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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Summer Camp on Refuges

campers   Summer camp at refuges is all about nature discovery. Campers at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center try wearing duckweed. Photo by USFWS

Summer camp can be a magical experience — one children remember the rest of their lives — especially if it’s on a national wildlife refuge.

Why is that?

Because refuge summer camp encourages children to see things afresh in a safe and supportive environment. Because it awakens in many campers a sense of wonder about the natural world. Because it gives youngsters a chance to learn new outdoor skills and try things they have never tried before: like tying flies, paddling a canoe, identifying animal tracks and dissecting fish.

campers   At Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Refuge, “Marsh-In” campers conduct a water-quality sampling test. Photo by USFWS

You might not expect to find day camps on refuges. But when you think about it, it’s a natural fit.

Refuge camps get kids out in nature, promoting a healthy life-long habit. And they serve local communities, a key goal of the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program.

Not all wildlife refuges offer summer camp sessions, but those that do are all over the country. Urban refuges like Wertheim on Long Island (with its Barrens to Bay Camp) and Tualatin River outside Portland, Oregon, (with its Nature Camp and its Riverkeepers Camp) have them. Rural refuges like Necedah in Wisconsin (Eco Explorers Day Camp) and the Fergus Falls Wetland Management District in Minnesota (Summer Explorers Biology Camp) offer them, too.

archery camper A young camper tries his hand at archery at Red River National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, which began holding camp sessions in 2013. Photo by Terri Jacobson/USFWS

A photo essay from the National Wildlife Refuge System offers a look at refuge summer camps around the country and shows why campers and their parents love them.

Look for online stories about national wildlife refuges every Wednesday on the Refuge System home page.

Susan Morse, National Wildlife Refuge System communications

Forest Elephants Need our Help

   forest elephantForest elephant. Photo by Bill Kanapaux/USFWS

A recent study said that between 2004 and 2014, about 80 percent of the forest elephants in Gabon’s Minkébé National Park disappeared, a loss of more than 25,000 elephants.  Richard Ruggiero, Chief of our Division of International Conservation, talks to National Geographic about forest elephants in general and in Gabon, home to more than half of the world’s remaining forest elephants.

“The battle for the survival of the forest elephant can be won, but it will take all of our help.”

Cameroon Scales It Up for Pangolin Conservation

   White-bellied pangolin.
White-bellied pangolin. Photo by Frank Kohn/USFWS

Until recently, pangolins – the only mammal with scales and thought to be the world’s most trafficked mammal – were not getting the conservation attention they deserved in Central Africa, a region home to four of the world’s eight pangolin species. In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set out to change this: In collaboration with the Zoological Society of London, it launched the MENTOR-POP (Progress on Pangolins) Fellowship program in Cameroon to establish a team of nine early career conservation practitioners to champion the conservation of pangolins in Central Africa.

A year later, the nine Fellows have come a long way, and have helped Cameroon emerge as a leader for the conservation of pangolins in the region.

This leadership on pangolin conservation was evident in several activities held on or around World Pangolin Day (February 18), including a pangolin scale destruction event, outreach by MENTOR-POP and the U.S. Embassy at a week-long international business trade fair in Yaoundé, high-level awareness-raising activities at Mbam et Djerem National Park, and what is believed to be the first wildlife-focused social media campaign targeting a broad audience in Cameroon and across the region, which reached more than 154,000 people across a range of countries.

Read more about these activities in guest blogs written by two of the MENTOR-POP Fellows: The first “World Pangolin Week” ever in Cameroon! and World Pangolin Day Celebration in Mbam et Djerem National Park, Cameroon and help us congratulate the Fellows for giving a much-needed voice to Central Africa’s pangolins!

Combating Timber and Wildlife Trafficking in Belize

   Geoffroy’s spider monkey An endangered Geoffroy’s spider monkey housed in Wildtracks’ Primate Rehabilitation Centre. When ready, this monkey will be reintroduced to the wild with a troop of other monkeys. Photo by Levi Novey/USFWS

While Belize might be better known by travelers for its gorgeous coastline and beaches, the small Central American country also possesses an impressive array of wild forest landscapes and wildlife. Given the country’s unique history and blend of cultures, as well as its low population of less than half a million people compared to many other Central American countries, its forests and abundance of wildlife are still somewhat intact. There is increasing pressure, however, from within the country and outside of it.

