Tag Archives: Conte

Spring? In Vermont, Think Again.

It’s still winter in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and with three feet of snow on the ground, the only way to get around the Nulhegan Basin division of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge is on snowmobile.

In the basin, winter temperatures sometimes fall to -30 degrees, but for dedicated refuge biologists it’s just another chilly day at work.

This past February, two interns (myself included) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Regional Office in Hadley, Massachusetts, bundled up and headed north to brave the weather and experience the remote refuge life for a week.

From the rear passenger seat of the zooming snowmobile, half enthralled, half terrified (I was, at least), we saw the expanses of the refuge, covering many miles in a single day.

Stretching over 26,000 acres, the refuge is open for the public to explore during all seasons, either on foot or via a network of groomed snowmobile trails that act as a backwoods highway of sorts.

Through stunning spruce-fir forests we caught glimpses of red squirrels, ruffed grouse, moose and even a lone bobcat as it bounded across the trail in front of our snowmobiles.

At the very southern periphery of the boreal forest, the Nulhegan basin is home to species found nowhere else in Vermont except within these dense northern forests that stretch to meet Canada.

Species like the boreal chickadee, spruce grouse, and even the elusive Canada lynx are sustained by the thick conifers and pristine wetlands that define the boreal forest.

Only one lynx has been confirmed in Vermont since 2014, though the nation’s largest population of lynx resides in the state of Maine. That lone Vermont lynx made its home in the Nulhegan basin.

One of the best ways to identify Canada lynx, especially when compared to similar looking species like the bobcat, is by taking a look at its hind legs and paws. Canada lynx have distinctly long back legs.

Interestingly enough, lynx’s hind legs nearly match the hind legs of their primary prey, the snowshoe hare.

In the frigid north, these long back legs and wide feet allow both species to navigate through deep snow and hunt (or run away) more efficiently.

Here on the refuge, we followed UMass Amherst PhD student Alexej Siren as he tracked snowshoe hare using radio telemetry and camera traps that take photos when they are triggered by movement.

Earlier in the year, Alexej and his team fitted snowshoe hares with radio collars so that they could track the signal that the collars emit, detecting the location of the animal and gauging how the population is doing.

Not only did we get to see the incredible work being done by Service biologists and state and university partners every day on the refuge, we got to learn a thing or two about how to identify different wildlife tracks.

And at the end of a long winter’s day, who wouldn’t want this view from their office?

The adventures of Nulhegan’s new refuge manager

Steve Agius has traveled the globe visiting many exciting and interesting places, including working in Antarctica with penguins and elephant seals. He’s now recently settled in Vermont as the new manager of the Nulhegan Basin Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. I had the opportunity to ask Steve a few questions about his experiences, and I’m sharing some of his adventures here with you today.


Steve surveyed southern elephant seal colonies for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on King George Island in Antarctica

How did you end up on your career path? 

Growing up in New Jersey gave me the opportunity to explore the coast and many great state parks. In middle school I became interested in rock and ice climbing, and backpacking. I made a deal with my parents that if I could make the honor roll than I could take extended weekend backpacking trips to the Adirondack, Catskill and White mountains. By high school, my grades had dramatically improved and I was allowed the freedom to explore the mountains of New England. In the late 90s, I spent a month north of the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. To be honest, I have never been the same person since visiting the Arctic. That refuge sparked a conservation passion inside of me that continues to this day.

King George Island Antarctica (1) - steve

Steve and some penguin buddies in Antarctica

Tell us more about your professional background? 

I have a B.S. in Ecology and a M.S. in Zoology. My formal training has focused on birds, specifically colonial nesting seabirds. As far as conservation jobs, I have worked for the Service in California, Maine and Vermont, and for NOAA in South America and Antarctica. I have also worked for the State of Maine’s wildlife program, and for the Peregrine Fund at the Grand Canyon and Zion national parks. I have dabbled as an adjunct professor at Unity College and the University of Maine.

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Steve holding an american woodcock

How is the Nulhegan refuge different from other refuges where you’ve worked? 

From 2002 through 2010, I worked at the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. In 2011, I moved inland and worked at the Northern Maine refuge complex. The forest management focus at the Conte refuge is VERY different from seabird management. I loved being on the water in the Gulf of Maine, but working to develop and implement long term forest management plans (though daunting) is exciting work. Trying to restore forests that have been substantially altered by more than a century of industrial timber practices, while promoting priority wildlife species is a not an easy task.

