Happy Spring! Spring migration is well underway and whether you have witnessed fallouts of migrating warblers, heard the overhead sound of thousands of geese heading to northern breeding grounds or spotted fawns, cubs or other babies making their way into the world, you can’t deny that spring is one of the most exciting times to explore a national wildlife refuge!
This month’s Flyer features a field report from our own Ron Cole, western conservation program manager, who spent time in eastern Oregon assisting with the annual Greater sage grouse lek count. The recent occupation at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge impacted this year’s volunteer recruitment, so Ron offered his services – and had an incredible time observing leks at nearby Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.
Across the nation in Philadelphia, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum made news as the fourth refuge to be awarded $1 million in additional annual funding to support the Refuge System’s Urban Wildlife Conservation Program. Refuge Manager Lamar Gore and his staff are embarking on some really exciting work expanding programs and access to the refuge for inner city Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque also was awarded the $1 million in additional annual funding for the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program. It so happened that the Refuge Association got to tour this unique refuge just after the announcement, along with several Friends from three New Mexico wildlife refuges: Valle de Oro, Sevilleta and Bosque del Apache. Friends groups for these three refuges participated in a special communications skill-building workshop, and had a chance to build relationships with one another and discuss ways to collaborate in the future.
With all the good news happening on America’s national wildlife refuges, it’s disappointing to see that on Capitol Hill, the outlook is not so bright. We’ve been working overtime to prevent several assaults on our wildlife refuges in the waning days of the current Congress. We are opposing active bills in Congress that would allow Puerto Rico to develop thousands of acres at Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, transfer management of Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada to the Department of Defense, restrict the use of Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) dollars for land acquisitions and other efforts that would harm the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System. To learn more about these immediate threats, join our Refuge Action Network.
Despite the ongoing challenges we’re facing on Capitol Hill, I remain very optimistic for the future of America’s wildlife refuges. Visitation to refuges continues to grow as more people discover the wonder of wildlife on America’s National Wildlife Refuges. I hope to see you on one very soon.
David Houghton, President
ON THE REFUGE
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum Gets $1 Million Boost
America’s first urban wildlife refuge – John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum – got a big boost in funding on March 31 when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe announced that the refuge would receive an annual increase to its budget of $1 million.
The new funding will be used to expand programs and community outreach in urban Philadelphia.
Established in 1972 in southwest Philadelphia, the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is situated in southwest Philadelphia and has the distinction of being America’s first urban refuge. John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge offers an opportunity for local communities to easily access and enjoy the outdoors while engaging youth to learn about their local environment.
“If we want to ensure that conservation is relevant to future generations, we have to put more energy into reaching people where they live, which is becoming more and more in urban centers,” Ashe said in a ceremony at the refuge. “We can pay lip service to that reality or we can start putting our money where our mouth is. That’s exactly what we are doing in Philadelphia, where we have a unique opportunity to connect residents of one of the largest metropolitan areas on the East Coast to natural areas like John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. I have no doubt that with the support and dedication of our partners, the investments we are making today will help make Philadelphia a great model of how to foster urban engagement in conservation and nature.”
This new investment will provide environmental education to schools and communities, provide jobs, and support new partnerships with community leaders and the Philadelphia city government to address transportation and cultural barriers to the refuge.
Refuge Manager Lamar Gore told a reporter covering the event that the new infusion of dollars will go a long way to making the refuge more accessible to the city’s residents.
“We’ll be able to break down transportation barriers and cultural barriers,” Gore said. “One of the barriers is – do we have enough bus routes getting into the refuge or bike trails getting into the refuge? The bike routes are amazing and lot of people bike in Philadelphia, and we’re trying to get some bike share stations in southwest Philly, and we’re willing to figure out a way to pay for them and put them in some locations down here.”
“This federal investment is key to providing new experiences and an appreciation for young people about the natural wildlife and habitat in their own neighborhood,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney at the event. “The City is grateful for these resources that will support a holistic and well-rounded educational experience for youth.”
Reps. Bob Brady, D-PA and Patrick Meehan, R-PA also attended the ceremony. The event also featured a live American bald eagle demonstration showcasing of a replica of her nest.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, launched in 2013, provides new opportunities for residents of America’s cities to learn about and take part in wildlife habitat conservation.
John Heinz is the fourth wildlife refuge to be awarded an additional $1 million to support the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program. The others include the San Diego Refuge Complex in California, Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge outside Portland, Ore., and Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque.
If you’d like to see your refuge highlighted, please email Christine McGowan. We’d love to speak with you!
