While many northern parts of the nation are still in winter mode, spring is just around the corner, and that means migration season! America’s wildlife refuges are beginning to see lots of action, welcoming millions of migrating waterfowl and songbirds and offering space for wildlife on the move.
A great place to witness this annual wildlife bonanza is Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge deep in the heart of south Texas. More than 400 birds can be witnessed on the refuge, helping make it a world class birding destination, but this refuge offers so much more! Check out this month’s On the Refuge feature.
And while college basketball fans are gearing up for the big tournaments, this month brings a different sort of ‘March Madness’ to the U.S. Capitol, as appropriations season is in full swing. And as always, the National Wildlife Refuge Association and the Friends community are in the thick of it. Members from three Friends groups will be in town this week for Public Witness Day, and eight more Friends groups will be in town this month to meet with members of Congress. Read more about it in Inside Washington.
One of the Friends groups attending Public Witness Day is Friends of the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge. Despite its small size, this Friends group demonstrates that gusto and drive trumps size any day. Read about this workhorse of a Friends group in this month’s Refuge Friends Connect feature.
Meanwhile, we’re proud to announce the 2015 Refuge System Awards winners. I’m always amazed by the talent and dedication found throughout the Refuge System, and I think you’ll agree that this year’s recipients exemplify the very best of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Congratulations to Tom Kerr, Refuge Manager of the Year; John Vradenburg, Refuge Employee of the Year; Wiley ‘Dub’ Lyon, Refuge Volunteer of the Year; and Friends of the Bosque Del Apache, the Molly Krival Friends Group of the Year.
Speaking of celebrating, we continue our 40th anniversary celebration with a challenge to you, our best supporters. Can you visit 40 wildlife refuges in a year? If you think you can, visit our website to learn more! It’s easy to participate and a great way to show your support for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Click here to learn how to participate!
Enjoy the warmer spring weather, and I’ll see you on a refuge,
ON THE REFUGE
Laguna Atascosa – A Glimpse of the Wild West
Many wildlife refuges boast excellent birding opportunities, but visit Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas at just the right time during spring migration, and you have a chance at seeing more bird species than at any other wildlife refuge in the U.S.
Established in 1946 to protect migratory birds, Laguna Atascosa has become a world-class birding destination, featuring migratory songbirds, shorebirds, waterfowl and raptors, including the endangered Aplomado falcon – more than 400 species of birds have been recorded on the refuge.
The Aplomado falcon, once common in the southwest United States, declined to the point of being declared extirpated in the U.S. in the 1950s. But thanks to recovery efforts, the bird has made a comeback, and can be found in many parts of its historic range, including at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
But Laguna Atascosa is perhaps better known for another endangered species – the ocelot. The refuge is home to one of the last remaining populations of this tropical cat in the U.S. To date, 13 known ocelots are roaming the refuge’s dense thorny brush, a unique habitat that is quickly disappearing from the cat’s historic range. Read more...
Similar in markings to a leopard or jaguar, but smaller, the ocelot once roamed from Mexico, throughout Texas and as far north as Louisiana and Arkansas. But loss of habitat has caused a severe decline in the species. Today, the cat can still be found in Mexico, but only about 80 individuals exist over the border in Texas.
While it’s rare to catch a glimpse of these shy, nocturnal felines on the 97,000-acre refuge, trail cameras set up in strategic locations have picked up photos of the animals, and refuge staff have been trapping and monitoring the cats, confirming they are alive and well on the refuge.
The cameras also pick up plenty of other wildlife activity – from snakes and coyotes to white tailed deer and mountain lions, all making use of the thorn forest, coastal prairie and savannah habitats now surrounded by farms, ranches and tourist beaches.
“It’s the old wild west,” says Refuge Manager Boyd Blihovde of Laguna Atascosa, noting it’s one of the few places you can visit to see what South Texas was like before intense development.
Blihovde looks at a map of the region and sees potential for expanding protected landscapes around the refuge to create better corridors for ocelot and other wildlife species. By working cooperatively with adjacent landowners, conservation partners and the state of Texas, Blihovde said it’s possible to create more and better habitat for ocelot and other species.
“The ocelot is an umbrella species,” he said, adding that by protecting its habitat, several other wildlife species will benefit.
One example of this cooperative work is the plan to improve a state highway that leads to the refuge. The Texas Department of Transportation will incorporate wildlife crossings in its upcoming road improvement project, using data provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These passages will be placed near known wildlife crossing areas to direct animals under the roadway, and reduce the number of wildlife collisions.
On a recent drive around the refuge, Blihovde pointed to a small patch of former agricultural land that is now part of the refuge. Plans are to convert it back to native thorn scrub to give ocelots and other wildlife more room to roam, but that could take decades – time the ocelot may not have. So on a small plot, researchers are testing various planting strategies to find ways to speed up the process in hopes of recovering more habitat faster.
Recovery efforts for the ocelot are a community affair – the local Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge has been rallying the local communities near the refuge, from Rio Hondo to South Padre Island, to help save the ocelot. They spearheaded an effort to sell special ocelot license plates and host an annual Ocelot Soiree, a fundraiser to raise awareness – and money – for ocelot conservation efforts.
