Friday, August 21, 2009

Happy Anniversary

Thirty-two years ago this morning, August 21, 1977, I trundled across the Mendota Bridge over the Minnesota River in St. Paul, turned left into a big parking lot, walked into the Federal Building at Fort Snelling, and began my career as a wildlife biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Actually I really began as a Biological Technician in a temporary position. Two months later I was converted to a permanent employee and two months after that converted to a wildlife biologist. For the 1.5 years before today I had worked (for $3.00 an hour) with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Thirty-two years ago today my now-ex-wife was heavily pregnant with Jennifer (who debuted on September 2) and we had no health insurance. That changed 32 years ago today. My starting salary was $11,523 per year - a sum that was more than twice anything I had ever made in a year before. On that salary we bought a house in Hudson, had a baby, and lived very comfortably. Its funny how things change. In 2008, my first year of retirement, I paid $19,000 in Federal taxes alone!

I had wanted to be a biologist ever since I was 6 years old and went for a hike in a forest with my grandfather. As we walked along we came onto a pile of trees that had been bulldozed to make a road into the east side of Desair Lake northwest of Rice Lake in Barron County, Wisconsin. I became really upset when I saw the dead trees and remember telling my grandfather that if people keep killing trees by the time I was his age (which I am now) there wouldn't be any more trees. My grandfather reassured me that there always would be. I think I decided then that I wanted to make sure he was never proven wrong.

Then came the banded duck I found dead along the road when I was 9 years old. The duck (a female Mallard) had been killed by colliding with a powerline. Its interesting how that incident and a later accomplishment in my career were apparently intertwined. I sent the band in and a couple months later received a "Certificate of Appreciation" from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The certificate told me what kind of bird it was (as if I didn't know already???), where it had been banded, by whom and when. I thought it was pretty cool there was an organization out there that put bands on bird legs so at 9 years old I wrote my first letter to a member of Congress. In it I asked for more information about this organization. Soon our mail box was filled with a huge package from Washington DC containing everything you ever wanted to know about the US Fish and Wildlife Service. I read everything and right then decided when I grew up I would be either a zoologist or a government trapper with the Service.

In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin - River Falls, while sitting in the library reading papers published in the Journal of Wildlife Management (that I later started calling the Journal of Metaphysical Wildlife) I kept seeing papers by this guy named Stewart and another guy named Cowardin, and another guy named Johnson at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center on the frozen tundra of Jamestown, North Dakota. They were heavily published and what they wrote about was profund and cutting edge. One night in graduate school I decided that once I was hired by the Service one day I would be at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center where those two wrote all these papers. I got to Northern Prairie on January 20 1979, a day when the high temperature was -27 degrees F.

It was a really exciting day 32 years ago today. My supervisor, Chuck Elliott, told me on this day that the way to succeed is to "Always keep your mouth shut until you have all your facts and figures in order, and you know you can defend your position. When you get to that point, go for the throat." I never kept my mouth shut (which is why I never advanced) but I certainly went for the throat whenever necessary. Like the time in Nebraska when in a heated debate over data about Whooping Crane use of the Platte River, the vice-president of the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District rocketed across the table and attacked me screaming "you lying son of a bitch." I guess Dave didn't like unsolicited intrusions of reality to upset his day.

Chuck also told me that 30 years down the road when I retire, if I can look back and count three things I accomplished in my time then I had a successful career. Today I can count two things: 1) the research we did to address the issue of bird collisions with power lines and 2) turning around the attitudes of much of Nebraska about the importance of protecting the Platte River. Two for three is a damned good batting average and unheard of for the Sarasota Reds.

I think of all the things I did and places I went as a Service employee I accomplished the most and made the biggest impact while stationed in Nebraska. I remember well my first visit to the Platte River in 1979 while at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. An editorial in the Omaha World-Herald that day said that any water flowing down the Platte that had not irrigated water at least once was "wasted" water. That same year I was threatened by a landowner near Kearney Nebraska who told me to carry a sidearm for protection because of who I worked for because "You're trying to save those god-damned cranes." John Spinks and Nathaniel P Reed sent me to the Platte River on a permanent basis in January 1987. John Spinks' direction to me was to "go out there and sell the river." And we did. Six years later, when I left the state, the same Omaha World-Herald wrote an editorial in which they discussed the impact to the human psyche that would occur if the Prairie White-fringed Orchid went extinct and why it was a good idea for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list it as an endangered species.