Inside of the country, taking and selling wildlife for pets and to traffickers can help individuals, families and organized crime groups make money, especially when other economic possibilities are not readily available. Trafficking in Belize threatens endangered parrots, monkeys and turtles. Trees, too, in particular a precious hardwood species called Honduran rosewood, are being illegally cut for timber and shipped to China and other destinations, where they are in demand to make luxury furniture and musical instruments. Rosewood grows slowly and takes approximately 80 years to reach a harvestable size.

On Belize’s border, the burgeoning population in neighboring Guatemala has created an increased level of tension. Guatemala is believed to now have around 17 million people, so roughly 42.5 times the amount of people in Belize, living within a country roughly the size of Tennessee. Pressure has mounted as impoverished Guatemalans are building communities near the border that lack state-provided services. These communities sometimes have few options other than to go across the border into Belize to extract resources and grow crops to sustain their families.

Given these factors and others, the Service is supporting two separate but complementary projects this year to simultaneously take on the issues of wildlife and rosewood trafficking in Belize. While trafficking is a global phenomenon, the Western Hemisphere has not received as much attention as other parts of the world where species like rhinos, elephants, pangolins and sharks have been severely threatened by illegal trade and have provided cause for deep concern. Animals including sea turtles, primates, parrots, songbirds, insects, amphibians and reptiles are some of the most threatened by trafficking in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Given our continuing support this year of national level projects in Peru to combat wildlife trafficking, we are excited to have Belize serve as a second anchor point for taking on the challenge in Latin America. Its small geographic size, when combined with the collaboration of key partners in the government and in the nonprofit community, make it a fascinating case study of how big of an impact two national-level projects can have to protect wildlife.

Here’s an overview of what each of the two projects aim to achieve:

  Rosewood In January, as part of the effort to develop a new traceability system for timber, the Belize Forest Department tagged some felled trees and was able to subsequently track the movement of the illegal rosewood (shown above) and make an arrest in connection to the illegal activity. Photo by Wildlife Conservation Society

Wildlife Conservation Society Takes on the Illegal Rosewood Trade

We are supporting the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Belize Forest Department to develop new systems and databases to trace exported rosewood timber, enabling the identification of source locations of illegal activity and common transport routes to facilitate investigations and prosecutions of organized criminal networks. WCS plans to train government law enforcement officials on how to better patrol, accurately identify species and collect data about rosewood extraction to facilitate more arrests. WCS will also work with the government to develop national regulations that implement recently passed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) protections for rosewood species. Finally, a national awareness campaign that educates Belizeans about the economic, ecological and societal losses posed by the illegal trade of timber and other species is planned using television, radio, presentations and social media.

   Yucatan black howler monkey An endangered Yucatan black howler monkey at Wildtracks gradually returns to a more independent foraging lifestyle in the final stage of rehabilitation before being released back into the wild with a cohort. Related content: Learn 5 Fun Facts about Howler Monkeys. Photo by Levi Novey/USFWS

Wildtracks Combats Wildlife Crime and Aims for Improved Wildlife Security

While WCS aims to tackle rosewood trafficking, we are pleased to support Wildtracks and the Belize Forest Department in their efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade. They plan to do many of the same kinds of activities as WCS, but with a focus on animals. They will train 50 wildlife officers across law enforcement agencies in Belize on how to identify critical species and better enforce wildlife protection laws, particularly for species like monkeys, which are illegal to keep as pets in Belize. The goal is to create a multi-agency enforcement network that can share information, lessons learned, and success stories. They will also develop a database to store more data about illegal trade and work with the government to finalize and implement a National Wildlife Awareness Strategy. As part of that goal, they will implement a national campaign that aims to better inform Belizeans about the value of protecting wildlife and the laws that are in place to do so. It will target children in schools, hunters, and the general public at events, through television and radio.