Delia on the Brothers

Steve out exploring with his dog

Would you share a story about your greatest accomplishment and what it meant to you?

It can be hard as a federal employee to immediately recognize our accomplishments. We spend so much time responding to emails and focused on a screen that it can be a challenge to come up for air and see the world around us. Often it’s not about the big success stories that make a difference, but the little triumphs that keep us smiling and motivated. I take pride in the simple accomplishments like finalizing an agreement that prevents the National Guard from driving hummers in upland sandpiper habitat at Aroostook refuge, or performing a logistics support role to improve aquatic organism passage on lands around Moosehorn refuge, or overseeing the installation of 600’ of boardwalk at Sunkhaze refuge. Sure, we all love flashy success stories, but my pride comes from the little triumphs that add up to a bigger success.

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Cross country skiing is a family affair!


Do you have a personal motto about your life and career?  

I believe in integrity.  A person has to be accountable for their actions, respectful of others, and honest at all times. Maybe it has to do with being an Eagle Scout, but I would say that integrity best defines how I operate.

Hook, line and sinker: Cops and kids connect through fishing

Fishing off the docks at Riverside Park in Hartford, Connecticut. The park, which is open to the public, provided a great location for the city's first Cops and Bobbers, Hooks and Ladders youth fishing event.

Fishing off the docks at Riverside Park in Hartford, Connecticut. The park, which is open to the public, provided a great location for the city’s first Cops and Bobbers, Hooks and Ladders youth fishing event. Photo Credit: USFWS

“I want to catch a fish!” These words filled the air on a hot August morning as more than 40 youth from Hartford, Connecticut took park in the city’s first Cops and Bobbers, Hooks and Ladders fishing event at Riverside Park.

The Cops and Bobbers, Hooks and Ladders program aims to get urban youth outdoors, teaches them to fish, and connects them to nature, while at the same time, fosters positive relationships with law enforcement and safety professionals in their community.

The event was an outstanding success thanks to all the partners who coordinated and supported the program.

Staff from Connecticut's Dept. of Energy and Environmental Protection CARE program instruct youth on how to properly coast with the fishing poles.

Keith Syrett, an interprestive guide with Connecticut Dept. of Energy and Environmental Protection instructs youth on how to properly cast with the fishing poles. Photo credit: USFWS

The City of Hartford Police and Fire Departments contributed time to help the young anglers cast, bait hooks and reel in any fish they caught. Staff from Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s angler education program taught kids how to cast, tie knots and identify fish. The Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge educated kids about the Connecticut River Watershed through its Watershed on Wheels traveling exhibit. And the Wilson-Gray YMCA and Family Center helped transport kids from their neighborhoods to the park in order to participate in the event.

These happy young anglers are all smiles as they receive their new fishing poles and other "goodies" provided to participants at the event. Photo credit: USFWS

These happy young anglers are all smiles as they receive their new fishing poles and other “goodies” provided to participants at the event. Photo credit: USFWS

Riverfront Recapture, a non-profit organization that maintains Riverside Park and other city parks, provided a great location to hold the event, and worked with Bass Pro Shops to donate a rod and reel to every participant.

Members of each organization also spent time, energy and money planning, organizing and gathering resources so that all kids who attended the event would have a meaningful experience connecting with diverse groups within their community.

A Hartford city officer helps and enthusiastic young angler as she casts her pole into the river. Photo credit: USFWS

Hartford City Officer Christopher Chanaca helps an enthusiastic young angler as she casts her pole into the river. Photo credit: USFWS

“We are teaching our youth that the Connecticut River is a tremendous fishery, right in their back yard. Through this exciting collaboration we are giving them tools to enjoy their free time and learn about their natural environment”, said Craig Mergins, Directory of Community Event and Engagement at Riverfront Recapture.

Kids got a close-up and personal look at the city's fire and safety equipment while also talking with firefighters and EMTs. Photo credit: USFWS

Kids get a close-up and personal look at the city’s fire and safety equipment while also talking with firefighters and EMTs. Photo credit: USFWS

The program also supports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships. By partnering with police and fire departments, the Conte Refuge hopes to create connections within urban communities in the Connecticut River watershed. Through these connections, the Refuge aims to encourage urban youth to feel comfortable in nature and foster a love of the outdoors.

Ideally, with a new fishing rod in hand and the skills they learned at the event, these young kids will continue to fish, carrying with them the desire to protect and conserve our natural world, not only for themselves, but for generations to come.

Photo credit: USFWS

Photo credit: USFWS