National Wildlife Refuge System

Wilderness Fellows Blog

Molly McCarter surveys Pelican Island, FL.
Credit: USFWS

Pelican Island: A Wilderness for Wildlife
Molly McCarter
May 15, 2012

A 3.2-acre island in a lagoon between popular Florida vacation spots may not be what comes to mind when you think of wilderness. Yet the Pelican Island Wilderness, part of the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, is an important – and unique − component of the National Wilderness Preservation System.  Home to hundreds of nesting colonial birds, this historic rookery was the birthplace of the National Wildlife Refuge System − the first federal land set aside for the protection of wildlife.  In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established a refuge here to protect birds from market hunters, slaughtering birds by the millions for the hat trade. 

I spent several months on the refuge this year, completing a baseline assessment of this wilderness island and creating a plan to monitor any changes the future may bring. Because the birds that nest here are sensitive to human disturbance, the wilderness island is closed to the public. U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff also honor this closure, except in extreme circumstances.  This access restriction added a challenge to my task. Fortunately, I was able to use data from bird surveys that are conducted from off the island.

I had several opportunities to assist in these rookery surveys, which offered a unique glimpse into the biological activity of the island.  I would launch my kayak in time to arrive at the island just before sunrise. As the sun crested the horizon, a cacophony of bird calls would crescendo until flocks of ibises, egrets, pelicans, herons, wood storks and roseate spoonbills flew off the island by the hundreds to forage for the day. Observing this made me feel as if I had discovered one of nature’s secrets.  I’ve never seen birds use a space the way they do Pelican Island; even neighboring islands do not see this amount of activity.  These images and sounds will stay with me forever.

Monitoring the Pelican Island Wilderness is important to understanding the impacts – both intentional and unintentional – that humans may have on the birds that nest here year after year.  Climate change, sea-level rise, and marine debris all have the potential to change the unique character of the Pelican Island Wilderness. We have to know what’s changed before we can know if – and how – to respond.


Cape Romain Refuge biologist Dan Ashworth looks at a loggerhead turtle hatchling.
Credit: USFWS

Protecting Nesting Loggerheads at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge
Kelly Pippins
May 9, 2013

For two months I have been helping the staff at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, SC, prepare a strategy to monitor how their wilderness area is changing. The Cape Romain wilderness is one of the largest on the East Coast, so I have my work cut out for me. But it’s hard to call it work when you get to spend part of your time on an undeveloped beach, outside the reaches of civilization, building hatcheries for rare loggerhead sea turtles.

Wait. Why, you ask, would the refuge build structures in a wilderness? Isn’t wilderness meant to be structure-free? Not to worry. The hatcheries are only temporary, and they’re extremely necessary.

Cape Romain is home to a significant population of nesting loggerhead sea turtles. On one of the refuge’s wilderness islands, Cape Island, sea turtles build an average 1,000 nests per year, making it the most significant loggerhead nesting beach north of Cape Canaveral.

Because loggerheads are a federally threatened species, the refuge is required by law to help protect these guys – to prevent nests from being dug up by predators such as raccoons and to make sure that eggs laid too close to the water aren’t submerged by the tide. One creative solution: installing large wire-mesh cages, called hatcheries, where nests can be carefully relocated. These hatcheries are placed far enough from the high-tide line that nests are safe from washover and erosion. They keep the bad guys out while simultaneously allowing turtle hatchlings to head to the water when they're ready. When nesting season ends, in August, the cages are removed.

While working at Cape Romain, I got to spend a few days helping refuge staff install these hatcheries. The refuge has put a ton of effort into developing an installation process that minimizes the impact on the wilderness. It was inspiring to work with people who paid such close attention to the effects of their actions. The coolest part about it is knowing how essential our work was. Without these protective measures, nest loss can be as high as 95 percent – as the refuge has seen on other islands. The sad news is that sea-level rise is rapidly destroying the little habitat that's left for these turtles to nest on, and that is a challenge that the refuge won't be able to meet singlehandedly.


Through the Wilderness Character Monitoring program, begun in 2011, Wilderness Fellows conduct wilderness character assessments on refuges to evaluate the impacts of nearby development, climate changes, management actions and other factors on wilderness character to better ensure the preservation of the these wild areas for future generations. Fellows spend six months in a wilderness refuge, taking training courses, developing an inventory and monitoring strategy, and producing baseline data about wilderness characteristics.