One of Wildtracks’ chief strengths as an organization is the operation of their manatee and primate rehabilitation centre. Wildtracks has worked with the Belize Forest Department for the past six years to rehabilitate confiscated pet monkeys and other animals, before releasing and reintroducing them again to the wild. This work will continue in tandem with the new project and campaign, but provides a hopeful element in that an effective mechanism is already in place for some illegal pets to return to the wild. In fact, Wildtracks believes that the number of captive monkeys known to be kept illegally in Belize has dropped by 90 percent since they began working with the Belize Forest Department. They are also working with the Forest Department and additional partners to develop a permit system (i.e. a grandfather clause) for pet parrots, and implement a no-tolerance campaign for new pet parrots starting in June this year.

Wildtracks, the Belize Forest Department and WCS plan to collaborate on messaging for their respective campaigns and projects so that messages are complementary and consistent as appropriate. We look forward to seeing how their projects make an impact in Belize and help protect their wildlife and forests for generations to come.


Gone Fishing

Fishing colageUpper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, is an angler’s paradise. The refuge covers more than 240,000 acres and extends 261 river miles in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. Photos, clockwise from bottom left, by Pam Steinhaus/USFWS, Stan Bousson, Cindy Samples/USFWS

Anglers are a secretive bunch. They’ll sooner understate the size of a fish they’ve caught than reveal their favorite fishing spot. We, in the National Wildlife Refuge System, are not secretive. We’re proud to say that more than 270 national wildlife refuges provide wonderful fishing spots for everyone. Learn about a handful of these spots from those who know them best in this week’s Refuge System photo essay, Gone Fishing.

Here is a smattering of what the essay includes.

FishingChincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. Photos by USFWS

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia offers Atlantic Ocean surf fishing outside life-guarded beach areas. Tip from ranger Aubrey Hall:

“In the summer, it’s better to hike away from the crowds who will be enjoying sunbathing, surfing etc. Learning to read waves is key, since fish tend to congregate in the sloughs between the shifting sandbars. Waves break on the sandbars themselves, so casting your line where the water is calmer will put your bait in a slough.”

Most common species caught year-round are striped bass and drumfish.

fidhing  a HanfordHanford Reach National Monument, Washington. Top photo by USFWS, bottom by Bruce Hewitt

Hanford Reach National Monument, which includes 51 miles of free-flowing Columbia River in Washington state, is one of eight Mid-Columbia River national wildlife refuges. Trophy bass can be found in side channels and along the river’s rocky shorelines. Fall chinook salmon return every year by the thousands to spawn. Steelhead are found in the cold, clear water; however, all wild steelhead must be released unharmed. White sturgeon are found in the river’s deep holes. Most fishing is from motorboat. Kayak, raft or canoe trips can offer fishing, too. Bank fishing is possible, with bass being the best quarry.

Fly fishing on the Russian River Fly fishing is glorious on the Russian River at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Photo by Berkley Bedell/USFWS

Gone Fishing 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.

Renowned FWS Ornithologist Chandler Robbins Dies

Chandler Robbins   Robbins banding an albatross at Midway Island in 1966. 

Renowned Service ornithologist Chandler Robbins died March 20. He was 98. Born July 17, 1918, in Boston, Robbins devoted his life to birds, their study and protection.

He graduated from Harvard with a degree in physics and began teaching math and science in Vermont. Robbins then joined the Service in 1945 as a junior biologist at Patuxent Research Refuge, where he engaged in early research on the effects of DDT and had his papers edited by his colleague Rachel Carson.

Service retiree David Klinger remembers: "Several of us from the National Conservation Training Center got together at Patuxent around 2007, about the time of the centennial of Rachel Carson's birth.  We wanted to know what Chan Robbins could tell us about Carson, as well as about his own eventful life.  We were smart enough to know we needed an oral history with this 'grand old man' of ornithology, and, for hours, he didn't disappoint.”

Robbins was also the one who first banded the Laysan albatross named Wisdom in 1956. He re-banded the world’s oldest known banded bird in 2002.

