By Bill O’Brian

Shelley Stiaes is New Orleans through and through. Thanks to her father, who introduced her to wildlife through boating, fishing and camping, she is also a conservationist through and through. And thanks to a college lecture given by her current boss two decades ago, she is now manager of four refuges, including Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge on the city’s east side.

Stiaes, her colleagues and predecessors at the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges Complex have been at the forefront of connecting urban Americans to nature for years. They helped make New Orleans the first Urban Bird Treaty city in 1999. They have partnered with the African American fraternity Phi Beta Sigma, the University of New Orleans, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and Friends of Our Louisiana Refuges to bring young people to the refuges, which are in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Urban Wildlife Conservation Program.

The refuges’ environmental education program, called “Habitat’s Where It’s At,” is centered at Bayou Sauvage and Big Branch Marsh Refuges. The program, which attracted more than 5,700 participants last year, features a range of service learning projects that incorporate migratory bird education.

“The diversity of the wildlife found in the Gulf [of Mexico] is unique to the world,” says supervisory refuge ranger David Stoughton. “Being at the end of one of the largest and longest migratory flyways contributes to that.”

For young children, the environmental education program includes a migration game that shows hardships faced by birds traveling the Mississippi Flyway. “Some kids play the role of birds, and others are obstacles found along the way,” says Stoughton. “Kids are designated as ‘Weather,’ ‘Buildings’ or other dangers to birds, each with a rule that dictates their movement. The game is essentially tag with lots of rules introduced to make it harder to move from start to finish.”

For older children, nature walks include bird species identification. Among the birds that might catch their eyes are: brown pelicans (state bird of Louisiana), rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings, black-bellied whistling ducks, occasionally owls and hawks, and very occasionally cinnamon teal ducks.

“These young people will eventually grow up, and some will become politicians and business leaders,” says Pon Dixson, the Southeast Louisiana Refuges Complex deputy project leader who has been with the Service for almost 30 years. “The better they understand the Fish and Wildlife Service and other wildlife-related agencies, the better our chances are of keeping wildlife places viable.”

Dixson connected Stiaes with the National Wildlife Refuge System. After he spoke about habitat restoration at Southern University’s New Orleans campus in the 1990s, Stiaes signed up for a volunteer internship. And the rest is history. “It feels great to see her as the refuge manager of Bayou Sauvage. She grew up in the city of New Orleans and understands the culture and what is needed to get urban youth involved in nature. I am very proud of her.”

Because of her managerial duties, Stiaes doesn’t have as much direct contact with young visitors as she used to. But when she does, it’s special.

One moment stands out. A while back students from two New Orleans high schools helped Stiaes with a restoration project to increase wetland forage for waterfowl. The students “waded knee-deep in mud, and as a reward for their efforts I promised that I would bring them back in the spring so they could see what they did. In the spring we canoed out to the site, and the look of amazement and accomplishment on their faces as they paddled around and through plants towering over their heads was priceless.” Soon, the students were telling people how they helped “feed the ducks.”