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A small spotted frog in a petri dish with wet vegetation.
Information icon Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery has been raising gopher frogs for three years, a departure from its traditional responsibilities of propagating fish. Photo by USFWS.

A good year at the hatcheries

Service embraces different species propagation in 2019

The results are in from another year of propagating snakes and birds and tortoises. The verdict?

Allan Brown, help us out.

“Good,” said Brown, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Assistant Regional Director of Fish and Aquatic Conservation. “Actually, better than that. It was great.”

Brown oversees a Service office that increasingly focuses on more than just fish. Hatcheries across the region are raising an array of creatures — indigo snakes, Florida grasshopper sparrows and mussels of various stripes, to name a few — in addition to taking care of traditional duties: propagating fish.

What’s happening in this region mirrors efforts at hatcheries elsewhere. Last year, 14 hatcheries nationwide helped raise everything from alligator snapping turtles to Wyoming toads. They hosted 30 non-fish species in addition to growing more than 100 species of fish.

As one biologist noted, the traditional, fish-only hatchery “is a thing of the past.”

Nowhere is that more obvious than at Welaka National Fish Hatchery. The facility, about 75 miles south of Jacksonville, Fla., raises indigo snakes and the Florida grasshopper sparrow. The snake is listed as threatened; the sparrow, endangered.

“They’re started on their third batch of snakes,” Brown said.

And the sparrows? Because Welaka comprises 500 acres, there was plenty of room to accommodate the small fliers. Biologists hope to release some this spring.

Worth noting: Welaka still raises fish, too.

Or consider the gopher frog. Short, stubby and mottled on the back, it’s listed as endangered. Some also are living at the Service’s Warm Springs hatchery.

The hatchery, about 70 miles south of Atlanta, is in its third year of producing gopher frogs. The work is timely: gopher frogs are limited to less than 10 sites in Georgia.

Warm Springs’ work with gopher frogs began in winter 2017, said Carlos Echevarria, the hatchery’s manager. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources gave a mass of tadpoles to the hatchery, which deposited them in tanks so they could mature.

The results? “We ended up with, oh, good Lord! Over 700 frogs,” Echevarria said.

The hatchery got involved after Echevarria attended an amphibian conference in Atlanta. There, he became more familiar with DNR’s efforts as well as that of scientists at the University of Georgia, Zoo Atlanta and the Amphibian Foundation, a nonprofit based in Atlanta.

“We started looking for ways to cooperate,” said Echevarria, who has been at the hatchery for nearly 30 years. “I told them (conference participants) that we’d be more than happy to provide help.”

That help has only grown since that first batch of frogs. Last year, hatchery workers released nearly 2,000 gopher frog tadpoles at a state wildlife management area.

‘It’s fantastic’

Service hatcheries, said Brown, are committed to every facet of conservation. That sometimes means reconsidering how a hatchery operates.

Brown, who describes himself as a “fish guy,” wasn’t sure that expanding hatcheries’ duties would work. There was plenty of work, he noted, just raising fish.

But some hatcheries had the space, the location and the people willing to change business as usual. Brown began discussing different proposals with in-house colleagues as well as peers outside the Service.

He solicited synopsis reports of different species proposed for propagation. Every time a species was approved for a hatchery, he slid those papers in a book he created just to keep track of what was growing, and where.

Now? “That book’s getting thicker every day.”

So, too, is his expertise in creatures that don’t have fins or gills. “It’s been a learning experience for me,” said Brown, a fishery biologist for more than three decades. “It’s out of my comfort zone.”

Brown knew the hatcheries could accommodate other species. “I certainly see the value of us getting involved in things like this,” he said. “But I certainly (didn’t consider) snakes. Or plants. Or birds.” And more.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he said.

A biolgist in uniform holding a dozen reddish brown mussels with orange id tags
Orangeburg biologist Jonathan Wardell said he and his peers were “basically fighting extinction” when the hatchery began raising Carolina heelsplitters everal years ago. These days, he’s the hatchery’s “mussel man.” Photo by USFWS.

Biologists at the Orangeburg National Fish Hatchery in South Carolina share his enthusiasm. A few years ago, the Carolina heelsplitter’s known population had declined to fewer than 200. The critically endangered mussel was in danger of vanishing.

“We were basically fighting extinction,” said Jonathan Wardell, a hatchery biologist.

So far, the hatchery is winning that fight. From those humble numbers the biologists, aided by state and private partners, have increased the population by 500 percent.

Today, Carolina heelsplitters are living in three of South Carolina’s four river basins — the Pee Dee, Catawba and Savannah. The hatchery may expand to the fourth basin, the Saluda.

For Wardell, the population spikes are an encouraging sign: The Carolina heelsplitter is getting reestablished in habitats where it once thrived.

“We started with just a metal building,” Wardell said. “This has really taken off.”

He also sees the mussel program as proof that Service fisheries officials understand that they’re in a pursuit that transcends creatures that swim.

“This ‘traditional hatcheries thing’ is a thing of the past,” said Wardell, who was educated as a fisheries expert. “Now, I’m the mussel man here.”


Mark Davis, Public Affairs Specialist, (404) 679-7291

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