Chandler Robbins   Robbins holds mist-netted bird for a photographer. Photo courtesy USGS

During his 60 years of full-time work at Patuxent (he retired in 2005), Robbins made critical contributions to research on forest fragmentation, bird banding, breeding bird surveys and bird identification. He was a senior author of The Field Guide to Birds of North America, organizer of the North American Breeding Bird Survey and much more.

"Chandler Robbins was the 'dean' of the bird conservation world, one might say," says Jerome Ford, assistant director for Migratory Birds. "His amazing legacy lives on every day in the work of our dedicated Migratory Bird Program employees."

A listing of groups that have honored him, even just through 2005, reads like a who's who of conservation groups. The National Audubon Society named him as one of 100 Champions of Conservation of the 20th Century (read an article on Robbins in Audubon Magazine). In 2000, the American Birding Association established the ABA Chandler Robbins Education/Conservation Award (read an article on Robbins in ABA’s Birding as well as tributes to Robbins ABA collected in 2012).

Chandler Robbins   Robbins uses his binoculars. Photo by Barbara Dowell, courtesy USGS

"What symbolized Chan Robbins most eloquently to me was his worn-out old pair of government binoculars,” Klinger says. “Dented, heavy as lead and beat to hell.  I hope they go into a Fish and Wildlife Service museum some day.  He could have afforded the finest optics in the world, but he was comfortable with what he had.  His acuity of eye and ear exceeded the powers of mere physics.” 

In “retirement,” Robbins became "Scientist Emeritus" at Patuxent and continued to work at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

“I got to bird with two true recognized luminaries in the birding world – Roger Tory Peterson and Chandler Robbins, so I guess you can say I've lived a full life,” says Klinger.

Yukon Flats Refuge Links up with Duck Stamp Artist Adam Grimm

   Yukon FlatsYukon Flats Refuge.

With blind luck and ambition, we stumble into some of the best relationships when we least expect it. Heather Bartlett, a wildlife refuge specialist for Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, tells us how they led to the pairing of Adam Grimm, a two-time winner of the prestigious Federal Duck Stamp art competition, and Yukon Flats Refuge. 

Yukon Flats Refuge staff needed an outreach item to exemplify the astounding and tangible connection between it and “sister refuge” San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge in California. They decided to develop a notecard that included a pair of canvasbacks, the primary species that connects Yukon Flats to San Pablo Bay. 

Adam Grimm   Adam Grimm and his Duck Stamp winning art. Photo courtesy of Adam Grimm

As modern young Americans are wont to do when looking for something, Heather headed online. In her online search for canvasback artwork, one particular image quickly rose above the rest. Click. It was the winner of the 2013 Federal Duck Stamp, leaving little wonder as to why it caught Heather’s attention.

Minutes later she was on the phone with Adam Grimm, the award-winning artist. She explained the notecard outreach project and then asked Adam if he would allow us to use his image. Without hesitation, Adam agreed. Then Heather explained the kicker – the image would have to be modified to isolate the hen and drake canvasbacks. Again, Adam agreed without any hesitation and even offered to modify the image for our use. At this point Heather clarified that the refuge could not pay him for the image. That didn’t change Adam’s willingness to help. However, he did explain the effort he put into this one painting, detailing how he spent countless days and nights away from his family travelling to wetlands around the Dakotas, camouflaged in a ghillie suit awaiting incoming waterfowl until he captured the perfect photograph. 

   ghillieAdam in a ghillie suit. Photo courtesy of Adam Grimm

These field experiences of Adam’s sparked an idea in Heather’s mind. Yukon Flats Refuge needed high quality photographs of its landscapes and wildlife to update outreach materials. Adam’s skillset matched the refuge’s needs perfectly. Although Heather couldn’t offer him financial compensation, she could offer him the partnership of a lifetime. By the end of the conversation, Adam had agreed to come to Alaska to work with the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge not once, but twice. 

For his first visit north, Adam was the featured artist and guest speaker at the second annual Art in the Arctic Art Show earlier this month. In the week leading up to the Art in the Arctic Art Show, Adam accompanied refuge staff to capture winter imagery of Yukon Flats Refuge. 

He will return in June to do the same, focusing on waterfowl in their prime breeding plumage. 

