The Art of Helping Wildlife

Establishing a refuge is just the first of many steps in the process of saving imperiled creatures from extinction

  • T. Edward Nickens
  • Feb 01, 2003

ONE BY ONE, we reach out to the turtle. She's 10 feet from the surf line and gasping for breath, her lungs unaccustomed to the unsupported bulk of her 700-pound frame. "So huge," coos one member of our group, giving the leatherback sea turtle a reassuring pat. Others huddle nearby, measuring the turtle's carapace, taking a blood sample, injecting a tiny computer chip into her shoulder.

I am one of seven volunteers gathered on this beach in the U.S. Virgin Islands to assist the endangered leatherbacks. On my belly behind this laboring turtle, half-buried in the sand, my hands reach into a deep nesting pit to catch the lemon-sized eggs as they drop from her cloaca. I pass the eggs quickly to other helpers. Later this evening we'll rebury them on a more stable part of the beach.

This mama sea turtle has chosen to nest on an erosion-prone section of the beach, and there is little chance her eggs will hatch if they remain here. Her good fortune, however, is that this shoreline is part of the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts the largest and most intensely managed colony of nesting leatherback sea turtles in the United States. "Without its protection as a federal refuge, that nesting beach would be a resort and the leatherbacks would be in really big trouble," says Donna Dutton, a biologist leading the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources' leatherback project.

Our presence on this dark Caribbean beach is a testimony to an evolution of thought about how humans can help wild creatures on national wildlife refuges. Scientists have learned that protecting land is often not enough to shore up imperiled species. Active management and hands-on assistance--by scientists and everyday citizens--can be a critical component of wildlife conservation. It's an idea expressed in different ways in different places, and it doesn't always work. But when it does the results can be spectacular: Ducks streaming over marshes; canyons filled with the clattering of battling desert bighorn sheep; and Hawaiian rain forests glittering with brightly colored endangered birds. "The art of wildlife management means we constantly adapt what we learn to the lands we care for," says Jim Kurth, deputy chief for the National Wildlife Refuge System. "That's what really characterizes the way we meet wildlife needs on refuge lands."

ON THE BEACH: A researcher measures a female leatherback sea turtle with the help of a volunteer at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Before the refuge was created in 1984, most sea turtle nests on this beach were lost to erosion or egg poachers. Now volunteers from the Earthwatch Institute work with scientists to monitor every female turtle that comes to the beach to dig a nest, and give a helping hand to hatchlings scurrying to the sea in the dark. In 2001, Sandy Point refuge produced more than 44,000 hatchlings.


On a summer night on the St. Croix beach, you don't have to look far to see humans giving wildlife a helping hand. Time and again biologists and my fellow volunteers reach out to the turtles--to take blood samples for genetic analysis, to gently push hatchlings over driftwood and sea grape. This is a stark contrast to conditions before Sandy Point was established in 1984. Back then, nearly 40 percent of turtle nests were lost to beach erosion, and most of the rest were plundered by local egg poachers. In 1982, only 19 females nested at Sandy Point, and they produced a paltry 2,200 hatchling turtles.

The refuge now hosts a half-dozen teams of volunteers from the Earthwatch Institute each year. This labor allows scientists to tag and monitor every nesting leatherback (the largest of the world's seven species of sea turtles) and analyze every nest. "This is cutting-edge work," says Dutton. "We now have an incredible amount of information on each turtle that comes to the beach. We know how many times it has nested, how many eggs it has produced, how many times it has returned in each season. Now we're getting genetic fingerprints that are helping us model the population. The protection is critical to the research, and the research is critical to bringing this population back." Since the refuge at Sandy Point was established, some 6,000 turtle nests have been documented on the beach, and nearly a quarter-million leatherback hatchlings have emerged from its sands. In 2001 alone, Sandy Point's beaches drew nearly 10 times as many nesting sea turtles as in 1982, and the refuge produced 44,325 palm-sized hatchlings.

FOWL FACTORY: Wetlands in the Great Plains known as prairie potholes are vital to migratory birds. Many areas containing such potholes, including Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota, were set aside in the 1930s to help birds recover from the Dust Bowl. Rare whooping cranes, however, needed more help. Officials began a breeding and reintroduction program in 1993, using disguises such as hand puppets (right) to keep chicks from imprinting on humans. As a result, whooping crane numbers have rebounded and new flocks have been started in Florida and Wisconsin.


