Facebook icon Twitter icon Flicker icon You Tube icon

Open Spaces

A Talk on the Wild Side.

Try Nature. It’s Good for You

   students run on a field trip to Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife RefugeElementary school students let loose on a field trip to Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Research links outdoor activity and good health. (Photo: Justin Belson/USFWS)

Add some nature to your New Year’s resolutions. You’ll be healthier for it. 

A growing body of research supports the idea that getting outdoors and moving — on national wildlife refuges, for example — can improve your peace of mind and physical well-being. 

Many refuges are strengthening that health-and-nature connection — and helping their communities in the process. They’re improving urban access to green space, sending nature broadcasts to sick children, promoting outdoor skills and taking a host of other creative actions.  

   yogaVisitors take part in an outdoor yoga class at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Carmen Leong-Minch/USFWS)

See where some of those connections are leading at https://www.fws.gov/refuges/features/HealthAndNature.html.

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

Dedication and Unity Prevent Extinction of One of the World’s Most Endangered Lizards

   Jamaican Rock Iguana. Jamaican rock iguana. Photo by Peter Harlow

The following blog post was written by Dr. Stesha Pasachnik, a Conservation Biologist at the Fort Worth Zoo who helps lead work supported by the International Iguana Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Critically Endangered Animals Conservation Fund.

Jamaica is considered a hotspot within a hotspot of biodiversity, as it has the greatest number of endemic birds and plants of any Caribbean island, and numerous unique reptiles, amphibians, insects and bats.   Endemic means the species is found only in one region, in this case, only in Jamaica. 

The Jamaican rock iguana, Cyclura collei, is among those endemic species. Although these iguanas once thrived along much of the island’s southern dry forest habitat, they were considered extinct by the 1940s, due to habitat conversion and the introduction of the Indian mongoose, known to have caused the extinction of at least two other lizards on Jamaica. 

   Indian mongooseIndian mongoose. Photo by Carla Kishinami/Creative Commons License

But maybe they weren’t extinct after all. 

The 1970s brought hope when JD Woodley was conducting an assessment in the Hellshire Hills and a pig hunter showed him a dead iguana. Woodley shared this information but the conservation community could not yet comprehend its importance and little action was taken. It was not until two decades later, when the idea of biodiversity conservation was revolutionizing the field of ecology, that a second discovery would change the course for this species.

 Once again a pig hunter, Edwin Duffus, encountered an iguana in the Hellshire Hills, when his dog returned with it. Duffus brought it to the Hope Zoo in Kingston and they contacted local herpetologist, Peter Vogel. This time the community was ready and soon mobilized to save the species. The Jamaica Iguana Research and Conservation Group (now the Jamaican Iguana Recovery Group [JIRG]) was created as a collaborative effort, between many local and international organizations, to establish a stable population of iguanas within Hellshire Hills and investigate reintroduction sites. Had it not been for the quick response from many groups and champion on-the-ground leaders (Peter Vogel, Byron Wilson and Rick van Veen – University of the West Indies [UWI]), this species would likely be extinct.

For nearly 30 years, the JIRG worked to build a stable population in the Hellshire Hills through intensive surveys, invasive-species control, and a head-start and release program at the Hope Zoo. This perseverance resulted in increasing the number of nesting females seven-fold and releasing more than 300 hatchlings into Hellshire Hills. In 2013, after years of negotiations, the National Environmental Planning Agency (NEPA), formally took on oversight of the project, making it one of their only species-focused conservation projects. While a current population estimate is not available, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in a 2010 assessment provided an estimate of 100-200 mature individuals. The Jamaican rock iguana is an IUCN red-listed critically endangered species. 

Threatening that success, in 2013 the Jamaican government backed a development plan for a port facility that would destroy the current habitat of the iguana in Hellshire Hills and prime reintroduction sites on the Goat Islands. 

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined the JIRG’s international campaign to stop this development by backing the International Iguana Foundation (IIF), a longstanding JIRG partner organization, in an effort to explore potential reintroduction sites.   