Laguna Atascosa is most popular during spring and fall migrations when birds are in full display, but the refuge is a year-round destination for wildlife viewing. To learn more, visit the refuge website.
THE REFUGE ASSOCIATION IN ACTION
In case you missed it, the National Wildlife Refuge Association recently announced the 2015 Refuge System Award Winners! We could not be more excited to present these deserving individuals and Friends group with the prestigious Refuge System Awards.
“The men and women represented among this year’s winners truly are the cream of the crop,” said David Houghton, President of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “They remind us just how dedicated and passionate the employees and volunteers of the National Wildlife Refuge System are.
The 2015 Refuge System Award winners are:
Tom Kerr: The Paul Kroegel Refuge Manager of the Year Award
Mr. Kerr, Refuge Manager at St. Croix Wetland Management District and Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin has been selected as the 2015 recipient of thePaul Kroegel Award for Refuge Manager of the Year for his dedication to the mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and his ability to engage and connect with the local community. Kerr began his career in 1989 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a Cooperative Student and Refuge Operations Specialist at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota. He became the Refuge Manager at St. Croix Wetland Management District in 2007, gaining the additional responsibility of managing Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge in 2008. Kerr has worked closely with the Friends of the St. Croix Wetland Management District since the group’s establishment in 2010, one of the many partnerships he has spearheaded in the community. These collaborations help bridge the gap between the public and the wetland management district, and in the case of the refuge’s partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, USGS, and University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kerr helps promote wildlife conservation through restoration. Kerr publishes a biweekly newspaper column about activities and projects on the refuge and routinely gives presentations to the local community to continue to raise awareness about the refuge. He is also engaged in recognizing and developing the strengths of his staff. Read Mr. Kerr’s full press release here. Read more...
John Vradenburg: Employee of the Year Award
Mr. Vradenburg will receive the Employee of the Year Award for his outstanding work as the Supervisory Biologist at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Vradenburg’s dedication to the refuge and its conservation efforts is clear. He goes above and beyond the call of duty to not only ensure the conservation of sensitive species, but also to involve the public in conservation efforts. In his nine years on the refuge, Vradenburg has improved the soil quality and the water drawdown system to increase native vegetation and prevent the spread of invasives. Vradenburg’s foresight and drive have also benefitted local wildlife. He began a management plan on the refuge for the New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse before it was listed in 2014 and thus positioned the refuge in a much better place to aid in the recovery. Vradenburg is also considered a leader in the community, continuously providing opportunities for the area youth to learn on the refuge. Always looking to accomplish more for wildlife, Mr. Vradenburg is the epitome of the ideal biologist. He looks for ways to advance conservation efforts on the refuge despite a shrinking budget, he doesn’t quit, and has a positive personality that bring people along with him to face whatever challenges lie ahead. Read Mr. Vradenburg’s full press release here.
Wiley ‘Dub’ Lyon: The Volunteer of the Year Award
Wiley ‘Dub’ Lyon will receive the Volunteer of the Year Award in recognition of his unwavering support for the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Over the past 7 years as a dedicated volunteer, Mr. Lyon has demonstrated a commitment to the refuge, donating his time and services whenever and wherever needed. After building his own home and retiring from American Airlines where he supervised aircraft landing, take-off, and maintenance, Mr. Lyon found a place where he could apply his many skills – Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. After donating 1,168 hours in his first 8 months, it was apparent Mr. Lyon was not an average refuge volunteer. Mr. Lyon serves as the volunteer coordinator and has organized the annual Friends meeting and Refuge Volunteer Awards ceremony, worked with other volunteers to make sure teachers were able to schedule environmental education programs, and collected public use data. He is also skilled at finding cost-effective ways to accomplish repair jobs. Mr. Lyon has been elected as President of the Friends of Balcones twice and was elected to the Board of Directors for the past 6 years. Read Mr. Lyon’s full press release here.
Friends of the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge: The Molly Krival Friends Group of the Year Award
The Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico will receive the Molly Krival Friends Group of the Year Award. The 2015 award was renamed to honor the late Molly Krival – a pioneer of the Friends movement. The Friends of the Bosque del Apache coordinates the annual Festival of the Cranes, an event that draws more than 6,000 people from around the world and generates $2.5 million, making it the greatest income-generating event in the county. The Friends also provide environmental education opportunities for students from the surrounding community. Active advocates for the refuge and the Refuge System, the Friends visit Capitol Hill, host events for legislators on the refuge, and write letters to their representatives. Read the Friends of the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge’s full press release here.
March 18 is Public Witness Day. Hosted by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, Public Witness Day is an opportunity for Americans from all over the nation to speak to decision-makers about funding priorities for natural resources. This year, the Refuge Association, along with three individuals representing Friends groups are testifying on behalf of the Refuge System. They are Bill Durkin of Friends of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, Daniel Price of Friends of Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge in Washington, and Mary Dolven of Friends of Camas National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho.
