NWF Guardians of Abundance

For eight decades, NWF and its affiliates have worked to protect wildlife and habitats in the United States and beyond

  • Mark Wexler
  • Conservation
  • Jan 29, 2016

FEBRUARY 5, 2016, MARKS THE 80TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION. On that date eight decades ago, a diverse coalition of hunters, anglers, farmers, gardeners and other outdoor enthusiasts were meeting in Washington, D.C., at the nation’s first North American Wildlife Conference, convened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. At the time, drought and the Depression were taking a heavy toll on the country’s natural resources, so delegates to the historic meeting united to form a new organization that would become a powerful voice for wildlife. “No one should conceive that the question of wildlife conservation is limited only to the interests of sportsmen and bird lovers,” said NWF’s first president, Pulitzer Prize–winning political cartoonist J.N. “Ding” Darling, who saw wildlife as “a vital element in our existence.” Still true to that view, the National Wildlife Federation is working harder than ever to safeguard wildlife and wild lands for future generations. What follows is a sampling of its past and ongoing efforts on behalf of conservation.

Working for Waterfowl: The Fight to Save Dwindling Wetlands

Not long after it was founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation joined forces with a new state affiliate, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, in a groundbreaking effort opposing a U.S. government plan to create cropland by draining more than 200,000 acres of crucial waterfowl habitat in the Mississippi River Delta. Debate over taxpayer funding of a particularly controversial part of the plan—a massive, $220 million water-removal scheme called the Yazoo Pumps—dragged on for decades.

“Large agribusiness interests that would benefit most from the project accused us of loving ducks more than people,” recalls Gerald Barber, former president of the affiliate and long-time NWF board member. “But we knew that the ecological integrity of the region was at stake for both people and wildlife, and so we persevered.”

Finally, in 2008—after thousands of Federation members and supporters had voiced their opposition to the proposed pumps—U.S. authorities vetoed the drainage plan. It was the first—and certainly the longest—of many battles NWF and its affiliates have fought to protect habitat for waterfowl and other native wildlife.

The Federation is still actively defending strong wetland-protection measures, including a new federal rule that will restore U.S. Clean Water Act protections for millions of acres of marshlands and 60 percent of the country’s stream miles. It also continues to combat habitat losses and degradation in the Mississippi River Delta, which was “ground zero for the 2010 BP gulf oil disaster,” says David Muth, director of NWF’s Gulf Restoration program. The Federation took the lead in drawing attention to the tragic effects of the spill on dolphins, pelicans, sea turtles and other Gulf of Mexico species. And last year, NWF helped secure the largest environmental court settlement in U.S. history to direct funds toward restoring habitat in this region.

To further safeguard wildlife throughout the Mississippi River Delta, NWF is working with the Louisiana Wildlife Federation and Ducks Unlimited on a broad-based campaign called Vanishing Paradise to help restore declining wetlands for the 3 to 5 million waterfowl that winter in the delta every year. Says NWF President Collin O’Mara, “It’s an effort that all Americans can embrace.”

Endangered Species: New Lease on Life for Wildlife at Risk 

In 1951, for the first time in its history, the National Wildlife Federation concentrated its efforts on saving a specific animal—the Key deer—a subspecies of whitetail that few Americans even knew existed. The diminutive creature, which stands less than 3 feet tall at the shoulders, numbered fewer than 50 at the time in its sole habitat, the Florida Keys. With support from its affiliate the Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF), the NWF campaign was instrumental in creation of the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key in 1957 and in securing protection for the animal on the nation’s first official list of threatened and endangered species in 1966.

Since then, protecting imperiled plants and animals has been a top priority for NWF and its affiliates, which focus not only on single at-risk species but also on the larger ecosystems they inhabit. “Today, we’re helping protect Key deer and many other species by maintaining the different units of the coastal barrier resources system in the Florida Keys,” says FWF President Manley Fuller.

Six years ago, FWF partnered with NWF on a landmark legal case that successfully forced the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prevent development of habitat used not only by the deer but also by endangered lower Keys marsh rabbits and several other federally listed species. The case set a national precedent on how federal flood insurance is issued.