Finding the Miami Blue
Molly McCarter
September 24, 2012

Steve Zweber
Molly McCarter conducted surveys for the Miami Blue butterfly in the Florida Keys wilderness.
Credit: USFWS

When asked how I spent my summer, I say: drafting a plan to protect the Florida Keys Wilderness. That hardly ever fails to draw a “wow” – a feeling I share. And that’s before I add the kicker: I also helped biologists at the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges monitor what may be the rarest butterfly in the world.

That’s the endangered Miami Blue butterfly, once thought to be extinct. But a small population exists in the Florida Keys Wilderness. Wilderness designation --the highest level of protection that federal lands can receive – helps the last remnant of this brightly colored species survive.

Where is the Florida Keys Wilderness? It covers 4,788 acres in the southernmost part of Florida and includes 28 keys and mangrove islands that are within the boundaries of three national wildlife refuges:  National Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge and Key West National Wildlife Refuge.  

Steve Zweber
Molly McCarter captured these images of the elusive Miami Blue butterfly and eggs.

What does monitoring the butterfly entail? You find the butterfly’s host plant (blackbead, Pithecellobium spp.) and count the number of butterflies you find at the point for two minutes.  Then you repeat this at many points along the beach where the host plant is found.

How big is Miami Blue butterfly population? It’s hard to say with certainty. Researchers hope their density surveys will provide answers.

Why is the butterfly important? Like any butterfly, the Miami blue plays a role in the food web of its island habitat and contributes to pollination of nectar species.

What’s the biggest threat to the species and to the Keys wilderness? Habitat loss from sea-level rise associated with climate change is probably the biggest threat. Because the Miami blue lives in designated wilderness, it’s less vulnerable than it would be elsewhere in Florida to pressures from development, pesticides and insecticides.


An Unbeatable Opportunity
Taryn Sudol
September 20, 2012

Steve Zweber
Taryn Sudol surveys fencing on the proposed Chincoteague Island wilderness, part of which is managed by Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, VA.
Credit: USFWS

After three months, I’ve completed my work at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia and moved on to Monomoy Refuge in eastern Massachusetts. While humans should leave no physical trace in the wild, I hope I have left my stamp figuratively on Virginia’s proposed Assateague Island wilderness. For a conservationist fresh out of grad school, spending the summer in the tidal wetlands of the Mid-Atlantic, planning how to preserve their wilderness character, was an unbeatable opportunity.

I worked closely with refuge staff in deciding what features most need protecting. Chincoteague Refuge manages 1,721 acres of the proposed Assateague Island wilderness (Assateague Island National Seashore manages the adjoining 4,034 acres). The barrier island wilderness, which stretches about eight miles across the Maryland border from the refuge’s northern boundary, is a beach that rises into a dune system, then shrub lands and forests and finally, a salt marsh on the bay. Few coastal areas enjoy the solitude and primitive nature of this place.

But its future character is not assured. The island ecosystem is constantly responding to tides and storm events. Sea-level rise and an increase in storm frequency will impact the island. The spread of invasive plants, such as phragmities, and animals, such as sika deer, is another potential threat. Car and trucks ­– the primary method of travel for staff −  further threaten the island’s undeveloped quality.

Some data I collected, such as the number of days spent mowing, fencing or collecting salt marsh samples on the island or the number of times staff or visitors used motor vehicles there (more than 1,000 in 2011) surprised refuge staff, who tend to think of the island as more untouched than it is.  The exercise helped us brainstorm how wilderness character could be improved and why this matters.

Reaching the proposed wilderness on foot takes a strenuous seven-mile hike over soft sand, through mosquitoes and under a hot sun. Still, some persevere. When the refuge manager found one tired hiker resting by a tree, he asked if the visitor needed help. The hiker shook his head, smiling. “No,” he replied. “I’m having a great day.”

At times I wondered if the time and effort spent surveying wilderness character paid off for a place so little-visited. But knowing that a hiker or group of sanderlings or a sea turtle benefited from wilderness lands completely reaffirmed all the work that staff and I did.


Battling Invasive Plants on a 44,000-acre Refuge
Steve Zweber
September 20, 2012

Steve Zweber
Steve Zweber monitors invasive species at Crab Orchard Refuge, IL
Credit: USFWS

One thing I learned for sure during my summer at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois: Managing a refuge of more than 44,000 acres comes with no lack of challenges. From managing food plots for migratory waterfowl during a record drought year to battling invasive species such as the menacing autumn olive shrub, staff at Crab Orchard have a lot on their plate.

