden-Billiot encourages others in the Service to work with the Greening Youth Foundation or similar organizations to find candidates from diverse backgrounds for all types of internships. With the help of the foundation, the refuge complex placed interns enthusiastic about engaging in an immersive experience with the Service.

Meet Kharisma Day

   Kharisma Day
  Kharisma Day holds a dove. Photo courtesy of Kharisma Day

Day, from a small town in Arkansas, says, “I knew how to fish as well as farm since I was 6 years old. Pretty much our life was spent being outdoors.”

That’s not to say she hasn’t had obstacles. Day says she is highly allergic to red wasps. “It was a big fear of mine because being stung by those insects was a life or death situation.” But she overcame that fear “because being outdoors is something that I love.”

Kharisma’s love of nature was solidified through time spent with her grandfather on his farm. There, she picked purple-hulled peas and learned that cotton from the farm was used as material for clothes and other products.

“Our food, clothes, shelter and pretty much our way of life are connected to nature,” she says. “I just wish people would take the time out to spend a day outdoors.”

Her internship definitely made an impression. “I was so honored to have this opportunity to be able to do something I love to do on a professional prospective.”

And she is ready to dive into conservation as a career.

“I believe what drew me to conservation as a possible profession is that I will be actually making a difference,” she says, adding, “Being outdoors solidified the deal for me.”

While Day revels in her connection to nature, her friends are more hesitant.

They “have a new-found appreciation for nature when spending a day outdoors with me,” she says, adding, “Actually one of my best friends went hiking for the first time.”

Meet Lee Irvin

   Lee Irvin
Lee Irvin says the “coolest” thing he did in his internships was qualifying as a wildland firefighter. Photo courtesy of Lee Irvin

Growing up in a small town in Illinois, Irvin says, “I fished, hunted and observed nature every chance I got.”

It helped to have parents enthusiastic about his budding passion. “My parents loved the fact that I was so connected with nature so I was able to be outside more often.”

He says he always knew he wanted to protect wildlife.

Irvin remembers playing in the woods behind his parents’ home as a 9-year-old, “when I noticed a fallen bird nest. I picked it up along with four eggs and I climbed up the tree and placed the nest back from where it fell.” He says his parents saw this and stared at him. Thinking he was in trouble, he “asked what was wrong and they replied, ‘You are going to do great things for this world.’”

But, he says, “Little did I know until I became an adult there was a way to turn my passion into a successful career.”

After his summers with the Service, Irvin is more convinced than ever that he will go into conservation. “There are so many awesome experiences during both internships,” Irvin says.

The “coolest, hands-down,” he adds, was qualifying as a wildland firefighter, earning his “red card” in firefighting lingo. The toughest, he says, was the pack test for that red card. That’s a physical fitness test that measures minimum required aerobic endurance and muscular strength for wildland firefighters. It’s called a pack test because you must walk three miles in 45 minutes while carrying 45 lbs.

Reaching Everyone

With the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program and partnerships such as those with Phi Beta Sigma and Zeta Phi Beta, the Service is trying to engage diverse audiences and grow a more diverse workforce.

To reach more people and become a more diverse agency, Irvin says the Service should tell its story to students — grade school to high school — in diverse communities. “An early impression is a lasting one,” he says.

To reach her friends and others like them, Day also encourages outreach “that will help strengthen the ties to the local community.” She mentions afterschool programs as one idea.

Don’t be surprised if you see Day and Irvin “wearing the brown” of the Fish and Wildlife Service one day. “FWS would be an awesome employer,” Day says.

MATT TROTT, External Affairs, Headquarters

Fish & Wildlife News   This article is a preview of the winter issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine. The issue is due online in finished form in early February.

Increasing Native American Participation

   students and mentorsNative American students with Dr. Serra Hoagland (back row, left), program coordinator and chair of the Native Peoples’ Wildlife Management Working Group, and Paige Schmidt (front row, left), mentor and NPWMWG secretary/treasurer of the Native Peoples’ Wildlife Management Working Group. Photo by DJ Monette/USFWS

Across Indian country one can find beautiful areas of untrammeled land, more than 100 million acres, stewarded by people who value their natural heritage.

“As tribal people, our relationship with the natural world goes back thousands of years. We’ve evolved with these resources and have an ingrained cultural, spiritual and ecological connection with them,” says John Banks, director of the Penobscot Nation’s Natural Resources Department.

But Native Americans who do get natural resources degrees generally find work in tribal organizations and are underrepresented in the larger conservation world.

In October, the Service, U.S. Forest Service, USDA-APHIS National Wildlife Research Center and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux community brought 16 Native American students to the Wildlife Society’s annual meeting in an effort to change that.

backs of young bird watchers
  • From the Directorate: Connecting Our Constituencies
  • FWS and Greening Youth Foundation Place Members of Phi Beta Sigma, Zeta Phi Beta in FWS Internships
  • Harvesting the Power of Co-management for Bird Conservation in Alaska
  • Building Connections for Wildlife, People, Environmental Resilience in Baltimore
  • Arctic Youth Ambassador Wants Everyone to Feel ‘Power of Nature’

“What we are trying to do is get more Native Americans engaged in the Wildlife Society,” says Scott Aikin, the Service’s National Native American Programs Coordinator. In turn, Aikin hopes that will “engage more diversity within the field of natural resources or fish and wildlife conservation.”

The students, all pursuing degrees in natural resources or fish and wildlife management, “really got a lot out of the meeting,” Aikin says. The work the Service is doing to recover the Mexican wolf attracted a lot of interest, he says.

In addition to the wildlife aspects, the program allows students to share their experiences in the field, creating a kind of support network.

Talbrett Caramillo, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation attending San Juan College in New Mexico, told the Wildlife Society’s blog that at school “I just felt isolated. I haven’t met students here on campus that are really pursuing anything in wildlife.”

He told the blog that he had been thinking of leaving school. But after attending the conference, he said, “Being accepted is a big sign telling me to keep pursuing wildlife and stay in school.”

Aikin’s already excited about bringing students to Caramillo’s state next year. The meeting’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which Aikin says will be “an excellent opportunity to engage a lot of Native American communities that live in and around the Albuquerque area.”

Because the Service places great value in increasing diversity within the agency, Aikin says he expects the program to continue “as long as we have the resources.”

MATT TROTT, External Affairs, Headquarters

Fish & Wildlife News   This article appears in the winter issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine.

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