   Dr. Pasachnik and ranger Kenroy Williams release a Jamaican rock iguana Dr. Pasachnik and ranger Kenroy Williams release a Jamaican rock iguana after collecting data on its size and shape. Photo by Peter Harlow

In July 2016, I was hired as a Conservation Biologist by the Fort Worth Zoo, which provides the office for the IIF, to oversee the aforementioned Service supported work. I have been involved in iguana research and conservation for more than 15 years, and have worked throughout Central America and the Caribbean. The opportunity to work on this iconic project was an honor. I traveled to Jamaica September through October 2016, coinciding with the hatching season of the iguanas. The goals of the trip were to meet the relevant stakeholders, observe the hatching period management, and begin to assess a potential reintroduction site. Coincidently, the JIRG had recently been contacted by Noel Levy, a founding member of the Jackson Bay Gun Club. This was a connection that may just change the course of history for these iguanas once again.

Noel’s gun club manages half of the Portland Ridge peninsula - a dry forest, similar to Hellshire Hills, and long thought of as a potential site to establish a secondary population of Jamaican Iguanas. Noel had heard there was interest in introducing iguanas to Portland Ridge and he wanted to make it happen! 

   Portland Ridge in JamaicaPortland Ridge is a potential reintroduction site for Jamaican rock iguanas. Photo by Stesha Pasachnik

Noel talked of preserving nature for future generations, turning the gun club into a reserve and using iguanas as the flagship for the project. In collaboration with Damion Whyte (UWI PhD student), Noel and I embarked on a plan to assess the area, looking for nesting and retreat sites, and preferred dietary plants for the iguanas. This site would increase the range of the iguanas greatly, expanding it into an independent area 

The good news kept coming. In October, the prime minister of Jamaica announced that the port development would not be approved. Jamaica had taken a stand for the environment. Stopping this development was a hard-fought battle; however, we must stay vigilant as development pressure is a constant concern in Jamaica. Many organizations are now exploring how to turn the area into a reserve for iguanas and other endemic wildlife. 

The future remains uncertain as it often is in conservation, but one thing that is clear is our need for a continued united front. The most impressive observation I made during this first trip was the sheer number of organizations involved in the protection of these iguanas and their habitat. We will continue to work in unity to ensure a hopeful future for all the species that coexist within Jamaica. 

Read more recent articles about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s work in the Caribbean:


Go Wild – Virtually!

   Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in FloridaAre you ready for a few virtual refuge tours from Maryland to the South Pacific to Florida’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, above? Check out this week’s photo essay, “Go Wild – Virtually!”

If only we could visit all the wildlife refuges we’d like to – and do so at a moment’s notice.  Well, here’s the next best thing: Visit virtually. We have 360-degree panoramas, videos, web cams and interactive maps for you in this week’s National Wildlife Refuge System photo essay, “Go Wild – Virtually!”  

The essay starts at Three Sister Springs, part of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, which helps feed Kings Bay, home to the largest aggregation, or gathering, of manatees in a natural environment in the world. Use your cursor to move around this video of the springs.  

  Washington state's Willapa National Wildlife Refuge The art trail at Willapa National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state. Left: the spinners by John Ivie show the beneficiaries of the salmon life cycle, such as the river otter and kingfisher that prey on salmon chum. Right: Gary Carpenter’s work draws attention to often-overlooked minifauna like dragonflies. Photo by Richard Nocol

The essay includes a 360-degree panorama in Google Maps street view along Wild Fowl Lane at Montana’s Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. Or  you can walk, virtually, along the Willapa Art Trail at Willapa National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state. The painter Brian LaSaga said that “an artist struggles to capture what nature effortlessly creates.”  Willapa Refuge commissioned students from the University of Washington Public Arts Program to create art that teaches visitors about the wildlife and habitat along the path.  

The essay has more from Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.in Washington to Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland to Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Pacific.

“Go Wild – Virtually!” 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.

Greed Drives Destruction of Species Through Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

Brent Lawrence, a Public Affairs Officer for our Pacific Regional Office in Portland, Oregon, recalls a visit to the Service’s National Eagle and Wildlife Repository.

Refuge Day at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWRStaff members and volunteers educatedvisitors about the types of items stored at the National Wildlife Property Repository and why they were forfeited or abandoned. Photo by George Ho Jr./USFWS

I’ve seen my share of dead animals.

