Across the Refuge System and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, people are talking about the Service Director’s July 23 message concerning strategic habitat conservation and the technical guidance that outlines a process for defining biological outcomes by using a “surrogate species” approach. I hope everyone will read the draft technical guidance—available at

First, let’s define “surrogate species.” It’s those that are used to represent other species or aspects of the environment. Surrogate species are used for conservation planning that supports multiple species and habitats within a defined landscape or geographic area.

In fact, the Refuge System always has embraced the surrogate species concept. When Florida’s Pelican Island was set aside as the first national wildlife refuge in 1903, the brown pelican served as a surrogate for the benefit of myriad waterbirds that nest there: egrets, herons, ibis and wood storks. The Refuge System really started to grow during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s when our first refuge chief, J. Clark Salyer, was tasked by Director Jay N. “Ding” Darling to develop an emergency program to restore waterfowl population. The wildlife refuges we established along the flyways provide enormous benefits to a wide variety of other species.

My first management assignment was at Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in the late 1970s. In those days, we didn’t realize how important coastal savannas were for Henslow’s sparrow and a diversity of amphibians. The refuge is now recognized as an Important Bird Area for resident and neotropical migrants.

Over the past 15 years, the Refuge System has worked to prepare comprehensive conservation plans (CCPs) that include biological goals and objectives for each refuge. We have a handbook—“Writing Refuge Management Goals and Objectives”— which I consulted as I thought about surrogate species. I found an interesting example that illustrates biological objectives: “Manage all palustrine wetlands in Unit C for dense (>75 percent of the water surface) perennial emergent vegetation, flooded seasonally (March-July) or semi-permanently to a depth of 10-45 cm for pairing, nesting, and foraging teal, foraging avocets and dowitchers, and breeding chorus frogs.” I wondered how they chose teal, avocets, dowitchers and chorus frogs.

Employees and partners can contribute their ideas, creativity and innovation to help refine and improve the species selection process.

Fish and Wildlife Service employees throughout the Refuge System have a decade of experience in identifying biological objectives. We know some species that will work better as surrogates than others. Through robust dialogues that will take place at regional workshops in coming months, employees and partners can contribute their ideas, creativity and innovation to help refine and improve the species selection process and technical guidance. The Refuge System will share its experience and expertise.

Our Conserving the Future vision for the Refuge System is one in which wildlife refuges are viewed and operate within the context of the greater surrounding landscape. Identifying surrogate species will help refuges better understand how to plan for management that has benefits beyond their boundaries. I’m counting on everyone who works for and supports the Refuge System to get engaged and make sure we get this right.