Thanks to Adam’s skill, professionalism and generosity, the public will have the chance to experience Yukon Flats Refuge, if not in person, but through the eyes and talents of a professional photographer and artist.

Adventures in Monarch Tagging and Other Offbeat Nature Fun

   bison bonesThere’s nothing to it. Just assemble the bones in the right order, and you get a bison at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado.  Photo by George Ho

Like your nature a bit offbeat? Some upcoming national wildlife refuge events fill the bill. 

It’s not a matter of replacing bird walks and nature tours. Not to worry. Those will never go out of fashion on wildlife refuges.

But sometimes you’re up for something a little different.

Like, say, building a bison. You got that right. There’s nothing to it. Just assemble the bones in the right order, and you get a bison at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. 

Not your thing? How about digging for selenite crystals at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma?

   monarch with tagAn expert tags a monarch butterfly at a fall monarch festival at a national wildlife refuge. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas let visitors net butterflies for tagging. Tagged butterflies are released to continue on their route south. Photo by USFWS

Or, say, like netting and tagging monarchs? During their annual monarch festivals, Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas let visitors net butterflies for tagging. Tagged butterflies are released to continue on their route south.

And that’s not all. Howl with the wolves, big on elk antlers, shine your light on a seemingly infinite variety of moths.

A photo essay from the National Wildlife Refuge System lists these and other unusual events on refuges in the months ahead.

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

Susan Morse, National Wildlife Refuge System communications

Protecting Pelican Island with an Oyster Reef

line of folks passing bags
Workers at the reef site pass bags of shells from the boat and stack them near the mangrove island. Photo by Ken Warren/USFWS

Ken Warren of our South Florida Ecological Services Office tells us about work at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Dozens of people got their feet wet in the Indian River Lagoon in Florida recently while building an oyster reef breakwater. The reef is designed to prevent further erosion of iconic Pelican Island, which has already decreased in size 60 percent from its original 5.5 acres.

Over a span of about six hours, staff and volunteers from several agencies transported (by truck and by boat) about 600 bags of fossilized shells and stacked them around a small mangrove island near Pelican Island proper at the national wildlife refuge that bears its name.

“We expect oyster spat, that is very young oysters, to attach themselves to the reef, but it remains to be seen if they survive to become adults. Regardless, the shell we’re laying today will provide habitat for a variety of oyster community species and will provide a breakwater to protect Pelican Island,” says biologist Patrick Pitts of the Service.

   the siteThe area marked off in yellow is where the reef was constructed. Photo by Ken Warren/USFWS

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge was the first land set aside by the federal government for the sake of wildlife in 1903,” says Laura Flynn of Coastal Resources, Inc. (CRI), the company overseeing the work for the Service. “This project is the next phase of more than two decades of work to restore and preserve this important natural resource.”

CRI’s Robin Lewis adds: “This phase of the project is necessary due to the impacts of sea-level rise and boat wakes. We’re working to save the island because it’s where several water bird species roost and nest such as brown pelicans, wood storks and great blue herons...just to name a few.”

shells   These are the types of fossilized shells in the bags. Photo by Ken Warren/USFWS

According to the Nature Conservancy, oyster reefs provide important services to people and nature by:

  • cleaning water – a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons per day;
  • providing food and habitat for a diversity of plants and animals, including fish, crabs and birds; and
  • serving as natural coastal buffers from boat wakes, sea-level rise and storms.
   loading bags onto boat
Kevin Palmer and Robinson Bazurto load bags of shells onto a boat. Photo by Ken Warren/USFWS

Staff and volunteers from the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge Complex, South Florida Ecological Services Office, Pelican Island Preservation Society (PIPS) and Peninsular Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office worked with CRI to conduct this restoration project.

“Pelican Island is vital habitat for the birds. I’m out here because I want to help save it for them,” says Susan King of PIPS.

The Indian River County Mosquito Control District provided staff and a large shallow-draft pontoon boat that transported the bulk of the shells over water. They also provided and installed the required turbidity curtain around the project area to protect adjacent estuarine habitat during project construction.

“We couldn't have envisioned, planned or executed the project without the help and support of our volunteers, friends, and partners,” says Bill Miller, project leader for the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

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.

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