I understand that death is part of the whole cycle of life; predator and prey relationship. Lion King and all that.

As a hunter and fisherman, I’ve seen death first hand. However, I also pay respect to my harvests that provide healthy food for the family. Nothing goes to waste. I also embrace the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which focuses on long-term wildlife management.

Recently, I saw the unsavory side of human and animal interactions: illegal wildlife trafficking. It isn’t pretty or respectful.

Read More

Citizen Science Supports Shorebird Recovery at Delaware Bay

Red KnotRed knots search for horseshoe crab eggs at Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Photo by Gregory Breese/USFWS

Each spring, a spectacular scene unfolds at the Delaware Bay as hundreds of thousands of migrating shorebirds converge on the shores to refuel on protein rich horseshoe crab eggs before continuing their northbound journey.  Delaware Bay is an especially important rest stop for the federally threatened red knot. Traveling from as far away as the tip of South America, these robin-sized birds arrive weighing half of what they did at the start of their marathon migration—completely devoid of fat and even some muscle.  Horseshoe crab eggs are absolutely essential in allowing these rare birds to regain enough weight and energy to continue on to the Arctic to nest. A team of dedicated citizen scientists has joined federal and state biologists in the effort to help ensure an adequate supply of crab eggs remain available for a successful migration season.

Read More

Monarch Conservation’s All about Connections

Monarch butterflyPhoto by Scott Pruitt/USFWS

When we decided to go “all in” on monarch conservation, we knew we’d need the help of every U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program. We have employees with expertise on the complexities of wildlife migration, we have employees skilled at partnering with other federal and state agencies and private landowners, we have employees who educate the American people, we have employees applying the best scientific research and tools available to broaden our conservation reach, and they’re all involved in monarch conservation.

Working cooperatively across programs and offices, we took action to restore and enhance more than 330,000 acres in 2016 for monarchs and other pollinators. That exceeds the goal the Department of Interior set for us of restoring or enhancing 320,000 acres of habitat by end of fiscal year 2017. This accomplishment is the result of several factors, including: 1) our leadership identifying monarch conservation as a Service National Priority both internally to all employees and to external conservation partners, 2) our commitment of $4 million in funding for monarch conservation in 2016, and 3) opportunities to enhance a large number of acres on national wildlife refuges.

Monarch ButterflyPhoto by Tina Shaw/USFWS

“I am proud of our on-the-ground conservation actions for monarchs and other pollinators. It is catalyzing massive conservation effort across North America,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

This was also the first year of full implementation of the Service’s Monarch Butterfly Conservation Initiative, another wing spreading our monarch conservation actions across the nation. We will continue efforts to restore and enhance habitat for monarchs and other pollinators over the next four years through 2020.

It takes every connection to provide a future filled with monarchs. We will use every bit of knowledge we have, but monarch conservation requires a national effort. Everyone -- from from schoolchildren to CEOs -- must be involved.

“We can accomplish great things for the monarch and other pollinators by continuing to work collectively and across the landscape,” says Director Ashe.

Learn more about our conservation actions and how you can help at Save the Monarch Butterfly

Virginia Rivers Opened for First Time in 100 Years

   North Fork Shenandoah RiverRiverton Dam being removed on the North Fork Shenandoah River. Photo bAlan Weaver/VDGIF

As far back as 1670, Virginia prohibited structures like dams that would hinder fish migrating up and down our rivers. Why? They recognized their future depended on the millions of delicious migratory fish swimming our coastal rivers. That changed as growing cities and towns built hundreds of dams and road culverts blocking fish from their spawning grounds. But over the past decade, more than 1,000 miles of river have been re-opened to migratory fish in Virginia.

Read More


A Most Wonderful Time of the Year

   Canaan Valley Refuge sign in snowCanaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia is among the many refuges that welcome winter visitors with open arms. Photo by Ken Sturm/USFWS

If you enjoy clean, crisp air and the great outdoors, winter is a special time of year at national wildlife refuges in northern latitudes. This week’s National Wildlife Refuge System photo essay, “A Most Wonderful Time of Year,” touches on a few of the things that make winter delightful at refuges: invigorating recreation … a chance to glimpse wildlife … a serene respite from the daily grind.