Public Witness Day gives American citizens the opportunity to come to Washington to request funding for programs they consider a priority, such as public lands, the arts, and Native American issues. It is democracy in action, giving organizations and individuals the ability to speak directly to the lawmakers who write the funding bills for all programs within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as numerous other natural resource agencies. Any American citizen may submit testimony and apply to testify in person. The Refuge Association and several Friends groups have submitted testimony and while the opportunity to testify is March 18th, organizations still have until March 25th to submit written comments to the House and until April 30th to submit written comments to the Senate.
Each Friends member will testify about different issues facing their refuge and the entire Refuge System such as the lack of funding to provide environmental education programs or control invasive species or oversee volunteers. They will be urging Congress to increase funding for the operations and maintenance budget of the Refuge System to $508.2 million for Fiscal Year 2016 and increase funding and reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
This time of year is ‘peak appropriations season,’ and the Refuge Association will also be hosting a Friends Fly-In the week of March 23. Representatives from the Molly Krival Friends Group of the Year Friends of the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, Amigos De La Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, Friends of Valle De Oro National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, Wheeler Wildlife Refuge Association in Alabama, Friends of Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Vermont, Friends of Willamette National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, Friends of the Coastal South Carolina National Wildlife Refuges, and the Ding Darling Wildlife Society in Florida will all be traveling to our nation’s capitol to meet with their Congressional delegations and members of the Administration about issues facing the Refuge System.
REFUGE FRIENDS CONNECT
A small group with a lot of gusto describes the Friends of the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge. Located in a rural, northwest corner of Washington State, this group has built a strong collaboration with refuge staff, and maintains consistent volunteers and about 100 members despite being in a small town.
The group was established in 2001, and since then has developed a robust environmental education program that reaches hundreds of nearby students each year.
“It’s one of our biggest long-term accomplishments,” said group vice president Daniel Price.
The program, now more than a decade old, brings second graders and fifth graders onto the refuge. The younger students spend time exploring the 1.2 mile McDowell Marsh Environmental Education Trail, while the older students follow a customized educational program in line with their school district’s curriculum.
Price noted that despite living in a rural setting, some of the children have never been into a forest, on a picnic, or exposed to the outdoors beyond their schools playground.
The plan is to expand the program to more school districts, but to do that, they’ll need more funding. Read more...
The Friends also helped create the McDowell Marsh Environmental Education Trail in 2007, and over the years have added additional interpretive signs and features to make the trail more interactive. Today, the trail features a universally accessible boardwalk over the marsh, self guided narrative brochures, an observation blind, and access to five ecological habitats found on the refuge.
Price also noted that visitation at the refuge has increased in recent years, from about 40,000 visitors five years ago to about 70,000 visitors today. He attributes the increase to better outreach efforts, and the varied events the refuge and Friends offer, including an annual butterfly count, an Earth Day cleanup, a mushroom foray and other festivals.
As is the case at so many of America’s wildlife refuges, Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge is that much better thanks to the efforts of its local Friends group. To learn more about the Friends of Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge, visit the website.
We Challenge You to Visit 40 Refuges!
To celebrate our 40th anniversary, we are challenging you, the National Wildlife Refuge System’s best supporters, to visit 40 refuges in one year! It’s easy to participate. Simply join our Flickr group, upload photos of yourself at the refuges along the way, and have a lot of fun! Click here to learn more about the challenge.
MORE HEADLINES FROM THIS MONTH
GETTING TO KNOW ALFREDO SALINAS
Alfredo Salinas is a Maintenance Professional at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
The Refuge is Best Known For: It’s best known for endangered species like the ocelot, Aplomado falcon and for other species. More than 400 bird species make use of the refuge.
The Refuge’s Best Kept Secret: It’s location; this is one of the last little in-holdings that hasn’t been touched – we’re at the end of the world.
The Most Interesting Species on the Refuge: “I think it’s the peregrine falcon. It’s fascinating to watch them hunt; they’ll dive up to 200 mph.
Your Favorite Activity on the Refuge: That’s tough! I think just being out in the wilderness; it’s so peaceful out on the refuge. I get to see things most people never get to see.
Best Time to Visit the Refuge: Springtime – the birds are migrating north, it’s still cool, but everything is greening up; it’s all very beautiful.
Friends, are you connected?
RefugeFriendsConnect.org is a membership site that is managed by NWRA and a group of volunteers. If you are a Friends group member or are refuge staff working with Friends you are welcome to join.
Keep an eye out for these upcoming events:
March 17: St. Patrick’s Day
March 18: Public Witness Day hosted by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies
March 20: First Day of Spring
March 23-25: Friends Fly-In to Washington, D.C.
March 27-29: Othello Sandhill Crane Festival at Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in Washington.
The National Wildlife Refuge Association is on the cutting edge of wildlife habitat conservation and citizen engagement in the United States. But we need your help to advance our work protecting large landscapes, educating decision-makers in Washington, and mobilizing refuge Friends in support of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Please make a generous donation today!
Flyer Masthead Photo Credit: Kestrel, Wade Dowdy