During my time at the refuge, I helped with projects including a bullfrog survey, a prescribed burn, invasive species removal and mist-netting for Indiana bats. However, my main focus was devising a plan to monitor the refuge’s wilderness character. The year 2014 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Protection Act, and wilderness character monitoring is part of an initiative to assess the condition of our nation’s wilderness areas. This will help federal land managers track how wilderness character changes over time and how their stewardship actions affect this change. Using this concept, Crab Orchard will be able to determine whether its wilderness is improving, degrading or remaining the same.

I particularly enjoyed the hours I spent hiking Crab Orchard’s wilderness while conducting an invasive species survey. The Shawnee Hills wilderness, in dramatic contrast to the generally flat and featureless landscape of greater Illinois, is marked by deep ravines and prominent sandstone outcrops. Besides its natural beauty, it offers a powerful sense of solitude, unexpected for an area between the two densely populated cities of Marion and Carbondale.

However, its relatively small size, at just over 4,000 acres, makes it more vulnerable to the negative impacts of surrounding land use. Unauthorized ATV trails and footpaths reach the wilderness from adjacent private lands, eroding fragile soil. Other unauthorized land uses, such as off-trail horseback riding and the building of permanent deer-hunting tree stands, also pose threats. Agricultural fields increase the presence and abundance of invasive species, such as Japanese honeysuckle, autumn olive and multiflora rose, which threaten its natural quality.

It is because of constant threats like this that I am excited there is an initiative to monitor our nation’s wilderness areas.


Battlefield in the Aleutians
Kelly Pippins
August 7, 2012

Camping in Brooks Range Valley near the Sheenjek River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, AK
Ready for battle in the Aleutians during World War II
Credit: Jeff Williams

Wilderness Fellow for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, I face some unique challenges. I have spent the past two months deciphering what makes this wilderness, and what kinds of things threaten that wilderness character. But there’s a catch:  For now, I must rely on others’ reports to help answer those questions. Why? Because the Aleutian Islands that make up the Alaska Maritime Refuge are so remote and far flung that you can't just hop on a boat or plane and expect to arrive in wilderness a few hours later. In fact, scheduled plane trips are often delayed for days at a time because of extreme weather.

This may be frustrating for our field biologists, but for me, it makes the wilderness seem a little wilder. Perhaps I'll change my mind at the end of August, when I finally get to visit the places that I have been researching, with the aid of our refuge research vessel, the Tiglax. After a week on Adak Island -  part refuge, part wilderness, part military reservation nearly 600 miles off the Alaska Peninsula - I will hop aboard the Tiglax and ride home to Homer, picking up research at field camps along the way. This adventure can't come soon enough!

Perhaps you’re wondering: Why do we need to monitor wilderness in a refuge that is so remote?

Because we can’t tell, without monitoring it, that it’s not being threatened by human activity.

Even in such a remote place, human impacts such as climate change, marine debris, oil spills and military base activity are widespread. Alaska Maritime Refuge is crucial habitat for some migratory bird species and marine mammals . Yes, its extreme remoteness protects it from some threats, like too many visitors making trails through the wilderness, but there are plenty of other activities that could degrade this very unique place.

Losing Your Grip in the Wilderness
Taryn Sudol
July 14, 2012

Camping in Brooks Range Valley near the Sheenjek River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, AK
Driftwood at Chincoteague Refuge, VA
Credit: Taryn Sudol

As I sat at the edge of the tide, I thought about collecting and letting go.

The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is located on the Virginia portion of the Assateague barrier island. There’s a trail that ends at the Atlantic seashore in northern Virginia. It is accessible by foot or bike but not by car. It is littered with seashells. I didn’t come here to beach comb but as I walked along a few shells caught my eye. I pick up black, amber, and deep amethyst colored bits. I sit at the wave’s break line and let the seawater rinse the sand off the shells. The waves push and pull the sand around my legs. I know if I loosen my grip just a little my small collection will tumble from my hand and disappear.

It’s within my first week as a Wilderness Fellow that I sit on the beach debating whether to take a souvenir. What has already become the defining characteristic of the Assateague barrier island is dynamism. The island has existed for thousands of years but has only survived by constantly changing form.  It boils down to the sun, moon, and our irregularly shaped planet. The tides and littoral drift push and pull sand so that the island migrates –usually south and inland. Sometimes the island's migration is accelerated by storms and sea level rise or interrupted with seawalls and jetties. The islands, like anything really, are always responsive. A seawall or jetty deprives a different part of the island or a separate island of a sediment source. Starved, the island may contort more rapidly or ultimately thin and wash away.