   Cross-country skiing  collageCross-country skiing is offered at dozens of refuges, including Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge (top) in Idaho, Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (bottom left) in New Jersey, Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge (middle) in Maine and Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge (right) in Minnesota. Photos by Dorey Rowland, David Sagan, USFWS, Dennis Mudderman  

Snowshoeing can be a blast at national wildlife refuges from Alaska to Oregon to West Virginia to Maine and lots of places in between.  Ice fishing is fun for kids and adults at refuges across Alaska, the northern Plains, the Great Lakes states and New England. Get your heart pumping, your muscles stretched and your lungs refreshed with some cross-country skiing at dozens of refuges.

    Bald Eagles in a treeEight North American bald eagles perch in one tree at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in California. Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS

You can see North American bald eagles at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges along the California-Oregon border, Camas National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland and dozens of other refuges across the country. Check out “Winter at Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges” (video).   

   River otters You might see curious river otters like these at Missouri’s Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, about 90 miles north of Kansas City, and at many other refuges. Photo by Kenny Bahr

“A Most Wonderful Time of the Year” 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.

Just Like in Retirement Planning, Conservation Requires Wise Long-term Investments

  plover chicks Plover chicks.

There were 28 adult western snowy plovers found in Oregon in 1992. But after 24 years of hard work, dedication and investing in collaborative conservation, you’ll find 375 adult snowy plovers in Oregon. That’s an average annual return of 11.42%. Let’s call it the original “nest egg.”

Read More

Balloons ‘Decorate’ the Desert, Can Hurt Wildlife

   balloons in the desertPhoto courtesy of Betty Mulcahy

Betty Mulcahy, a Volunteer Interpretive Naturalist, shares a story about balloons.

Not long ago we accompanied a few refuge staff members on a hike at Desert National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states, covering more than a million and a half acres.  Consequently, we were able to hike to a remote canyon that is rarely, if ever, visited by the public.  

To arrive at the starting point, we drove quite a distance up a rough dirt road that required high clearance vehicles. We finally parked and left the vehicles and then hiked across the desert several miles to the entrance of the canyon. 

Signs of human activity in this area were limited to pictographs painted on rock walls hundreds of years ago. No other signs of civilization existed. Except, that is, for a string of six Mylar balloons trapped by cholla cactus spines.  

“I never go out on the refuge without finding at least one Mylar balloon,” says Amy Sprunger, manager of Desert Refuge. 

   balloons in the desertPhoto courtesy of Betty Mulcahy

Mylar balloons, as well as latex balloons, can travel miles to the remotest locations before descending to a level that allows vegetation to snatch them and secure them in place. These balloons come in all styles and colors depending upon the event celebrated, and they do not decompose with time. We have stumbled across them in the farthest reaches of deserts, mountains, plains and other remote landscapes, and we have wondered what people were thinking when they released them. Some balloons, of course, escape their tethers; but we have witnessed many released on purpose. 

The last Mylar balloon we rescued from the desert was pink and inscribed with the endearments “Princess” on one side and “Birthday Wishes” on the other. Perhaps the little princess found it difficult to hold onto the balloon. Perhaps it was freed on purpose. Whatever happened, it found its way to a remote desert region generally unspoiled by litter and other waste.  

“Countless balloons are released around the world every day,” says balloonsblow.org.  “Numerous nonprofit organizations and charity groups perform mass balloon releases to raise funds.” That’s not to mention private celebrations that feel compelled to release balloons to document the event. These can have major impact on the environment and its wildlife.  

bird hanging by balloon stringPhoto by Pamela Denmon/USFWS

Balloons injure and even kill marine species as well as terrestrial animals such as tortoises and birds. They are frequently mistaken for food, but these materials are indigestible, often leading to fatal blockages in the digestive system. Balloon strings are cause for additional concern, as animals can become entangled causing loss of mobility or strangulation.

We hope that the public will become aware of the litter balloons can create and the hazards to wildlife. 

And perhaps one day when the little “Princess” grows up, she will be made aware of the effects of releasing balloons. And perhaps she will become involved in conservation of wildlife hurt by balloon releases.

More Entries