Protecting critical habitat is a cornerstone of the National Wildlife Refuge System and is one aspect of conservation that has seen great change. Consider the so-called "duck factory," the prairie pothole region of the plains states where millions of wetland depressions produce ducks and geese that ultimately migrate across much of the country. Early on, biologists understood the need to protect waterfowl habitat throughout the migratory flyways. But they didn't always understand the need for treating refuges as an integral part of a larger landscape. Those lessons were learned in part at prairie refuges such as the J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, along the lower reaches of North Dakota's Souris River. Salyer, a mosaic of marsh, remnant prairie and sandhills, was one of many havens established to give waterfowl a chance to weather the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when drought turned the prairies into a desert, and drove waterfowl populations to alarming lows.

In its early years, explains refuge manager Bob Howard, Salyer and other waterfowl refuges were managed in isolation. "We bought the land and put a fence around it," he explains, "then worried about what we could do inside the fence." Managers worked to provide cover by planting alfalfa and wheatgrass, and boosted nesting opportunities with chicken-wire nesting baskets and small nesting islands pushed up with bulldozers.

These days, however, the Salyer refuge is managed as just one part of a sprawling, five-county area the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Here refuge personnel work with private landowners to promote wetlands and native grassland conservation. "Biological and ecological integrity are what we are after," says Howard. "We've learned to look beyond the fences and consider the entire landscape."

Protecting large, intact landscapes is crucial for the survival of many animals, including the four subspecies of desert bighorn sheep. In the mid-nineteenth century, several hundred thousand of these buff-colored cliff-dwellers clattered across dry mountain ranges in the Southwest. Today, perhaps 15,000 remain. More than three million acres of refuge lands have been set aside for desert bighorns, more than has been designated for any other mammal species outside of Alaska.

Preserving untrammeled wilds is only part of the story with desert bighorns, however. Healthy desert bighorn sheep can go many months without drinking water, gleaning what moisture they need from grasses, cacti and shrubs. But during the dry summer months, free-standing water is critical to the herds, so biologists and volunteers at Nevada's Desert National Wildlife Refuge have built water collection and dispensing systems in remote mountain areas. "In many places we've been able to save nearly every drop of rainwater," says Bruce Zeller, a biologist for the Desert refuge. "It's meant hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a year for sheep." It is grueling work: All materials must be ferried in via helicopter or horse, and crews endure difficult weather, tough hikes and days of manual labor.

Desert bighorn sheep still present difficult challenges to biologists. On the Desert refuge in particular, sheep numbers have fallen?from 1,600 in the mid-1980s to a current estimate of approximately 750. Zeller thinks drought and increased numbers of mountain lions may have caused the decline, but biologists still don't have all the answers.

Similar struggles exist across the country and illustrate some challenges--even limitations--of wildlife refuges. For example, flooding on the Julie B. Hansen National Wildlife Refuge in Washington in 1996 wiped out half of its endangered Columbian white-tailed deer. And scientists are currently trying to learn why the moose population on Minnesota's Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge has plummeted by more than 75 percent in the last two decades. The lesson from these and other setbacks is that wildlife populations go through peaks and valleys, Zeller says, "and we're learning that you have to be patient and let nature take its course. And that whenever you can, you give nature a hand."

On some refuges, giving nature a hand means rebuilding the native ecosystem. At Hawaii's Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, for example, managers are trying to help rare birds by bringing back native tropical forests. Two hundred years ago this area on the upper slopes of Mauna Kea, the highest peak on Hawaii's "Big Island," was cloaked in a dense canopy of koa and red-blossomed 'ohi'a trees. When the refuge was established in 1985, says manager Richard Wass, much of its 33,000 acres was still heavily wooded. The uppermost 5,000 acres, however, "had been denuded by 150 years of ranching," Wass explains. "A flourishing rain forest had been degraded to a cattle pasture of alien grasses and weeds."