People put seawalls and jetties on the shore in an effort to stabilize what is there. It seems that they want to hold onto what they’ve grown accustomed to. They’ve become invested in the landscape as it is, invested maybe through commerce, real estate, or memories. One of the biggest management issues the Chincoteague NWR faces is trying to maintain its current location for beach-access parking. The parking lot in place is continually overwashed with sand. The solution would appear to be moving the parking lot back or rebuilding it. The refuge has done so multiple times at considerable cost. Now, because the island is thinning, the parking lot is being squeezed out.

My first reaction is to abandon the parking lot and let the beach do what it wants. My favorite thing about the beach is that it’s never the same. You can’t come to the same beach twice. The waves crash in a slightly different pattern and therefore tug the sand into new contours. The weather can cause the ocean to be steely and powerful or glittering and playful. The sea foam can be so fluffy that it rolls in the wind or instantly dissolve with a hiss into the sand. As a local pointed out to me, the only thing constant about a beach is change. How can we ever capture it? The beach will consume the parking lots or tear down the houses at the edge or become something completely different from what you saw in your childhood.

Parts of the refuge are intended for recreation and thus the battle of the parking lot. But the northern part of the refuge is proposed wilderness where the intention is to let natural forces reign. Wildernesses usually have the inaccurate reputation of being pristine. To me, pristine is closely associated with unchanged. Yet the proposed wilderness for the Chincoteague Refuge will embrace change. The only permanence about the wildernesses is ensuring that natural forces are allowed to occur without restraint. I feel that sense of release knowing that the wind and waves may push the sand where it likes in the northern Chincoteague NWR. Whenever I may visit, I will know it for that one day but even then I’m letting it go and when I return it will be new again. 


First Impressions
Kelly Pippins
July 5, 2012

Camping in Brooks Range Valley near the Sheenjek River, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, AK
Unimak Island, Shishaldin Volcano, Alaska Maritime Refuge
Credit: Vernon Byrd

The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is arguably one of the most remarkable expanses of federally protected land in the United States. Extending nearly as far and wide as the contiguous lower 48, this refuge comprises most of Alaska’s islands, islets, emerging rocks and spires from Forrester Island in southeastern Alaska to the western reaches of the Aleutian Chain and about as far north as Barrow in the Arctic Circle. These land masses are home as many as 40 million nesting seabirds every year and provide a means of respite for other birds migrating between North America and Asia. Making up the northern-most ridge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Aleutian Island Chain is one of the more well-known units of this refuge. That is not to say however, that any of the other 4 units are any less spectacular. Beginning in 1970, hundreds of acres of land within each of these refuge units were congressionally designated as wilderness. As the wilderness fellow for the refuge, it is my primary task to complete a wilderness character assessment of these areas.

Prior to our first week’s training, I knew next to nothing about the “wilderness,” let alone the wildernesses of Alaska.  Now, with only 3 weeks of work under my belt, I can confidently explain that congressionally designated wilderness areas are inherently complex. What does it mean to preserve and protect land in its natural condition? How do we define natural condition? Can nature be natural if we are constantly protecting it from change? How do you differentiate natural change from anthropogenic impacts? These kinds of questions plague every environmentalist. It is up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to select the best possible answers for our nation’s wilderness areas according to the best available information. Ideally, the work of a Wilderness Fellow will help guide these agencies toward lawful and logical conclusions.

Unfortunately, I cannot yet claim to have ventured out to the vast wilderness of Alaska Maritime Refuge, but my research thus far and personal reports from the refuge staff have me wriggling in my boots to do so. Until my time on the Tiglax (Alaska Maritime Refuge’s research vessel and life support system for field camps) in early August, I write from a second hand point of view. From here, I can see that the wildernesses of Alaska Maritime Refuge are not only ecologically, geographically and culturally diverse in and amongst themselves, but they are also incredibly unique compared to wildernesses throughout the United States. In the lower 48, it is relatively easy to enjoy a wilderness area first hand. In maritime Alaska, visitor access to the wilderness is limited. Without a boat or plane (and a seriously adventurous attitude), these islands are virtually inaccessible. Rather than visitor use issues, this refuge faces issues regarding subsistence use by native communities, marine debris, and military refuse from World War II. My work here has clearly just begun.


Last updated: June 13, 2013