Speech by the Director, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the: Andrus Public Land Symposium

[NOTE: delivered on March 24, 1999 in Boise, Idaho]


The month of March is a momentous one for land stewardship. This March not only marks the Department of the Interior's 150th anniversary, but also the 96th birthday of the world's largest collection of lands set aside specifically for the protection of wildlife.


I am referring, of course, to America's magnificent National Wildlife Refuge System. Its 516 refuges protect more than 93 million acres of habitat for thousands of species, including many that are threatened and endangered. Our refuges are spread throughout the nation, with at least one in every state, and many within an hour's drive of a major city. Thirty four million people visit refuges every year to observe wildlife, to hunt, and to fish. Every year, we are getting more and more visitors.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is the only federal agency that has as its principle mission the conservation of animals and plants. We rely on national wildlife refuges to carry out our wildlife conservation mandate. At refuges, we support at least 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 species of reptiles and amphibians, more than 1,000 species of fish, and countless species of invertebrates and plants. Nearly 260 threatened or endangered species are found on refuges, and it is here they often begin their recovery or hold their own against extinction.


As we look forward to the new millennium, we see refuges continuing to play a central role in ensuring the health of wildlife. To prepare for the challenges of the future, the entire Fish and Wildlife Service has dedicated itself to strengthening and renewing the refuge system. The recent passage of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, coupled with budget increases, forms a solid foundation on which to build the system's future. Last October, we forged that future with a historic gathering of all our refuge managers. From that meeting emerged a report entitled "Fulfilling the Promise."

Let me share with you a bit about what the report advocates. The report honors the colorful history of the refuge system, but also provides guideposts for an even brighter future. It calls for a system of lands where wildlife comes first, where the lands and waters are healthy, and where the best science is used in their management. It recognizes the importance of concepts like biodiversity, ecosystems, and landscapes, and envisions a system growing strategically in the next century. The report acknowledges that refuges are gifts for people, too -- simple gifts that are unwrapped each time a birder lifts binoculars, a child overturns a rock, an angler casts the waters, a hunter sets the decoys, or a volunteer lends a hand. Fulfilling the Promise also renews the promise to take care of the people who care for the system, through leadership development, training, and recruitment of diverse people who are among our best and brightest. And on the strength of our refuges, I intend to fulfill some personal promises I made for myself. I want my tenure as Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be marked by progress in the three most pressing wildlife management issues of our day: the invasion of exotic species; the plight of migratory birds; and the need for an ecosystem approach to land management.


The invasive species issue is one we are all familiar with. Purple loosestrife, feral hogs, kudzu, fire ants -- these are just a few of the more than 6,000 species that inflict billions of dollars in damage each year and threaten to change the face of our country's landscape.

To address the invasive species threat, the Fish and Wildlife Service is doing three things: controlling their spread; enhancing habitat so that native species can better compete; and restoring displaced native species.

Our refuges have proven great laboratories to see what works and what doesn't. Of course, we are employing traditional means of control, but we are also constantly experimenting and evolving new techniques in integrated pest management. On the refuges of North Dakota, for instance, a number of strategies have been implemented to combat a host of invasive species. Prescribed burns have significantly reduced the presence of the European absinth wormwood, a noxious weed that out-competes native forage plants and is a pollen source for allergies and asthma. We are trying to contain the spread of leafy spurge, and of sow and Canada thistle, which displace grasses and forbs used by wildlife. We have had success controlling leafy spurge by employing five species of flea beetles that attack its stems, leaves and flowers.

Of course, it is not enough to address the problem only on refuges. All land managers must strive to control invasive species, and we invite them to turn to refuges for ideas on how to do it. Right here in Idaho, the Forest Service is doing just that, monitoring the effectiveness of European beetles against purple loosestrife at our Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge. I encourage other land managers to join with our refuges to combat this common scourge.


The second wildlife issue I want to address is the plight of migratory birds. America is passionate about birds, and the Fish and Wildlife Service and the refuge system have a proud history of restoring bird species. In past years, we rescued the whooping crane from extinction and restored declining waterfowl populations. Now is the time to build on our successes and expand our efforts to cover other types of birds -- particularly shorebirds, sea birds, grass land nesters, and neo-tropical migrants.

The decline of these species defines the modern-day bird crisis and should be of concern to everyone. Birds are the "miner's canary" of environmental changes on our forests, grasslands, and coasts. In their health is reflected that of our lands and waters.