FIELDS OF DREAMS: Some refuges have to be created from the ground up. At Iowa's Neal Smith refuge, for example, workers such as biologist Pauline Drobney (left, holding sacks of wildflower seeds) are attempting to restore thousands of acres of tallgrass prairie, a vital habitat that has all but disappeared.


To restore the forest, refuge staff and volunteers have planted more than 250,000 native trees and shrubs on its close-cropped pastures, including 200,000 koa trees, known as the "mother of the rain forest" for the way it nurtures understory vegetation. Forty-four miles of fence have been constructed to keep out grazing cattle and feral pigs, and war has been waged on exotic plants such as gorse, banana poka and blackberry. "If we just let the forest alone, it would probably take 500 or 1,000 years to come back on its own," figures Wass. "But in 50 years, we'll have a diverse forest up there. And in 200 years, it will look almost like it did 200 years ago."

It won't take that long for Hakalau Forest's pioneering restoration to make a difference for wildlife, including some of the nation's most endangered species. Already native birds, including the yellow and black 'amakihi and the brilliant crimson 'apapane, have nested in the regenerating forests. And in November of 2001, refuge biologist Jack Jeffrey found a family of endangered 'akiapola'au feeding in a grove of planted koa trees. "That's exciting," Jeffrey says. "That shows us we're doing something right. We always said, 'Plant it and they will come,' and they did."

Landscape restoration is becoming a hallmark conservation tool on many wildlife refuges. On the Neal Smith refuge in Iowa, biologists are working to recreate more than 8,000 acres of tallgrass prairie and oak savanna. On the Carolina Sandhills refuge in South Carolina, restoration centers on the longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem that once covered 90 million acres of the Southeast. Now found only in scattered patches, this landscape provides critical habitat for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and pine barrens tree frogs.

Perhaps no animal symbolizes the helping hand of humans on wildlife refuges as much as the endangered whooping crane. In recent years biologists have snatched the whooping crane from the maw of extinction, and refuges have played a seminal role.

In 1941, only 15 migratory whoopers remained alive in all of North America. (A handful of nonmigratory birds lived in Louisiana, but died out by 1950.) Careful protection of that flock, which migrates between Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, has brought its numbers up to about 175 birds. Efforts to establish the birds in the Rocky Mountains failed, but a captive-reared nonmigratory flock of nearly 90 birds has been established in Florida.

And in the fall of 2001, seven whooping cranes completed a 1,230-mile migration flight led by an unusual foster family--ultralight aircraft piloted by men in whooping crane costumes. Based on the pioneering work of Canadian sculptor William Lishman, who led 18 Canada geese from Ontario to Virginia in 1993, researchers are establishing a flock of whoopers that will migrate from Wisconsin to Florida.

Young whooping cranes in this program need to be taught migration routes. Their instruction begins before they hatch, in incubators at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, where taped crane calls and ultralight aircraft noise play in the background. As soon as chicks hatch, workers draped in white costumes commence their role as caregivers, pointing out mealworm treats with puppet arms mimicking the necks and heads of adult cranes. By the time the birds can fly, they have been moved to Wisconsin's Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to begin daily exercises with another costumed "parent" at the helm of an ultralight aircraft. In October, the plane shepherds the birds south for a six-week migration.

Success has been measured in the trip back to Wisconsin, which the birds undertake by themselves. In the spring of 2002, five whooping cranes retraced the route to Necedah. Officials hope that three times as many will fly back to Wisconsin this spring.

The enduring lesson of the whooping crane, says Tom Stehn, the species' recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "is that it is never too late. If man steps in and cares enough and tries hard enough, we can save wildlife species that seem utterly doomed."

And just as important, we can prevent less imperiled animals from ever having to peer into the brink. Back on the beach at Sandy Point refuge, I rebury the eggs laid by the big mama turtle in a stretch of beach safe from erosion, then open up a Styrofoam cooler. It is 3 a.m. and I have the task of releasing tiny leatherback sea turtles that were unable to make it out of nests and into the water on their own. As I pull the hatchlings out of the cooler and place them on the sand, they wriggle urgently in my hand. Waves wash up on the beach like arms of white foam, wrapping around the tiny animals, and then recede into the sea, taking them home. I watch for a few moments, but don't tarry long. There's more work to do.

North Carolina journalist T. Edward Nickens wrote about opossums in the December/January issue.

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