Talking to People
By: Eliana Moustakas and Jake Rayapati
Quick show of hands, who’s heard this one before? “The whole reason I got into wildlife was so I wouldn’t have to talk to people.” It’s a common mantra among those of us who never grew out of the animal-obsessions of our childhoods. Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable. In the Anthropocene staring down the barrel of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, conservation requires communication. Whether by oral traditions or Instagram, communication is how you share a conservation ethic, and it all starts with talking to people.
2020 America looks a little different than it did a century ago. The population has noticeably acquired more people, more cities, and more melanin. Laudably, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is actively working to engage the public through its National Visitor Survey (NVS), so that 21st century conservation can reflect 21st century Americans. When we learned we were lucky enough to work with NVS, we did a little dance. Then we got to work.
Ten Thousand Islands NWR
After a week of training in Fort Collins with the USFWS Human Dimensions Branch, we hit the road. First on the docket was Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, TTI to the cognoscenti, which spans the marshes and mangroves of Southwest Florida. Our first day at TTI, we posted up at the beginning of Marsh Trail. The trail’s observation platform is particularly popular before sunset when thousands of wading birds descend from the skies and come home to roost.
But, we aren’t here for the wildlife; we’re here for the people. Once you find your mark, it’s fairly simple. “What’s your name? What’s your address? What’s your primary activity on the Refuge today? Do you live within 50 miles? What year were you born?” Exchange a few pleasantries, then follow up with, “Thank you!” and, “You’ll receive a survey in the mail in about a week, but today you get a magnet.” Smile, rinse, and repeat. Our task isn’t to survey visitors directly, but rather recruit visitors to complete the survey at home.
That distinction didn’t stop folks from giving us a piece of their mind. In our day-to-day lives, we don’t normally get accused of being “The Man”. That changes when you’re wearing a uniform with the Fish and Wildlife logo. Suddenly, you represent the Refuge, the Department of the Interior, and the US of A. As it turns out, a lot of people have something to say about that. Talking to people, as you might have guessed, requires listening to them too.
Each refuge was a little different. At TTI, mostly we got the usual, “Where can I see alligators? Where can I see manatees?” Sometimes, it got a little more interesting, for example: “How can you seriously call yourself a refuge if you allow hunting?” or “There are too many manatees, they need to open season!” Did we receive micro-aggressions about our race and gender? You betchya. Still, it wasn’t all bad, not even close. “Thank you for what you’re doing!” was surprisingly common to hear. So was the somewhat incredulous, “You get paid to travel?” There were also exclamations of pure joy, like, “We just had the greatest view of a swallow-tailed kite in America!”
Nathaniel P. Reed Hobe Sound NWR
Right about the time we got into the swing of things, we were on the road again, crossing the peninsula to Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge – a testudine retreat on Florida’s Atlantic Coast for endangered gopher tortoises and nesting sea turtles. Surrounded by a sea of development, Hobe Sound is not only a refuge for wildlife, but for people too.
Many folks were enamored with the beauty of a natural beach and thanked us personally. Others didn’t want to be bothered – the refuge was their, well, refuge (pardon the cliché) and a place for peace and quiet. Interestingly, most locals didn’t self-identify as visitors. They weren’t tourists gosh darn-it, they lived there – at least some of the time. But, with some gentle convincing, they agreed to be surveyed too. Local or otherwise, the people at Hobe Sound often referred to the refuge as Southeast Florida’s hidden gem, and we have to agree.
Bon Secour NWR
After Hobe Sound, we crossed back to the Gulf Coast, this time to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on Alabama’s Fort Morgan Peninsula. While showing us around, the Refuge Manager bent to point out the sandy tracks of the endangered Alabama Beach Mouse when a cat strolled out of the dunes. The felon feline approached us nonchalantly, and the manager scooped it up and brought it back to her truck. Cats eat mice, even endangered mice, which is why pets aren’t allowed on the refuge. Under questioning, the cat pled the fifth. However, it was betrayed by a tag on its collar: “Outdoor Cat, I Live Nearby, Please Leave Me Alone!” Talking to people, in this case, meant speaking for the beach mouse and mitigating human-wildlife conflict when we returned the cat to its owner.
Bon Secour’s sandy shores also attracted anglers who enjoyed casting into the surf. They often asked us what the folks down the beach were catching. Well, they weren’t catching much of anything, and soon neither were we. Chatting, comments, questions and even pet management ended when all those activities became public health concerns. Our time with the National Visitor Survey came to an abrupt end one week into our stay at Bon Secour (pesky pandemics).
Looking back, each refuge had its own unique set of conservation challenges and successes, and we have been inspired to continue exploring “America’s Best Kept Secret”. Over the past few months, we had the privilege to be supervised by incredible conservationists and mentors, and we also had the invaluable chance to hear from everyday people about what National Wildlife Refuges mean to them. Whether this will be your first internship out of college or your last, it’s a rare opportunity to contribute to a paradigm shift in conservation while travelling the country at the same time. Whether you want to get a foot in the door with federal service, receive an AmeriCorps Education Award or a Public Land Corp Hiring Certificate, or simply get yourself through the winter, ACE and USFWS have created an incredible opportunity to make this position your own. So, what will you make of it?