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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Visiting Lomami National Park Before it was Officially a Park

Bonobos
Bonobos in a camera trap.

By Matt Muir 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to conserve wildlife in some of the most remote and wild regions on Earth, and as a biologist for the Service’s Africa Program, I had never visited a site as remote as the newly established - then only proposed -  Lomami National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

RELATED: A Milestone in Conservation for Central African Wildlife

It takes multiple days of air travel for visitors to arrive in the city of Kindu on the banks of the Lualaba River, the greatest tributary of the Congo River and about 1,200 river miles from where the Congo empties into the Atlantic Ocean. From Kindu, it takes a full day by motorized transport and pirogue (a dug-out canoe traditionally made from a single tree trunk) to reach Chombe Kilima, a village in the park’s buffer zone. From Chombe Kilima, you hike. And hike and hike and hike.

  Bonobo NestA bonobo nest. Photo by Terese Hart

We forded rivers up to our neck, crossed open savannas with orchids and other botanical marvels, and passed through primary rainforest under the leaf nests built daily by bonobos, one of human’s closest relatives and nicknamed the “make-love-not-war” ape.

  mapThe Tshuapa-Lualaba-Lomami Landscap is a remote landscape in the middle of the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to bonobos, forest elephants, gray parrots and other species.

  orchid
An orchid (Eulophia cucullata) is one of the botanical marvels found in the savannas of Lomami National Park. Photo by Matt Muir/USFWS

When I first visited in December 2014, I was with a dynamic team working to make the national park a reality. This broad group of conservationists included DRC’s protected area authority, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN); governors from the two provinces of Maniema and Orientale who had taken a critical first step by granting provincial park status to Lomami; community members and elders surrounding the park who had helped define its boundaries, and a technical team from the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, also known as the TL2 Project.

It was with the TL2 Project team, including Drs. John and Terese Hart that I hiked into the wilderness. The Harts are a husband and wife team that has worked in DRC since arriving as Peace Corps volunteers in the 1970s. You can read more about the TL2 Project’s achievements, the Harts and the rest of the team, and highlights of the Service’s support for on-the-ground conservation efforts at Lomami at the blog of Terese Hart’s field notes (Searching for Bonobo in Congo). 

  Shining-Blue KingfisherAn aptly named shining-blue kingfisher (Alcedo quadribrachys) on the banks of the Lomami River. This dramatically colored kingfisher occurs from Senegal to Uganda. Photo by Matt Muir/USFWS

Apart from the signs of bonobos mentioned above, we were fortunate to also see monkeys such as the black mangabey, birds like the shining-blue kingfisher and the crested Guineafowl, and a variety of fish, reptiles and herps. Seeing large wildlife in a dense rainforest is an uncommon occurrence across the Congo Basin, so I was overjoyed to turn my attention to the area’s abundant and spectacular insect life. I was particularly interested to look for dragonflies and damselflies because the area had never been surveyed for these species.

 Rhyothemis A dragonfly species (Rhyothemis splendens) not seen since 1952 when it was first described for science. Photo by Matt Muir/USFWS

I’m a complete amateur in the study of insects, so I took photos and shared with experts. To all our delight, I had photographed a dragonfly species that had not been seen since 1952 when it was first described for science. The experts, Drs. KD Dijkstra and Jens Kipping, described this observation as the “MEGA-discovery” of the trip.

 Rhyothemis KD Dijkstra and Jens Kipping identified the dragonfly species and highlighted the significance of the observation. The genus Rhyothemis are known as the “flutterers” and resemble butterflies in flight. Photo by Matt Muir/USFWS

More discoveries surely await Lomami National Park and I’m extremely proud to work for the Service and with our partners in the field to help explore and conserve the wildlife and habitats of this under-explored part of the world.

Battling the Invasion of Watersnakes

Nerodia invading the west

"We found one," said Bob Reed, as he emerged from an eight-foot tall wall of cattails and marsh grass into the chest-deep water and muck of an irrigation ditch. His expression reflected both good news and bad news.

