As the Southeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the important role private landowners play in conserving our lands, waters and outdoor way of life is the lesson I most take to heart. The vast majority of land in the Southeast is in private ownership. The opportunities we have today to hike, camp, hunt, fish or simply enjoy time with family and friends is largely because of the long legacy of responsible land stewardship handed down from one generation to the next. We all owe you and other land stewards our gratitude.
I also know the 21st century has brought conservation challenges my grandparents could not have imagined, from the fast pace of development, to exponential population growth, to the onslaught of exotic species overtaking our natural communities. Unless we do some things differently, we’re going to lose a lot of the natural heritage that I grew up with and hope to pass on to my two sons.
The Service’s mission is to work with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We accomplish our mission in many ways, including managing a network of national wildlife refuges, stocking trout streams and enforcing federal laws that protect threatened and endangered species. We also work with private landowners, the states, conservation groups and other federal agencies to provide funding and technical guidance on high priority conservation projects such as restoring the once vast longleaf pine forests.
And yet we’re losing ground. I grew up in Pennsylvania, where I could run all day in the nearby forest. I played in creeks and turned over rocks looking for crayfish. I learned about trees and birds, built forts and enjoyed the stars. Now that forest and stream are gone, and with them the water quality protections and recreational opportunities they afforded.
I believe this nation has a limited amount of time to conserve our working lands, our rural way of life, and the
connected natural areas that wildlife and their habitats need. This is the time to build on your excellent conservation and land stewardship legacy, to keep forests in forests so that you can continue to provide the renewable natural resources that make this country great.
The Fish and Wildlife Service wants to be your partner in this effort. I know that without you, we cannot succeed in our mission.
In addition to responding to complex conservation challenges, the Service is also responding to frequent lawsuits filed under the Endangered Species Act in the last few years.
In 2011, under a court settlement reached with two conservation groups, the Service created a national, six-year work plan to act on more than 250 fish, wildlife and plant species that have been candidates for listing as threatened or endangered, some for more than a decade. “Candidates” are species the Service has determined should be listed under the Act, but have not been due to higher priorities and limited resources. Once a species is listed, a long list of regulations kicks in to prevent extinction.
More than 60 candidate species are found in the Southeast. For most of them, we have until October 2017 to determine if they need federal protection. For the gopher tortoise, we have a little more time. The long-lived reptile, which lives in the sandy soils of open pine forests, was named a candidate species in July 2011, after the settlement agreement was signed.
Addressing candidate species alone would be a daunting task. But in the last three years, conservation groups have also petitioned the Service under the Act to list hundreds of additional species in the Southeast Region, including a large number of fish, crayfish, salamanders, mussels and snails found in rivers and wetlands.
I call this a “tsunami” of potential listings, which could overwhelm our budget and resources. But with your help, through good land management practices, I believe we can turn the tide.
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