By Martha Nudel

Don’t let the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uniform fool you: Tom Koerner, refuge manager at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge since 2012, is a Facebook marketing maven.

The 26-year Service veteran uses the social media platform with the savvy of Mark Zuckerberg to make the 27,230-acre refuge better known in its southwestern Wyoming community — and to educate a new generation of conservationists. It’s working.

Jan. 1, 2016 post: Ice conditions on the [Green] River have been changing over the last few weeks, and as a result the swans have moved around a bit. An ice jam above opened this stretch up right along the auto tour route near Highway 28. It was a perfect spot to watch trumpeter swans from a vehicle for the last 15 minutes of light and the swans were very cooperative. This pair flew in from downstream to join a group of feeding swans. By the next day, this area had frozen over again and the swans had moved upstream to other open stretches of the River.

“I first thought of connecting with my nieces and nephews, and I knew they communicated through Facebook, so I signed up. But I still didn’t get it,” Koerner recalls. “There would be posts about what someone was cooking for dinner, and I wasn’t really interested that you’re having broccoli. So I canceled my account.”

That didn’t last long.

“I was thinking that I didn’t give it enough of a try,” especially for refuge use rather than personal use, he says. “I was taking all these photos for work, but I wasn’t using them in the ways that I could.” So, he enlisted assistant refuge manager Katie Theule’s help and signed up again. “I wanted to increase awareness of the resources on our refuges and along the way, pass on information about why we manage the way we do. I also wanted to share what we get to see and experience every day.”

Koerner and Theule share Facebook responsibilities and schedule posts in advance in their free time. They focus on good photos — “If you don’t include a photo, nobody reads it” — but they message about sound science and effective habitat management. And they make the posts personal.

Dec. 29, 2015 post: If you would have told me that anything eats mature Russian thistle (i.e. tumbleweed), I would have probably said “shure…” This plant has tiny sharp spines all along its branches. Any time I walk through it, I can feel it jabbing me in the shins and if I pick it up without gloves, a tweezer is needed later that night to get the spines out. I watched this mountain cottontail from the office window dismantle this thistle piece by piece and eat it. There were plenty of other plants around to eat, but this is the one it wanted. I am reminded almost daily that the rules don’t always apply.

“I live on the refuge. I start work at sunrise. I might go out in the evening to check on the critters and their responses to habitat management. And I always have my camera,” Koerner says. The impact of the refuge’s Facebook page has been measureable — but not based just on “likes.” The impact is measured by community feedback.

Sweetwater County commissioners tell Koerner they’ve heard comments about the refuge from constituents, who follow the Facebook page. Local news sites share posts. The mayor of Green River and the county tourism bureau follow the page.

“I’ve heard comments across the community. We are educating far more people than just those who visit,” Koerner says. “Using Facebook is going where the people are.”

Tom Koerner’s Tips

  • “People like certain species more: moose, trumpeter swans, bald eagles. They like muskrats a lot less. But I try not to let that affect what I post. I at least give people a little something to think about muskrats — how they are an important part of the ecosystem.”
  • “My core value as a manager is providing the best habitat I can. So I try to mix in habitat messages — in between pretty pictures.”
  • “People in general aren’t that enthusiastic about plants. Nonetheless I post about sago pond weed, which is important for trumpeter swans, and Wyoming big sagebrush, which is important to greater sage-grouse, Brewers sparrows and pronghorns.”
  • “Carry a camera wherever you go. Service people are out checking water levels, doing work every day on wildlife refuges. They see all these incredible things in their work, but they don’t have their camera!”
  • “I take 75 percent of my photos out of the truck window. A moose will stand 30 yards away and give you five seconds. Those moments don’t last. If you are looking for your camera in the back seat, it’s too late.”
  • “Most refuges have at least one budding photographer. Set them free!”
  • Accuracy matters. “I learned early that if you say it is a red-tailed hawk, make sure it is a red-tailed hawk. If you do have an error in your post, admit it and tell people, ‘I appreciate you helping us get it right.’ ”