A Ph. D., research biologist and invasive species branch chief for the U.S. Geological Survey based at the Fort Collins (Colo.) Science Center, Reed had come to the Colorado River Basin north of Yuma, Arizona, in May to investigate the presence of the southern watersnake – Nerodia fasciata – a non-venomous snake native to the southeast U.S.

The good news, of course, was that his traps were successful. The bad news: he captured the first live southern watersnake in southwestern Arizona. And in the next few days, Reed's team would capture six more. His suspicion was confirmed: a thriving population of Nerodia fasciata exists in the Colorado River basin.

The Toads are Back in Town

wy toadThe Wyoming toad, listed as an endangered species in 1984, occurs only in Albany County, Wyoming. Photo by Sara Armstrong/USFWS

Earlier this month, biologists in Wyoming made history by releasing 900 adult Wyoming toads into the wild in the largest toad release ever.

Fifty years ago, if you added 900 of these toads to the wetlands of Wyoming, nobody would bat an eye. (Actually, people would probably be impressed with your efficient toad-adding abilities, but the toads themselves wouldn’t be a big deal.) For hundreds of years, the Laramie River basin was chock-full of Wyoming toads, a species found only in Albany County, Wyoming. Everything changed, however, in the 1970s when toad populations suddenly started plummeting. 

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Mathematician Uses Big Data to Save Tiny Smelt

 Ken Newman

For more than 30 years, Ken Newman has used his statistical methods to help endangered fish and wildlife species in some of the most complex ecosystems across the United States and Scotland. His work with the Delta smelt may be his most daunting task. The Fish and Wildlife Service statistician is working in California’s Bay-Delta to determine population numbers and trends, and ultimately help reverse the decline of a struggling, much-maligned Delta smelt.

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Biologists Work Together to Return Bull Trout to Remote Oregon River

After a day-long bull trout conservation meeting in June, some of our biologists teamed up with counterparts at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and left behind the city to back up their meeting with actions. 

They got together to translocate bull trout into the Clackamas River. This is the sixth year of an ongoing effort to secure a population of bull trout, previously extirpated, in this watershed.

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Navajo Nation Protects Eagles

Craig Springer, External Affairs in our Southwest Region, tells us about the nation’s newest eagle aviary.

 FWS employees Michael Eldon Brown left and Joe Early release golden eagle at Navajo Zoo FWS employees Michael Eldon Brown left and Joe Early release golden eagle at the Navajo Zoo .

The Navajo people know it as Atsá: the golden eagle. They revere the regal bird, moved by its beauty on the perch and its grace as it soars in the Southwestern sky. The golden eagle represents eternal life; it’s fearless, they believe, and it can see where no mortal man can see. The animal’s spirit is a healer of the human spirit, thus the Native people use its naturally molted feathers and parts to cure illness and keep evil at bay in ceremonies. In short, the golden eagle is a protector of the Navajo.

The golden eagle is protected under federal law. This majestic raptor is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. But through regulations and permitting via our Division of Migratory Birds, Native people have access to these culturally significant animals for use in indigenous religious ceremonies and customs.

Toward that end, the Navajo Nation dedicated its Eagle Aviary and Education Center at the Navajo Zoo in Window Rock, Arizona, on July 1. The expansion of the zoo/addition of the aviary was paid for in part by a Tribal Wildlife Grant we awarded the Navajo Nation several years ago.

The dedication involved heartfelt songs and passionate speeches from Navajo dignitaries and zoo employees. The highlight was no doubt the release of the zoo’s four golden eagles, previously injured and non-releasable into the wild, into the new aviary as a large and silent crowd looked on. 

Two of our employees from the Southwest Region, Michael Eldon Brown, Migratory Bird Permits Branch Chief, and Joe Early, Native American Liaison, were together given the honor of releasing one of the eagles. Both are Native American themselves, and were professionally involved in seeing the aviary through the permitting process.

“I appreciate the collaboration of Native people to support the conservation of birds of prey that are culturally significant to tribes and that are a trust responsibility of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, Regional Director of the Southwest Region.

The new eagle aviary at Navajo Zoo is the sixth and largest eagle aviary in the United States, all of which are located in the Southwest Region.

