Thursday, February 28, 2013

Celebrating African American Heritage in Fish & Wildlife

Judy Gordon, Abernathy Fish Technology
Center Director

Credit: USFWS
In celebration of African American Heritage month, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service asked Judith Gordon, Center Director at Abernathy Fish Technology Center in Longview, Washington why she does what she does. Her inspiring personal account of getting involved with conservation showcases one of the many ways that nature inspires Service employees! Thank you, Judy, for your hard work and dedication to nature and conservation!

Why I do what I do?
I can answer that with a name, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the oceanographer and marine conservationist. Growing up I probably watched every one of his TV specials about his adventures aboard the research vessel Calypso and cruising around in Zodiacs®. I knew by the time I was eleven years old that I wanted a career in a marine biological science so I could be near the water and study biology. My parents helped in this choice in two ways. First, they were fully engaged in and encouraging of my educational goal of going to college.  Secondly, they wanted my sister and me to have a choice in careers, which as children of the Great Depression they didn’t. 

Judy sampling on the Yukon River in

Credit: Judy Gordon/USFWS
Following a dream around the U.S.
Thus armed with images from TV specials and support from family I started down my career path.  This led me to a Bachelor's degree in population Biology and as Master's degree in Quantitative Ecology, with a minor in Statistics.  But most importantly it led me to jobs in Woods Hole, MA, Pascagoula, MS, Fairbanks, AK, Longview, WA, and research cruises/field work in the North Atlantic Ocean off of New England, the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska's Beaufort Sea and middle Yukon River, and now the Pacific Northwest.

Too many fish to count
During my ~30 year career I have seen amazing things: a whale shark feeding at the surface of the ocean; porpoises enjoying themselves riding the bow wave of a ship; a grizzly bear and her two cubs walking across a hill side; a pod of beluga whales; polar bear running across the tundra; a tarpon jumping out of the ocean; the vividly colored Queen Triggerfish; mahi mahi moving so fast they appear to be just streaks of color underwater; a black bear strolling along a river bank; a moose taking a drink; a startled herd of musk ox forming a protective circle around their calves; streams full of salmon in their spawning colors; a family of river otters playing; herds of caribou, elk, bison, and mule deer; frigate birds, wild swans and bald eagles.  And I haven't even listed all the different species of fish!

Feeling a "sense of calm" during sunset on the Beaufort Sea, Alaksa.
Credit: Judy Gordon/USFWS

Our place in nature
One of my favorite things about my work is a moment when I feel most connected to the natural world.  Be it standing on the deck of research vessel heading to port in twenty foot seas, the quiet in the morning when you wake up in your tent, the smell of sea air and the sounds of sea birds, or seeing a run of brightly colored fish returning to spawn in a creek. Those are the moments that I most strongly feel a sense of calm, a better understanding of our place in nature, and the importance of conserving the natural world.

I can’t imagine doing anything else!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Strutting Back to a Healthy Ecosystem

A male sage-grouse struts to attract females on a lek.
Credit: Jeannie Stafford/USFWS
One of the things that attracts me most to nature is its fascinating and especially strange aspects. How on earth do salmon know exactly where to return to for spawning? How do beavers instinctively just know how to build dams? All of this amazes me. Since I have been working with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), there are a few handfuls of species I have been introduced to that I ordinarily wouldn’t have learned about. If you are anything like me, especially if you’re not native to the Pacific Northwest, you may find yourself in the same boat. Sure, we really love salmon here; that was one of the first things I discovered. Recently, however, I had the privilege of learning about the equally fascinating and important species – the greater sage-grouse.

What are sage-grouse?
This amazing creature is native to the Western U.S. and Canada. It is a particularly odd looking bird, especially males, which have big puffs of white on the chest, and large, brown, feathered tails. Sage-grouse, found in the high deserts of Idaho, Oregon and other western states, depend sagebrush habitat for survival. The most interesting feature about them is their courtship display. Males gather in areas called “leks” each mating season to strut their stuff for the ladies, and strut, do they ever! Their display consists of fluffy puffed bodies, loud and unique coos, and popping chests that display brilliantly colored yellow air sacs.

Why should we care?
These birds are really a sight to see, but in recent years this species have been in steady decline. Due to a number of impacts ranging from invasive species to wildfires, critical sagebrush habitat has taken a huge hit. The sage-grouse were once greatly abundant in these habitats, and are strong indicators of healthy sagebrush ecosystems. Within these sagebrush ecosystems, a decrease in sage-grouse numbers provides warning of potential declines in many of these other sagebrush dwelling critters. 

What are we doing to help them?
As the decline in this iconic western bird becomes more and more apparent, USFWS and its partners, including other agencies, conservation organizations and private landowners have begun diligent efforts to restore sage-grouse to their once thriving populations.

Sage-grouse gathering on their mating grounds called "leks."
Credit: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife
Recently, the Service and its partners worked with high school students and local private landowners to connect local youth to this important species and its habitat. Dubbed “Sage-grouse in the Schools,” this program helps to instill a passion for the land and a greater understanding of conservation within the next generation. Participation in this program brings groups of local students out into the field, or leks where they observe sage-grouse and work with local partners to develop habitat improvement strategies.

Stay tuned for updates?
A series of nine videos was produced to showcase the “Sage-grouse in the Schools” program. Stay tuned for more exciting information about sage-grouse and the program on the Pacific Region Connecting People with Nature Team’s Facebook and Twitter pages over the next few months. If your interest was piqued about sage-grouse, please join us in learning all about this wonderful project that dually helps an endangered species and an ecosystem in need, while connecting youth to the great outdoors!