Author Archives: meaganraceyFWS

About meaganraceyFWS

Meagan Racey considers herself pretty green but can't seem to keep a house plant alive. She manages the blog and leads Northeast Region communications and outreach for endangered species, restoration of polluted sites, conservation on private lands, energy, wetlands, and bald eagles.

Dad and I sitting in the treestand.

From the desk of a novice sportswoman

This is the story of my first white-tailed deer hunt. 

“Take the shot,” he whispered. “Take it!”

I shook, blood rushing through every vein in my body.

Through the scope I spied a deer in a clearing about 75 yards from where my dad and I sat in a treestand.

I put my finger on the trigger. Questions flooded my mind. Would I make a good shot? …Did I even want to shoot a deer? …Why did I even climb up here to do this?

In that instant, I swiftly moved through the lifelong steps that brought me to this moment—this moment where for the first time I aimed to take the life of an animal. I saw myself as a child sitting by the wood stove in my grandpa’s kitchen on mornings when he and my dad would head out before light to hunt in the Virginia woods. I always stayed back with my grandma, playing in the yard alongside her guineas, chickens and pigs.

I saw my younger self, who noticed that my mom would rather stay in a hotel over a tent any day, and eat salmon over venison any meal. I played with Barbie and American girl dolls, and soon shifted focus to makeup and boys. Being a sportsman was clearly a guy thing.

Mom and me.

Mom and I sporting our faux-fur hooded vests. I drag her outside every time she visits these days.

I saw myself as a college student studying journalism and English, with a growing curiosity for what hunting was all about. At home during fall school breaks, I’d follow my dad into the woods wearing my younger brother’s old camouflage. No gun, just ears and eyes alert to any movement in the trees. I’d carefully place one foot in front of the other, avoiding dry leaves and sticks that could call attention to my presence. We followed deer trails to a treestand that could fit two. We’d climb up, sit side by side, and blend into the woods, the songbirds and owls in the trees and the wood ducks in the swamp soon returning to their normal business.

Dad and I sitting in the treestand.

Just hanging out 15 feet up in the tree. Sorry for cutting half your face off, Dad.

There’s something about being a part of the woods, moving so little that you become like a branch of that oak tree swaying with the breeze. Coyotes and red foxes cross underneath, and turkeys peck at the ground across from you. Large fox squirrels of black and silver chase one another from bound of pinestraw to bound of pinestraw.

I saw a young professional whose recent camouflaged adventures infatuated me with the idea of being an outdoors woman, of living a little closer to the land. I graduated from college in North Carolina and moved to Massachusetts, enrolling in a hunters’ education course where I would find myself one of few women in the room. I soaked up the history of hunting in North America and learned more about being a safe and ethical hunter. A rifle revealed itself in a pile of Christmas gifts that year. Trips to the shooting range helped me feel certain of the shots I might take one day.

But pulling the trigger to take an animal’s life… It didn’t quite sit right. I’m the kind of person who lets the spiders live in the corners of my home.

I saw a novice gardener who’d decided to live closer to the land with baby steps. My first garden brought me plenty of sunburns; my tomatoes got the blight and my peas dried up. I learned a lot—and I was hooked. Our gardens in years since have flourished and produced food that we eat year-round, and our chickens fill our egg cartons daily.

chickandme

You can’t bring home day-old chicks without snapping at least a photo or two. Here I’m holding one of our chickens on the day I picked up my order of chicks from the local farmer’s supply. You can see some of our vegetable starts behind me in the greenhouse.

How did I get from gardening to being in that treestand that day? Encouragement from the hunters in my life—from my dad, my partner and brother. But that alone wasn’t going to do it. I wanted to prove that I, a woman, could not only grow my own veggies but could also help provide my own meat, or at least appreciate the reality of what it means to eat meat.

I saw myself in that treestand—saw the deer through my scope.

I held that gun tight, took a deep breath and exhaled.

I pulled the trigger.

A loud crack filled the woods. The deer swiftly disappeared into the trees.

I’d shot at an animal.

We climbed down to check. Questions again swirled through my mind. Did I do the right thing? Was it worth it?

Blood marked the spot and led out of the clearing. Just a few trees in, the deer lay in the brush.

As I walked toward it, I felt my heart torn between gratitude for what the deer would provide and still shame for taking its life myself.

I knelt beside it and held that conflict close as I whispered to the deer: thank you.