Wildlife Safety Tips for Enjoying the Great Outdoors

America’s public lands, including national wildlife refuges and parks, offer tremendous opportunities to explore and enjoy the great outdoors, most from sunrise to sunset every day. Hike, fish, observe and photograph wildlife! These places offer unique opportunities to see wildlife, but it's always important to remember your personal safety. 

Safety should always be the number one concern when enjoying nature, whether it’s in the form of making sure cycling, biking or climbing equipment is in good working order or taking the possibility of severe weather into account before departing for the outdoors. 

Here are a few tips to follow while exploring wild places:

  • Be aware of your surroundings and what animals may be present that could pose a threat in that environment.
  • Never feed wild animals, even squirrels or chipmunks. Keep them wild and don’t risk attracting predators.
  • If you are camping, keep the area clean: wash all cooking and eating utensils after use and store left over food in airtight containers.
  • Report any wildlife attacks to 911.

As for safety when it comes to some of the larger predators, we collected a few best practices around exploring in areas that include bears, mountain lions and alligators. 

Bears

Kodiak brown bearKodiak brown bear by Lisa Hupp, USFWS

In the U.S., brown bears are found in Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and a potentially small population in Washington. The American black bear is found in at least 40 states in the U.S. 

“The opportunity to view a bear in the wild is an unforgettable experience. With some basic wildlife safety precautions, people can absolutely enjoy recreating and observing wildlife in refuges and parks,” -- 
says Lisa Hupp, Park Ranger, Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If you encounter a bear:

  • Be bear aware and look for signs of recent bear traffic. Leave when you see crushed plants, scat or fresh tracks. Avoid surprising bears when you are out hiking by making noise: clap your hands, sing and talk. Travel in groups and make extra noise if you are in a brushy or loud area.

  • If you see a bear, stand still and stay calm. Assess how the bear is behaving. If it hasn't noticed you, quietly move away. Bears primarily use their noses to get information about the world, but they also have reasonably good eyesight and hearing.

  • If you encounter young bears, back away in the direction you came. If your trail goes close by them, find another way around. The mother is likely nearby and you don’t want to get between her and her cubs.

  • If a bear is aware of you, talk calmly and face the bear. If the bear does not approach, back away slowly until you are at a safe distance to leave the area.

  • Do not allow them to obtain human food or associate humans with a food reward – even fish! A bear that knows it can find food around humans is no longer wild. Store your food and garbage properly. 

  • Never run from a bear. Bears can sprint at up to 40 mph – and, like dogs, will chase animals that run away. If you are approached or charged by a bear, stand your ground and use your bear deterrent (i.e. spray). Most charges by bears are defensive, not predatory.

  • In the very rare event you get knocked down by a defensive bear, roll on your stomach and “play dead.” The bear will leave when it perceives you are not a threat. If the attack is prolonged or predatory, fight back.

  • If attacked by a black bear, do not play dead. Try to escape to a place such as a car or building. If escape is not possible, try to fight back using any object available. 

Mountain Lions

 Mountain LionMountain lion in a cottonwood tree by Justin Shoemaker

Mountain lions tend to be elusive and typically avoid people. They are primarily found in 14 western states, as well as in Florida, where a subspecies called the Florida panther is protected as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Below are safety tips for traveling through known mountain lion areas.

  • Do not hike, bike or jog alone. Go in groups with adults supervising children. Avoid hiking or jogging when mountain lions are most active—dawn, dusk and at night.

  • Keep children close to you. Animals seem especially drawn to children; keep children within sight at all times.

  • Do not approach a mountain lion. Most mountain lions will try to avoid confrontation. Give them a way to escape.

  • Do not run from a lion. Running may stimulate a mountain lion's instinct to chase. Do not crouch down or bend over. A human standing does not resemble a mountain lion's natural prey.

  • Do all you can to appear larger. Raise your arms. If wearing a jacket, take it off and wave it around. Pick up small children. Wave arms slowly, speak firmly in a loud voice, throw rocks or other objects.Try to remain standing and face the attacking animal. Fight back if attacked.

