Tag Archives: Silvio O. Conte

The Norwottuck People of the Connecticut River Watershed

This story is a part of a Native American Blog Series in observance of National Native American Heritage Month.

During the peak of fall in September, visitors to the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge time-traveled to the ancient Native American heritage site of the Norwottuck people (who belong to the Algonquin Native American culture). Travelers stepped back 8,000 years to discover that many Native tribes lived and thrived in the Connecticut River watershed for thousands of years. Guests excavated in a sand-box archaeological dig, viewed projectile point arrowheads used for subsistence hunting and fishing by Native Americans thousands of years ago, and learned about the 1630’s contact period of European settlers. Visitors finished their journey into current day, knowing that Native American Nations still embrace their culture and practice their sovereignty in Massachusetts and across the United States. Walking along the bridge, visitors realized that beneath them lay thousands of years of important history that lives on in the culture of Native American Tribes today.

As the Jr. Native American Liaison for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I was able to tell this story and share my Native culture in the process. In late May, I joined the Student Conservation Association internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service having never been to the Northeast before. Coming from the prairie and Black Hills of South Dakota, Massachusetts was a long way from home. However, I was passionate to serve Tribes in whatever capacity I could. I now work with Southeastern and Northeastern Native American Tribes through my position.

As an Oglala Lakota-Sioux Native American, I sought the opportunity to learn more about Tribes closer to the Atlantic. Researching technical reports of the Fort River Division creation (containing archaeological information), New England Tribes encyclopedia (Bruce, 1978), and “Historic and Archaeological Resources of the Connecticut River Valley” (Galvin, Massachusetts Historical Commission), I learned the rich past and present of Tribes along the Connecticut River. Using creativity, passion, and accredited resources, I designed a Native American Storybook of the Norwottuck, Algonquin people. The 28-page story was displayed on kiosks along the Fort River Division 1.2 mile loop trail throughout the month of September.

On Saturday, September 16th, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, invited the public to join them in activities to go along with the Storybook. Through partnership with Tim Binzen, the Service’s Native American Liaison for the Northeast and Southeast, and Eric Johnson, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Archaeologist, projectile point artifacts were on display for visitors. Children, parents, students, and trail-walkers alike, got to hold an arrowhead dating back 8,000 years.

EA at Fort River Trail

Later in the month, the External Affairs office of the Northeast Regional office of the Fish and Wildlife Service also visited the Storybook Trail at Fort River and each individual had the opportunity had to read a page from the story of Keme and Sokanon.

I hope that reading that storybook on that sunny day in September changed Fort River visitors, including my own colleagues at the agency. Student Conservation Association intern, Ben Whittlebee, remarked, “When I hold this arrowhead, I feel a little bit closer to the people who lived here before me. It’s like having a piece of them with me.”


Tim Binzen, Native American Liaison for the Northeast and Southeast and former Refuge Archaeologist led the walk and discussed the importance of projectile points in Native American culture. Photo Credit: Leah Hawthorn

Tim Binzen mentioned that all projectile points tell a story of the people. These points were shaped differently and specifically for different uses and those methods were passed down from generation to generation. Christine Eustis, also a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee and visitor to the Storybook, mentioned that she had learned so much. She looks at wigwams and tepees with a different perspective and she understands more of the Native Americans of this area. Several visitors can now identify jewelweed and pokeberry, plants that were and are important to New England Tribes.


Keme (thunder in Algonquian language) and Sokanon (rain in Algonquian language) are fictional brother and sister from the Norwuttuck Tribe in the Storybook, who explain their story of seasons, cultural activities, and timeline events of their home.

The Storybook concept is designed for children, but we can all learn from it.  At the end of the story, Sokanon and Keme discuss the sovereign nations recognized in the United States today. In fact, there are 567 federally recognized Tribes in the United States.  including nine Tribes in Massachusetts, seven of which are state-recognized.