Creative Commons Flickr User aecole2010

MISSION ELFIN

lupine

Wild blue lupine is found in pine barrens and sandy areas in the eastern U.S. This area at Westover Air Reserve Base is managed to keep it open and encourage the rare wild plant to return year after year. Credit: Leah Hawthorn, USFWS

Four people moved slowly through seven acres of blue wildflowers at the Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. The nation’s largest Air Force Reserve base, Westover has supported missions like the direction of Patriot missile-defense batteries to Turkey and the response to Hurricane Sandy on the U.S. East Coast in 2012.

Today’s mission on the airfield was closer to home, much smaller (some might even say dainty) and by no means threatening. We were on the hunt for a butterfly–not the striking monarch, but the unassuming frosted elfin, whose brown wings span just about one inch.

Frosted elfin

A frosted elfin at Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin. Can you see its single tail on the hindwing? Credit: Tim Wilder

Birders discovered the rare butterfly on base about two decades ago. Why might the frosted elfin find its way to Westover? To make its home in the wild blue lupine, one of only two flowers that frosted elfin caterpillars can eat.

And why would a rare flower survive on an air reserve base with heavy training activity? Turns out that the lupine–and therefore the butterflies–love it.

The frosted elfin has been recorded in the grassy savannas of at least five Department of Defense installations within its eastern U.S. range. Each uses prescribed burns to maintain grasslands, prevent wildfires and reduce invasive plants while training firefighters. The burns reset the clock, as Native Americans and nature once did, creating ideal conditions in barrens for shade-intolerant plants like wild lupine and indigo.

The burns are especially important at Westover, said Jack Moriarty, the base’s environmental flight chief.

“Westover Air Reserve Base has the biggest contiguous grassland in New England,” Moriarty said. “The prescribed burns reduce fire hazards. They are good for the airfield, good for the birds and good for the grasslands.”

Jack Moriarty

Jack Moriarty, Westover Air Reserve Base environmental flight chief, stands in lupine on the airfield. Credit: Leah Hawthorn, USFWS

The frosted elfin is already protected by multiple state wildlife agencies, has been completely lost in several other states, and is at risk of needing federal Endangered Species Act protection. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified the elfin as a species for which quick, thorough and effective conservation action could restore butterfly populations and possibly prevent the need for that protection. The agency must decide by September 2023 whether the frosted elfin is threatened or endangered, or neither.

As barrens and savannas have been developed or allowed to overgrow, pockets of wild lupine and indigo have disappeared from many areas where the frosted elfin once flew.

“If we can get people engaged and committed to managing habitats for the frosted elfin, we might be able to put the butterfly back on the right path,” said Robyn Niver, a Service endangered species biologist. “The Department of Defense is well-positioned to play a critical role in restoring the frosted elfin.”

Congress, through the Sikes Act of 1960, recognized that military lands contain some of the nation’s most valuable natural resources. The act requires DoD installations to have plans outlining how their activities align with managing those resources. Take a look at the plan for Camp Edwards on Cape Cod, and you’ll find that carefully planned prescribed burns and selective tree cutting and herbicides benefit an entire community of wildlife that depend on the pine barrens, including the at-risk New England cottontail.

“The Department of Defense and our military are some of our most effective land stewards,” said Jake McCumber, natural resources program manager for the Massachusetts Army National Guard. “At most DoD bases, work needs to be done to sustain training lands, and that happens to be the same work needed to conserve these ecosystems and dependent species.”

“There’s a beautiful continuity to it.”

The elfin had flown under McCumber’s figurative radar until this past May, when he confirmed its presence in an Edwards savanna. He was hardly surprised: The base for years had been managed to benefit species with needs similar to those of the small flier. The site is also home to prairie warblers, field sparrows, clay colored sparrows and merlins.

The elfins appear to be in the right place, if others species’ success in other areas of Camp Edwards is an indicator. While populations of scarlet tanagers and brown thrashers are dropping drastically in some areas, they’ve steadily increased at Camp Edwards. The trend shows promise for managing pine barrens for training and a variety of habitats.

The species is spreading its wings elsewhere, too. At Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin and at Concord State Military Reservation in southern New Hampshire, frosted elfins have become easier to find during the few spring weeks between when they emerge from cocoons under the lupine and when they mate and lay eggs on those plants. The elfins have benefitted from work targeted to benefit the endangered Karner blue butterfly, which also relies on lupine.

“It has been good to see the increase in frosted elfins over my 10 years here,” said Arin Mills, a New Hampshire Army National Guard conservation specialist. “Where at one time it may have been more of a treat, we go out on a butterfly survey during the expected flight time and almost always see a frosted elfin here on the State Military Reservation.”

At Fort McCoy, frosted elfin observations have jumped higher every year since targeted surveys began in 2009. This year, searchers counted more than 100 — triple the 2016 tally.