To further migratory bird conservation, we are expanding our knowledge of these species. Again, our refuges are crucial to this effort. A great example is Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, near the Texas-Mexico border. The refuge is the last stopping place for Central flyway birds leaving the United States, and conversely it is the first land they see when they return. Laguna Atascosa boasts 406 species of birds, the greatest number in the entire refuge system. Its strategic location makes it the perfect site for migratory bird research. It is also the site of a unique partnership between the refuge and adjoining farmers and ranchers, who have bridged differences to find common ground in restoring the endangered Aplomado falcon. Now, birders from around the world come to see this striking raptor -- a reminder that we CAN bring back a part of our wild heritage if we work together.

Research efforts such as this one are providing us with the data we need to assess habitat needs. The value of this type of information is being realized in the Lower Mississippi region of the country. The habitats of this region harbor more than 80 percent of North America's native bird species. Based on extensive research, we have created a GIS database of bird habitat needs in the lower Mississippi basin and overlaid that on a land ownership map of the area. Although we have an impressive refuge presence in the region, this exercise made it obvious that it is going to take a combined federal, state and private effort to save the birds of the lower Miss.

One important landowner in the area is the U.S. Forest Service. I applaud the Forest Service for its "Taking Wing" program, which encourages migratory bird protection on national forests, not only in the lower Miss, but throughout the National Forest System. Joining our land bases is enabling us to provide large blocks of habitat to many species in need -- not just migratory birds.

And this brings me to my last point: the need for an ecosystem approach to wildlife management.


More than any other federal agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service must practice an ecosystem approach to get its job done. You cannot expect a grizzly, a wolf, a trout, a prairie dog, or a warbler to stay on refuge property. Refuges do provide species with vital habitat, but we cannot let them become isolated islands in a sea of degradation. In terms of size, the typical refuge, as determined by mean acreage, is Iowa's Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. At just over 5,000 acres, it is a good-sized parcel. Yet at Neal Smith, we are trying to restore the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. To give you a sense of the restoration challenge here, Iowa's tallgrass prairie has been reduced to one tenth of one percent of its original land cover. What is left is fragmented, with the refuge providing one of the largest remaining intact tracts.

What is happening at Neal Smith is a wonderful example of realizing the power of the ecosystem approach through partnerships. People are excited about bringing back the prairie. At the refuge, volunteers from the local communities, including schoolchildren, are helping us collect the seeds from 200 species of prairie plants, many of which are rare. These seeds are being used for restoration efforts not only on the refuge, but also on neighboring lands. Ranchers, farmers, and other private landowners are becoming involved in our prairie restoration efforts and are applying on their own lands the stewardship practices they learned on the refuge. This is just one example illustrating the Fish and Wildlife Service's ecosystem approach. We have many more across the nation.

Our national ecosystem effort is centered around 53 watersheds. We realize the critical importance of maintaining and achieving watershed health, and for that reason we appreciate the complexity of water issues, especially here in the west.

To address water issues and to meet today's conservation challenges, we need a ecosystem perspective and we need to forge partnerships with all the parties that use the resource.

A tremendous boost in that regard may be forth coming. The administration's Lands Legacy Initiative requests an increase of $66 million for grants to states. These grants are to be used by states to develop Habitat Conservation Plans, Safe Harbor Agreements, and Candidate Conservation Agreements, all of which provide mechanisms to avoid the national train wrecks of the past that have pitted economic development interests against species conservation.

Allow me to share a vision: In the future, the great wildlife victories will take place on the land, not in the court room. What I have discussed today -- tackling wildlife issues like invasive species and the migratory bird crisis, using the ecosystem approach and partnerships to reach out beyond refuge boundaries -- these things mark a new way of doing business. A way to rescue endangered species and keep other species from being listed by inspiring voluntary action.

Partnerships are crucial to wildlife management. All of us who manage land, whether it be a wildlife refuge, a national park, a national forest, a range land, or even our own backyard . . . we all need to keep in mind that our actions affect wildlife. Ultimately, the best stewardship is one that Aldo Leopold characterized as preserving the integrity of the land. When we plant grass, cut trees, build a road . . . whenever we make changes on the land, we need to remember that these are shared spaces, and that we should make careful choices.

Thank you.