The story says, “Communities are led by a Sachem (similar to a Chief, President, or Chairman). In 1885, English colonists mentioned that it was common for a woman to lead a village by virtue or hereditary descent as sachem. This holds true today for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, as Cheryl Andrews-Maltais is the Chairwoman, leader of the tribe”. The sister, Sokanon, goes on to say, “I’d like to be Sachem when I grow up”. The brother, Keme, responds, “I think you’d make a great leader, numis (sister in Algonquian)!”  

I enjoyed learning about the Native Tribes of the Connecticut River watershed. My experience sharing the story with children and adults in Hadley was so incredible. If you missed the Storybook walk, you can still read Keme and Sokanon’s story through this download: Norwottuck Storybook

The Fort River Division of Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is open throughout the year. You may plan your to Hadley, Massachusetts anytime! https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Silvio_O_Conte/about/ma.html#fort

Randy Dettmers shares a bird caught during a mist netting demonstration at Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge with a local high school student .

People Behind a Stronger Coast: Randy Dettmers

A few undergraduate semesters spent writing code in dark and dreary basements provided enough evidence for Randy Dettmers that computer science was not the career path he was destined to follow. This valuable lesson paired with his general interests in biology and conservation blossomed into a career revolving around the protection of wildlife species, where his interests were able to take flight.

Randy Dettmers shares a bird caught during a mist netting demonstration at Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge with a local high school student .

Dr. Randy Dettmers introduces a local high school student to bird conservation techniques at Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

Today Dettmers is a senior wildlife biologist at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service focusing on neotropical migrants, songbirds, and raptors. He’s been with the Service since 1999, and has spent all 16 of those years with the Migratory Bird program.

As the designated landbird biologist, Dettmers’ job is to follow population trends of landbirds. He tracks which species are declining most rapidly and heading toward the point where they may need to be considered for endangered species listing.

“My job is to identify the species that are headed in the wrong direction and try to develop management plans to get those species heading in a better direction,” he says. Dettmers also fosters relationships with the Service’s various conservation partners, federal and state agencies, and NGOs. These groups help implement management activities to supplement those developed by the Service.

Randy Dettmers conducting a Bicknell's Thrush survey on Mt. Osceola in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

Dettmers conducts a Bicknell’s thrush survey on Mt. Osceola in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Credit: USFWS

Currently much of Dettmers time has been focused on the Bicknell’s thrush, a bird that breeds in the mountains of New England and Eastern Canada and migrates to the Dominican Republic and Haiti during the winter months. Significant deforestation in the Caribbean has severely limited the wintering habitat available to this species. Studies have documented Bicknell’s thrush population declines of 7% in the White Mountains of New Hampshire from 1993-2000 and 15% in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia from 2002-2009.

“In the Dominican Republic, the estimates tell us that they have about 10 percent of the forest cover that they did historically, and even less than that on the Haiti side of the island.”

While parts of the Bicknell’s thrush habitat in New England and Canada currently remain protected through national forests and state parks, Dettmers’ has been working with the Dominican government to expand that progress in the southern portion of the bird’s range.

“We’ve developed a conservation plan that addresses continuing to protect a lot of Bicknell thrush habitat and the breeding ground,” he says.

credit Chris Elphick

Scientists track a Nelson’s sparrow and a saltmarsh sparrow at Barn Island in Conn., part of the Hurricane Sandy-funded tidal marsh bird resilience research project.  Credit: Chris Elphick/Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

In addition to his work with the Migratory Bird program, Dettmers also serves as the project officer for a $1.5 million Hurricane Sandy-funded project involving the Service’s Migratory Bird and Refuges programs, as well as five universities across the Northeast. The project goal is to monitor the response of birds that breed in salt marshes that have been impacted by Hurricane Sandy. Project partners also monitor the birds’ response to the coastal resilience work being done across the region, especially on national wildlife refuges.

“The project is looking at how both the abundance and reproductive success of saltmarsh birds changed from before to after Sandy, and is in the process of tracking how birds respond to the coastal resilience work being implemented in saltmarshes,” Dettmers says.