Tim Wilder, an Army endangered species biologist, wonders why he hasn’t seen them in more places on base. Lupine covers 3,000 acres there, but frosted elfins aren’t using all of it. Nonetheless, it’s home to other species, including the phlox moth, dreamy duskywing, and Henry’s elfin.

Tim Wilder points out frosted elfin

Tim Wilder, an Army endangered species biologist at Fort McCoy, points out a female frosted elfin preparing to lay eggs. Photo courtesy of Tim.

“The area where we observe our highest numbers of frosted elfin butterflies has been used for some level of military training for over 70 years,” Wilder said. “These rare species, including the frosted elfin butterfly, are still found on Fort McCoy, at least in part, because of the military training and other land management activities that have occurred on the landscape over the past 100-plus years.”

Department of Defense installations like Fort McCoy are coordinating with the Service to better understand where the species still occurs, and the kind of conservation efforts that will best help it succeed. Niver, the Service’s endangered species biologist, said the agency will develop a conservation strategy to guide future surveys, research, and management efforts.

Little copper butterfly

NOT a frosted elfin. One of several American copper butterflies seen at Westover Air Reserve Base during our May visit. Credit: USFWS

On that cool morning in May at Westover, we admired the striking blue blooms that bubbled up the lupine stem. We watched moths, bees and American copper butterflies buzz or bounce from plant to plant. Frosted elfins were nowhere to be found.

The butterfly’s flight was over, but it would be back next year.

Pimplebacks and pearlymussels: Biologist recognized for freshwater mussel conservation

Patty and Craig (3)

Patty Morrison’s (right) efforts to restore freshwater mussel populations sometimes sends her to work in a dive suit! Photo courtesy of Patty.

What drew Patty Morrison of Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge to freshwater mussels? Sure, she admits that mussels (with names like purple cat’s paw pearlymussel and orange-foot pimpleback) are obscure, but amazing species: “The more you learn about them, the more you want to know,” she says.

Patty’s leadership for conserving freshwater mussels like the white wartyback and the northern riffleshell made her a shoo-in for selection as a 2016 Recovery Champion. Her work as a wildlife biologist at the refuge has supported three years of successful captive rearing of purple cat’s paw pearlymussel and the first ever in-vitro rearing of an orange-foot pimpleback.

Patty Morrison’s “leadership, professionalism, and commitment to sound science have helped foster highly successful partnerships involving 24 state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations” – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Acting Director Jim Kurth

Recovery Champions are U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff and their partners whose work is advancing the recovery of endangered and threatened species of plants and animals.

Patty Morrison Diving (3)

It’s dive time! Photo courtesy of Patty.

We had the chance to ask Patty some questions as part of her recognition.

What is the problem/issue you are helping to address/solve, regarding freshwater mussels? Historically, we have treated our rivers and streams so poorly, over time many of our freshwater mussel species have been reduced to isolated populations separated by many hundreds of miles. But the Clean Water Act worked, dams are being removed, fish hosts have rebounded, and all that is missing in many river systems is a “jump start” to get these mussel species back in their home waters. We have the all the science tools at our disposal to reconnect and augment these populations, with the goal of ultimately removing them from the endangered species list.

What motivates you to work for these species? It’s a combination of the amazing people who dedicate themselves to helping these obscure species, and the amazing mussels themselves. The more you learn about them, the more you want to know. What better example is there of showing how all things are connected in an ecosystem than freshwater mussels, their fish hosts, water quality and habitat?

Patty prepping mussel bags to stock

Patty Morrison, 2016 Recovery Champion, prepares mussel bags for stocking. Photo courtesy of Patty.

How does it go down – what work is done to benefit mussels? It actually starts with building relationships. Restoration of mussels is a long term commitment. Many of us in the Ohio River ecosystem have been working together for over 20 years, doing threat assessments in watersheds, species status reviews, surveys and inventories, and development and refinement of techniques for adult mussel translocations and captive propagation of juvenile mussels. From there, it’s just moving forward using adaptive management: what worked, what didn’t and why? Then, sharing this information and moving the needle forward a little bit each year.

Who do you work with? I am fortunate to work with people from three U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regions (Northeast, Southeast, Midwest–across all programs), 8 states, and an amazing array of private organizations and citizens who care deeply about the health of our rivers and streams. People who are not afraid to try something new, to be “courageous for conservation.”

What do you hope to result from your work? To spread the story of the mussels so everyone at least knows what they are, where they live, and how important they are to our overall quality of life. To keep the energy, enthusiasm and passion alive and passing it on to the next generation of stewards.

Congratulations, Patty!