Beyond the legal realm, NWF and its affiliates are working together to create inventive strategies to help rare animals survive. In Alabama, for example, NWF and its affiliate the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) are working with private landowners on a unique collaboration to revive stands of longleaf pine. This endangered ecosystem, which is found only in the southern United States, shelters eastern indigo snakes, red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises and several other critically imperiled species. In recent years, AWF has provided technical assistance to dozens of property owners who have planted and restored more than 13,000 acres of longleaf pine. “By building strong relationships with these landowners,” says NWF Forestry Program Coordinator Tiffany Woods, “we’re also creating high-quality habitat for wildlife.”

Back in Florida, innovation and collaboration also are helping protect the 150 or so surviving Florida panthers, the nation’s most endangered cats. “More than 30 panthers were killed just in the past year by vehicles on roadways,” says Fuller. But working with state agencies, FWF has been identifying areas where highway underpasses and other wildlife crossings should be built to prevent more panther fatalities. To date, 50 crossings have been completed, and camera traps show that panthers and a host of other species are using them safely.

A priority for NWF affiliates from Maine to California, creating safe passage for wildlife is yet another way the Federation is helping a host of species survive.

Western Habitats: Giving Wildlife More Room to Roam

When the U.S. Congress included Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds Mountains in a new federal wilderness area last summer, the measure protected habitat for some of the American West’s most iconic species such as Chinook salmon, cutthroat trout, pronghorn, mountain lions and moose. It also concluded a long, joint effort by NWF and its affiliate the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) to secure this pristine region for future generations.

That struggle began in the late 1960s, when NWF filed a lawsuit—its first ever—which successfully stopped a mining company from building a road through U.S. Forest Service lands in the White Clouds range. “The new wilderness designation provides the area with the highest level of protection for big-game security and watershed health,” says IWF Executive Director Michael Gibson.

Idaho also was the focus in 2015 of NWF’s Adopt a Wildlife Acre program, which compensates cattle and sheep ranchers for retiring their grazing permits to avoid conflicts with wildlife. In the past two years, the Federation successfully retired more than 180,000 acres of grazing allotments on public lands in Idaho. Since it began in 2003, the program has opened up nearly a million acres of habitat in the Northern Rockies for bison, grizzlies, gray wolves and bighorn sheep, all of which need space to roam. “It’s a winning proposition for both wildlife and ranchers, who can use the compensation to relocate their livestock to areas free of conflict,” says Kit Fischer, NWF’s manager for conflict resolution.

Protecting Cranes: Shoring Up Habitat for Water-Dependent Birds

In one of North America’s greatest spectacles, 80 percent of the world’s population of sandhill cranes—some 500,000 birds—fly every March from southern wintering grounds to rest and feed along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Joined by about 300 endangered whooping cranes, the birds feast for weeks, as they have for generations, before dispersing to summer breeding sites.

During the past century, however, crane habitat along the river declined by roughly 75 percent as dams and other water diversions significantly reduced flows in the river. The situation reached a critical point in the late 1970s with the construction of a new dam on a North Platte tributary in Wyoming that threatened to reduce downstream river flows even further. “We couldn’t let the birds’ habitat collapse,” says former NWF Board Member Tom Dougherty.

In response, NWF in 1977 filed a lawsuit challenging the project. It resulted in a $7.5 million settlement with the dam’s operator that enabled NWF and its affiliate the Nebraska Wildlife Federation to set up a trust to restore 10,000 acres along a 40-mile stretch of the Platte—an area that includes nesting sites for endangered interior least terns and threatened piping plovers.

With input from NWF and its affiliates in Wyoming and Colorado, the Nebraska Wildlife Federation is now part of a federal-state recovery team helping oversee work to restore the waterway’s habitat. “We’re still having trouble reestablishing the Platte’s historic water flows, but we’ve stopped the bleeding and increased the amount of protected wildlife areas along the river,” says Nebraska Wildlife’s Executive Director Duane Hovorka. “I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Bees and Butterflies: The Ongoing Quest to Protect Pollinators

New Jersey Audubon, an NWF affiliate, has conducted the country’s longest-running census of monarch butterflies, which began in 1991. Recent results are ominous for monarchs, and several other pollinator species are also in decline. “Many pollinator populations are reaching a tipping point due to a combination of threats,” says NWF President Collin O’Mara. “It’s going to take every American doing his or her part to reverse the decline.”