Then there was Maureen Nickels' class of ecowarriors at Wasmer Elementary School in Grand Island. In the fall of 1991 I challenged these fifth graders with a $1.00 challenge to raise $3.00 more to protect one acre of rain forest in Guatemala. The following June three kids from the class and their teacher were flown to New York City where they dined with the Secretary General of the United Nations who gave them an award on behalf of the UN Environment Programme for "all the work you have done to teach children around the world about the rain forest." A group of fifth graders in a corn field in Nebraska who never saw a rain forest. But they changed the world because it was something they believed in. In the spring of 1992 John Turner, then the Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service made a trip to Grand Island to look at Sandhill Cranes. When asked by the Regional Office what he wanted to do while in Nebraska, John said only one thing "I want to meet Craig's ecowarriors." And he did.

And there were the times working with our Special Agent Cleveland Vaughn helping to educate people about why there are laws protecting wildlife and why someone has to enforce them. One of the best cases Cleveland ever had was some low life's who had purposefully destroyed 8 Least Tern nests on an island in the lower Platte River. I helped Cleveland do his investigation and we eventually figured out who did the deed. Three of them had criminal records, two of them had prison records and one of them was known to carry a concealed weapon. I went along when Cleveland and some FBI agents took them down. As we drove up to their trailer (how did I know they'd be in a trailer?) Cleveland said "When we go in you go in first." I asked "WHY me first?" Cleveland smiled and said "If they shoot I want them to shoot your white ass before they shoot my black ass." No shots were fired and Cleveland and the FBI hauled them away. The US Attorney for Nebraska personally prosecuted the case winning a huge fine and prison time for these three losers. I still smile when I think about the day we took them out for harming the earth.

My first official trip as a Service employee was with my supervisor when we drove down to near Mason City Iowa and put into place the steps needed for the Service to purchase the first Waterfowl Production Areas in that state. Also in my first position I helped identify 26 unique wildlife habitats in 6 states that were nominated to us for inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge system. As of today 25 of the 26 areas have been protected by the Service, by a State agency, or by a group like the incomparable Nature Conservancy. The 26th area, the Scioto River in south-central Ohio, is today under consideration by the Service to become a National Wildlife Refuge.

In my time with the Service I traveled on official duty to each of the 50 states and nearly 1,000 of the nation's 3,076 counties, earned more than $1.3 million in salary, and traveled more than 1,000,000 miles on 31 airlines. There's no way of knowing how many miles I drove in a car or rode on a ferry accomplishing the work of the Service but it was substantial. I also did official travel to the Bahamas (mon), the Turks and Caicos Islands, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Barbados, Guyana, Trinidad (mon) Taiwan,Japan, Johnston Atoll, Kwajalein, Majuro, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Truk, Guam and Rota. I only wish now that I had saved all of my travel vouchers so I knew how much was spent on travel to cart me around the world. I also published more than 60 papers and 2 books about birds and other wildlife during my career.

I left the Service on March 1, 2008 with 31 years of creditable service to the agency and our natural resources. On the day I left I walked out the door, never looked back, got on the subway and rode it home. I then got in a car and took off for Florida. I still haven't looked back - well not often. I started my career under Jimmy Carter, second only to Teddy Roosevelt in terms of being a great conservationist. I ended my career under George Bush, the biggest mistake and embarassment the White House has ever known. What a difference a few years and a few Administrations can make.

Its funny how there are days that you never forget - like where you were when Kennedy was shot, what you were doing when we walked on the moon, the birth day of your daughters, and the day Barack was elected President. For me for some reason I have also never forgotten the day I started work for the most important natural resource protection agency on the face of the earth. I'm thankful I had the chance to be there.


  1. very nice story. i'll never forget the day i met you!

  2. Very touching, Craig. On behalf of the tens of thousands of biologist who feel as you do about wildlife management and conservation of natural resources in general, thank you for committing 60% of your life so far to such noble causes.

  3. Craig:

    Read you story. Very moving even though I knew parts already. I get tempted now and again to forward you some of the ridiculous e-mails we get about nothing, but remember you are in your happy place and think better of it.