In between managing projects that conserve neotropical bird populations, Randy finds time to lead demonstrations in bird banding techniques. A recent bird education mission took Dettmers to Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Here, he led a trip for nine local high school girls, teaching bird banding and mist netting techniques with fellow wildlife biologist, Mitch Hartley.

Students help dismantle bird nets at the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

Dettmers teaches students how to dismantle bird nets at the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS

“We look for opportunities to give demonstrations of how we go about catching birds and banding them, and how we use the information to understand their life history and the things that are affecting the populations,” says Dettmers. He says he believes it’s a worthy experience for a child or high school student to see a bird up close, in the palm of their hand. And through his research and expertise, he has made this experience possible for many curious young scientists.

In his 16 years as wildlife biologist, Dettmers has applied his knowledge of wildlife and conservation to make a difference for many bird species.

“I get to focus on trying to identify species with populations that are declining, and for most of them, we still have time to do something about their decline before they get to the point of maybe becoming an endangered species.” – Dr. Randy Dettmers

Protecting Springfield’s Wild Side, One Partner at a Time!


When I first began working as a park ranger at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, I would wonder how we could possibly hope to accomplish our mission. The 7.2 million acre Connecticut River watershed is a giant piece of land and we are responsible for protecting and enhancing a huge diversity of native plants, fish and wildlife species, as well as the ecosystems they depend upon. To make matters more challenging, we directly manage only a small part of the territory we are responsible for protecting. The rest of the land is owned and managed by others.

But I was soon to learn the truth about environmental conservation… No one individual or organization can do it alone. It takes everyone working together to make a difference! This partnership approach is what the Conte refuge was built on.

Why are partnerships so effective in environmental conservation?

What I have discovered is that each person’s individual talents and experiences make them invaluable to the mission. No one individual is good at everything, but a large group of diverse individuals can come pretty close!

Earlier this year, the Conte refuge assisted in the creation of an Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership in Springfield, Massachusetts. Through this partnership, the Service is working alongside other public agencies, Springfield community organizations, area schools, and private organizations to restore the city’s natural areas. And together, we are already making an impact.


A view of the Abbey Brook restoration site. Credit: Susan Wojtowicz

Our partnership’s first project is to restore Abbey Brook, a small stream that flows through Springfield and empties into the Chicopee River, eventually flowing into the Connecticut River. This stream and the woods surrounding it has a lot of potential for providing much needed habitat for nearby wildlife; however, it has been damaged over time by pollution, harmful invasive plants, and waters that rise quickly after heavy rain storms.


Credit: Susan Wojtowicz

Many neighborhoods and schools surround the Abbey Brook site, and we are encouraging community members to become partners as well. Many of them, young and old, already use the site as a place to enjoy nature.


Credit: Susan Wojtowicz

With the community’s guidance, we hope to encourage even more community members to use the site by creating trails that will provide easier access, while protecting sensitive areas.

And just think of all of the potential educational opportunities this partnership can provide! Through classroom programming, independent studies, internship opportunities, and peer mentoring programs with area colleges and universities, students will be able to learn directly from scientists, professors, college students, environmental educators, and field professionals with a diversity of skills and backgrounds. Through these programs, we hope to encourage urban youth to become stewards of their environment and introduce them to careers in natural resource conservation.


Students from Holyoke Community College examine the Abbey Brook site to apply classroom knowledge in a real world setting. Credit: Susan Wojtowicz

America is a very big place. (And I thought the Conte Refuge was huge!) Luckily, Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships have been established in various cities throughout the United States and more are being established each year. Together we are making a much larger impact than the Service could possibly make on its own.

Partnership Map

Locations of current Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships, Credit: USFWS

Our partnership is not yet good at everything. We are still looking for additional partners to fill in the gaps. But I do know that we are much more effective as a group than we could possibly be as individual organizations.

Our work in Springfield is just beginning… But it’s a very exciting beginning!

To see more of the important work we are doing within the Connecticut River Watershed, visit the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge website.

To learn more about urban partnerships that have been established throughout the country, visit the Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships website.