THE REFUGE ASSOCIATION IN ACTION
Refuge Association Assists with Oregon Lek Count
A special report from conservation program manager, Ron Cole
Eastern Oregon’s high desert landscape has a cycle. Not the ones with knobby tires, twenty-seven gear combinations or catchy names like “mongoose”. We’re talking about the cycle of the seasons. Each seasonal cycle is different: long days, hot and dry in the summer, warm days and cool evenings in the fall; short days, wicked cold and wind, frozen ground in winter. One can get around fairly well in each of these three cycles to explore and wander about. But spring? Spring’s cycle has a rhythm all its own.
Just ask Gail Collins. Gail is the senior biologist for the Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex. She’s driven and traversed the high desert for more than nine years. She knows how the seasons affect the area well enough to know that if you drive off of a main road during the early weeks of spring, you might end up leaving your pickup stranded for a few days in the thawing mud.
Gail was recently recognized with the prestigious Rachael Carson Award for Exemplary Scientific Accomplishment for 2016 for her significant contributions related to the impacts of feral horses in the Great Basin as well as the potential for contraceptive control of feral horse populations. This work has western-wide implications that could safely and humanely manage wild horse populations on public lands throughout the west, helping maintain horse numbers in balance with native wildlife. Gail recently spent time on a detail in Washington D.C. with other Interior agencies to help with strategies and policy. This is yet another example of the important contributions that our National Wildlife Refuges and Refuge System employees make toward conservation throughout the nation.
A few weeks back I heard that Gail was having some difficulty recruiting help to conduct Greater sage grouse lek counts, so I offered up my assistance if that would help. Interest among applicants had waned in light of the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. Although the occupants had vacated Malheur, even their absence casts a shadow. Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is but 20 miles if flown by raven from Malheur. Gail was short-handed so she took me up on my offer.
So, what the heck is a lek? It actually comes from the Swedish word meaning “to play”. Think of them as places where male and female sage grouse meet to get to know each other better- like the “dance halls” of the old west. Lek sites are generally near areas of potential nesting habitat. They are usually small, open areas surrounded by sagebrush. A lek might be an old lakebed, low sagebrush with excellent visibility, a ridge-top with little vegetation, a road or landing strip, even cropland or a burned area. Most leks are very traditional, birds using them year after year, with many of the same leks having been monitored by biologists for decades.
More than 70 leks are located on Hart Mountain Refuge alone. In addition to Hart Mountain, lek surveys also include Sheldon Refuge and most recently Refuge staff have begun assisting BLM and the Oregon Department of Wildlife in the large landscape of BLM lands located between Sheldon and Hart Mountain Refuges, known as the Beatty Butte allotment. All told, lek surveys are being conducted this spring on over 1.5 million acres of contiguous, desert landscape that is rough, muddy, and not easy to get around in. Counting leks requires timely visits on specific days that coordinate with aerial, infra-red imagery being conducted by fixed-wing aircraft. All this is weather dependent, so when aircraft cannot go up, or ground counts are hampered because of bad weather, surveys must be adjusted accordingly.
Everybody pitches in to help with time-sensitive survey work: equipment operators, refuge managers, biologists, volunteers, administrative officers, firefighters – all you need is a tolerance for cold weather, long days, fresh air, and a desert sunrise.
On this morning I met with Gail and Administrative Officer Caitlin Simms at the Complex Headquarters at 5am. Caitlin was born and raised in Lakeview, married locally and has roots set deep in Lake County. In Lakeview, Friday night means just about the entire town is at the football game, everyone knows you by the coat you wear, and the best seat may be on the hood of a pickup that you drove 50 miles from your house.
Rural western communities are geographically huge when compared to many urban areas, yet everyone knows each other as if they live in the same small town. Consider that you could fit all of the lands of Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia inside of Lake County and still have room to fit several National Parks. Further consider that combined, those same urban states total over 6million residents, compared with 8,000 in all of Lake County. Some outsiders opine that living in rural communities must be like living in a glass house. Perhaps. But in Lake County, the view from every house looking out is breathtaking.
Gail and Caitlin quickly gathered radios and maps, including hand-held GPS units to help guide us into and identify exact lek locations. With our pickups full of gas, we headed east some 65 miles to the Hart Mountain Refuge headquarters. Once there, Gail gave some last minute direction to Caitlin who then drove off in the dark to her lek locations. Gail and I rode off in her pickup to check on 4 leks not far from field headquarters.
Gail and I parked alongside the main road, her GPS unit suggested we were within about 1.5 miles of the furthest lek with several a bit closer. The sun’s candle was just starting to flicker, so we didn’t need flashlights. Unlike a dancehall, lek activity begins just before sunrise and lasts a few hours. We hadn’t walked but 10 yards from the pickup when I could hear a “popping “ sound echoing through the cool morning air.
Sage grouse males inflate and deflate their twin bright yellow throat sacs to get the attention of females. The sound they make is unique to anything in the desert. Think of your coffee pot percolating on a desert campfire- now think of what it would sound like if you had twenty coffee pots.