Alligators

American AlligatorAmerican alligator by Dale Suiter, USFWS

The American alligator is a living prehistoric relic, having survived on earth for 200 million years. While the population is secure, some related reptiles – crocodiles and caimans – are still in trouble. For this reason, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to protect the alligator under the Endangered Species Act as “threatened due to similarity of appearance”. Alligators live in lakes, rivers and wetland areas year-round, along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts from Florida and the Carolinas to Texas, as well as parts of the inland states of Oklahoma and Arkansas.

  • Alligators can be inconspicuous, spending much of their time floating in water just below the surface. Although alligators should be considered dangerous, they are inherently afraid of humans, and typically pose no serious threat if left alone.

  • Give alligators their space and never feed them. When fed, alligators can overcome their natural wariness and learn to associate people with food. Dispose of fish scraps in garbage cans. Do not throw them into the water.

  • Alligator bites are most likely to occur in or around water. However, they can lunge at prey if within a few feet of the shoreline. Be aware of the possible presence of alligators when in or near fresh or brackish water.

  • Keep your distance and do not approach alligators for photographs or a “better look”.

  • Never allow children or pets to play, swim or exercise in bodies of water these reptiles may call home. Be vigilant when you are near shorelines, especially between dusk and dawn when alligators are most active.

  • If an alligator bites you, the best thing you can do is fight back, making as much noise and commotion as possible. Hitting or kicking the alligator, or poking it in its eyes may cause it to release its grip.

  • Never remove an alligator from its natural habitat or accept one as a pet. It is illegal and dangerous to do so. Handling even small alligators can result in injury.

Visitor safety and wildlife conservation are our top priorities. Enjoy your adventure!

-- Vanessa Kauffman, Spokeswoman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Black Swallowwort by any Other Name is Just as Toxic

 Jordon Tourville

Jordon Tourville, an intern at Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, has had the unfortunate privilege to find some of the worst invasive plants in the country. He’s engaged in hand to hand combat with oriental bittersweet vines 50 feet tall and sailed through seas of Japanese knotweed. And, he says, one of the most dastardly invasives out there is black swallowwort.

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Trout Anglers in Southeast Have Addition to List of ‘Must-Fish Streams’

anglers
A gloomy day in May can't keep the anglers away from Hatchery Creek. Photo by USFWS


If you catch a trout in Kentucky, it almost always has some tie to Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery. The hatchery raises rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout, and it produces all the trout stocked in Kentucky. So anyone who fishes for trout in Kentucky has nearly a million reasons (the number of all fish stocked annually) to give thanks to Wolf Creek. 

Now, anglers have another reason to cheer the hatchery – a dazzling new trout stream.

The man-made Hatchery Creek replaces a 380-foot creek and meanders more than a mile through created riffles, runs, glides and pools, all providing different habitat for fish and wildlife. A series of step pools allow trout to move between the Cumberland River and the newly created stream.  

Stream designers also added special touches to encourage natural reproduction of trout. No, not Barry White on an underwater stereo. Think pools and tree stumps for small fish to hide out and special gravel to make egg-laying possible.

All this is awesome news for trout anglers. The Kentucky state records for rainbow trout, lake trout, brown trout and brook trout are all in the Cumberland River/Lake Cumberland Tailwaters. So maybe some record-setters will be among the trout testing out the new stream.

We worked together with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to make the new Hatchery Creek happen. It’s your nature; get out there and take advantage of it!

-- Matt Trott, External Affairs

Monarch Science Still has a Few Mysteries

 monarch caterpillar The Monarch Science Partnership is developing tools and information so we can better help monarchs, like this caterpillar, right here, right now. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

Until 1975, scientists were bewildered by the flocks of butterflies migrating each fall and returning each spring. No one knew where they spent the winter months. There are still modern-day monarch mysteries - or partial mysteries at least. For example, we still don’t know exactly how and why monarchs know when to migrate.

We do know, though, that monarchs are in trouble.

Using the best available science is the Monarch Conservation Science Partnership, which is exploring some of the remaining monarch mysteries, so we can better manage habitat for monarchs and other pollinators, with a focus on providing immediate relief from some threats, particularly habitat loss.

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