For its part, the Federation took steps last year to protect dwindling native bees, butterflies and other creatures that provide billions of dollars in pollination services in the United States. In February, NWF formed a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to save monarch butterflies, which have declined by nearly 90 percent in the past two decades. It launched a Butterfly Heroes™ campaign to encourage children to plant milkweed, the only food monarch caterpillars can eat. And through its new Mayors’ Monarch Pledge, NWF has enlisted dozens of municipalities to take actions such as converting vacant lots to monarch habitat.

In 2014, the Federation became a founding partner of the National Pollinator Garden Network, an unprecedented collaboration of national and local groups seeking to create a million new pollinator gardens by the end of 2016. Participants include hundreds of NWF-certified Schoolyard Habitats® and many of the 200,000 properties in the Federation’s Garden for Wildlife™ program, the country’s largest group of wildlife gardeners.

In the 2008 reauthorization of the U.S. Farm Bill, NWF helped convince Congress to include, for the first time, financial incentives to farmers who set aside property that shelters native flowering plants. “Lawmakers recognized the important role farmers play in providing pollinator habitat,” says Julie Sibbing, senior director of NWF’s Agriculture and Forestry Program. The Federation also successfully advocated for new provisions in the 2014 Farm Bill that discourage destruction of grasslands in key states, giving monarchs and other pollinators habitat they need to survive.

Chesapeake Bay: A Push for Cleaner Waters

With one historic court decision in 1969, NWF forever changed the way the U.S. government conducts some of its business. Using the mandates of the newly passed National Environmental Policy Act, the Federation successfully prevented the Atomic Energy Commission from allowing a nuclear power plant to be built on the Chesapeake Bay without first studying the facility’s potential impact on water quality and nearby ancient fossils.

Ever since that legal victory, federal agencies must investigate the impacts of all of their proposed major projects. The court case also marked the beginning of NWF’s ongoing efforts to protect the habitat of blue crabs, ospreys and some 3,600 other plant and animal species that live in and around the Chesapeake Bay—one of several critically important U.S. coastal areas where the Federation and its affiliates are promoting conservation.

Currently, NWF is co-chairing the Choose Clean Water Coalition, more than 200 groups in the Chesapeake region focused on restoring and protecting the bay. “Since the coalition was formed in 2009, we’ve nearly doubled the amount of federal funds going into local water-quality and habitat programs,” says Hilary Harp Falk, NWF’s Mid-Atlantic regional executive director.

In Baltimore, for example, NWF is providing financial and on-the-ground assistance to convert a neighborhood into a model “deep-green community,” complete with such features as pollinator and rain gardens, native vegetation and pervious pavement that prevents runoff from entering the bay. At the same time, the Federation is helping other waterfront communities employ nature-based approaches to cope with the effects of climate change. “The Chesapeake is being hit by a double whammy: Its water level is rising and its land is subsiding,” says Bruce Stein, director of NWF’s Climate Adaptation and Resilience program. As a result, sea level in the bay is rising about twice as fast as in most other regions.

A leader in the field of climate-smart conservation, the Federation is working with partners at locations such as Conquest Beach in Maryland, where it is creating a “living shoreline” using rocks and other natural features designed to protect the shore even as sea levels rise. “We’re entering into a new era in which many of our traditional conservation practices must be reconsidered in the light of climate change,” says Stein. That doesn’t mean ignoring existing issues such as invasive species or runoff pollution, he adds. “It means integrating climate-smart thinking into all our efforts.” As NWF looks to the future, such innovation will be the key to protecting America’s natural heritage.

Mark Wexler is editor-at-large.

More from National Wildlife magazine and NWF:

About Us: NWF History
Our Work: Climate Smart Conservation
What's Killing the Key Deer?
Keeping Wildlife on the Move: Corridors and Camera Traps
A Tale of Two Cranes: Sandhill and Whooping Cranes
Vanishing Voices: Grassland Habitats

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