We stumbled on, tripping over lava rock and low sage, our anticipation brewing to see our first grouse of the day. As we moved north, we could hear grouse, the occasional coyote, and a few horned larks. Our first visual was a small heard of pronghorn, which were typically curious, unable to smell us, but I am sure had been watching since we left the pickup.
Suddenly, there were the grouse. The morning sun made the males appear as white lanterns against the dull sage background. We got about 150 yards from the birds, close enough to get a good count but far enough as to not disturb them. Using binoculars, we each counted the number of males and females, recounted, then compared notes. We counted all four of the leks in this same manner. When we were done a few hours later, our total was 99 males and 7 females. Gail said that for these particular leks, this was about average.
Some leks that are counted are known as “trend leks,” as they have been monitored for many years. These leks provide the refuge general population trends on both Sheldon and Hart Mountain Refuges. In addition, all known leks are counted at 5-year intervals. With the recent help of infrared imagery, it is easier to find new leks and easier to locate known leks that have moved. All of this information is recorded using GPS coordinates and is accessible immediately to Gail and staff so they can use it while in the field. In 2015 the trend lek data showed an improvement compared with 2014 (36.7 males/lek vs. 32. 7 males/lek), but this is still lower than the long-term average over the past 30+ years of 45 males/lek. Gail points out that so far this year, it looks like Hart Mountain and Sheldon Refuge counts are up from 2015.
Meaningful data must be collected in tune with the natural rhythms of the desert’s seasonal cycles. Throughout the seasons, field biologists use radio telemetry to follow both Pronghorn and sage-grouse in their life cycles, conduct raptor nest surveys, riparian songbird assessments, American pika surveys, Pygmy rabbit colony assessments, mule deer fall composition counts, California bighorn sheep census, bat inventory and monitoring, pollinator monitoring, feral horse and burro census, research on the distribution and abundance of desert trout and the Sheldon chub, post fire monitoring, aspen stand inventory and health assessments, and even to track seismic events and sequence intensity. The planning, coordination, models, statistical analysis, literature review and the many other aspects required to gather useful information to make good management decisions are easily forgotten when walking on a cool spring morning in the high desert. I was simply enjoying a natural spectacle that has been going on for thousands of years on Hart Mountain.
Herds of pronghorn stood and watched us as we gazed at them, running off as if skating on ice. Coyotes were barking and howling in the distance. A bobcat ran across our path, invisibly melting into the sage. Springtime is a special cycle of the year. Nice to know that Gail and the rest of the staff at the Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex are working hard behind the scenes to help keep it that way.
The National Wildlife Refuge System has faced an onslaught of legislative attacks over the past month. Thanks to supporters like you we achieved several victories, yet other challenges are ongoing, and others still have just begun. Below you will find the legislative issues the Refuge Association has tackled this April:
An amendment offered by Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) to the Energy Policy Modernization Act (Energy Bill) that would have forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into an agreement to manage non-native, feral horses on the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina was modified before being passed by the Senate, resulting in a win-win for the refuge and people of North Carolina. The Service will not be responsible for any management costs associated with the feral horse population and can keep the horses out of fragile refuge areas, while a local non-profit will fund costs associated with the horses.
Land and Water Conservation Fund
When the Senate passed the Energy Bill this month they made history by becoming the first Congressional chamber to pass permanent authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). In addition to passing permanent reauthorization, the Senate also rejected an amendment that would have significantly restricted the use of LWCF funds. The next hurdle for LWCF will be ensuring the language remains in the final bill when merged with the House version.
Vieques National Wildlife Refuge
Two weeks ago, the House Natural Resources Committee unveiled legislation to address Puerto Rico’s current financial crisis. The bill contains a dangerous provision that would allow thousands of acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge to be turned over to the government of Puerto Rico – potentially for development.
If the bill passes containing this alarming provision to convey the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, it would be the first strike of many aimed at chipping away at the National Wildlife Refuge System – and all of America’s public lands.
Izembek National Wildlife Refuge
The saga over the proposed construction of a road through designated wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska continued this month as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the issue. Despite Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel’s decision to reject construction of the road and suggestions for non-road alternatives, the fight over the road carries on. We anticipate this will be added to the Interior Appropriations bill – stay tuned.
Desert National Wildlife Refuge
The House Armed Services Committee held a marathon markup of the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 4909) on April 27, where more than 300 amendments were offered to the bill, including language that would transfer management authority of 850,000 acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the military. This amendment, identical to language included in last year’s bill that was eventually removed, passed the committee and the overall bill will now go to the House floor for a vote. We will work with our Senate champions to remove this provision in any final bill. Take Action here.
Acquiring New Refuge Lands through the Land and Water Conservation Fund
The House Natural Resources Federal Lands Subcommittee held a hearing on April 28 for a draft bill known as the “Locally-elected Officials Cooperating with Agencies in Land Management Act of 2016.” If enacted, this bill will make it next to impossible for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire any new lands for the Refuge System through the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. Stay tuned for a future Take Action Tuesday alert on this bill should it go forward.
REFUGE FRIENDS CONNECT
Friends Learn About Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; Learn Valuable Communications Skills
What do national wildlife refuges in New Mexico have in common with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska thousands of miles away?
Believe it or not, quite a bit! That was just one discovery that Friends of three New Mexico wildlife refuges made during a special communications training on the Arctic April 1-2.
The National Wildlife Refuge Association, with support from the Wilburforce Foundation and Resource Media, presented the first of two special communication skills workshops for Friends Groups focused on America’s wildest refuge, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
About 30 leaders from Friends of the Bosque del Apache, Amigos de la Sevilleta and Friends of Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge met up on Friday April 1 at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque to kick things off. Valle de Oro Refuge Manager Jennifer Owen-White, still gleaming from the recent announcement that the refuge has been awarded $1 million to support its Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, showed the group around the former farm that was recently established as a wildlife refuge. She described the vision that the local Friends Group and other partners have for the property to become a hub of community learning and outreach about wildlife conservation.
After lunch, the group caravanned south to Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge to tour the rural refuge and learn about some of the many research projects being conducted on the refuge, as well to get a glimpse of the pronghorn antelope and newly-released prairie dogs scattered across the landscape.
That evening, the group heard from David Raskin, president of Friends of Alaska Refuges, David Houghton, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Dr. Benjamin Tuttle, Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and finally, Jim Kurth, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a former refuge manager at the Arctic Refuge. The speakers emphasized the importance of the Arctic Refuge to the Refuge System, and the important role Refuge Friends Groups can play in helping protect this valuable resource.
The following day, the group met at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge for an early-morning tour of the refuge – and then it was time for the real work to begin.
The communications training covered several key communications skills – developing a message, creating a communications plan, identifying your audience, and best practices for working with the media and using social media to reach your target audiences. While the training used the Arctic Refuge as the subject, the skills were applicable to virtually any local refuge issue or campaign.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway from the training was the new connections the three groups made with one another. Several participants commented on how valuable it was for them to meet one another, visit each other’s refuges and discuss ways they can work together on regional issues that impact all three refuges.
“We were thrilled to see Friends sharing ideas and brainstorming about ways they can collaborate on projects,” said Joan Patterson, director of grassroots outreach.
So back to the question – what does the Arctic Refuge have in common with New Mexico refuges? Several Friends identified common threads, including many migratory species that breed in the Arctic but also use refuges in New Mexico; the connection between refuge lands and the native people who have a deep connection to it, and the common threats posed by resource extraction such as oil and gas drilling.
Based on the feedback we received, the workshop was a big success. And that’s great, since we are hosting a second training in Florida at J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge for several Florida Refuge Friends Groups June 3-4.
Our hope is that these communication skill-building workshops are not only valuable for the groups that participate, but that they can be replicated in the future for more friends groups around the nation. If this sounds like it would be of interest to your friends group, please contact Joan Patterson at email@example.com.
MORE HEADLINES FROM THIS MONTH
GETTING TO KNOW Brendalee Phillips, Wildlife Biologist at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge
John Heinz NWR at Tinicum is Best Known For: Its fresh water tidal marsh and the numerous bird species that can be found here as they travel along their migration routes.
John Heinz NWR at Tinicum’s Best Kept Secret: The refuge itself! So many folks in the surrounding area don’t know the refuge is here and it is truly an amazing and peaceful place.
The Most Interesting Species on John Heinz NWR at Tinicum: I think people are amazed that they can view nesting bald eagles at the refuge, especially with the backdrop of the Philadelphia International Airport.
My Favorite Activity on John Heinz NWR at Tinicum: I love getting outside for any reason, but I really enjoy conducting waterbird counts.
The Best Time to Visit John Heinz NWR at Tinicum: The best time to visit the refuge and see wildlife, in my opinion, is either early in the morning or before sunset.
Friends, are you connected?
RefugeFriendsConnect.org is a membership site that is managed by Refuge Association 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:
April 30: Grab a pair of binoculars and head to the John Heinz NWR at Tinicum for a guided Bird & Butterfly Walk (PA)
May 6: Get your hands dirty and help the Great Swamp NWR Complex remove invasive plants from the refuge (NJ)
May 12: Join the Alaska Maritime NWR as they celebrate the 24th Annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival – Alaska’s largest wildlife viewing festival (AK)
May 14: It’s fun for the whole family at the Tijuana Slough NWR’s celebration of International Migratory Bird Day (CA)
May 15: Pontoon rides, archery workshops, and free food is just a sampling of the fun activities offered at the Go Wild! festival hosted by the Rappahannock NWR and the Rappahannock Wildlife Refuge Friends (VA)
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