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Call of the Wild

Public Employee Advocate
Spring 2014
Feature story

Striking a balance between the needs of nature and those of fishermen, hunters, conservationists and others.

EVERY YEAR, Bob Murphy travels to the remote area of Port Moller, Alaska, where he spends five months observing the flow of salmon. His job is to manage the commercial fisheries and count the number of salmon that have migrated from the Pacific Ocean up the 350-mile portion of the Alaska coastline he is responsible for. Here, the salmon spawn in the Alaskan waters, helping to ensure the economic vitality of the small communities and commercial fishermen that depend on the salmon industry.

Meanwhile, more than 3,000 miles away, Rick Morin has the livelihoods of Maryland’s commercial fishermen on his mind as he manages the harvesting of snapping turtles. Snapping turtles, as it turns out, are a delicacy in China, and Maryland is a leading supplier.  

The citizens of Alaska and Maryland, as well as those of other states across the country, are well-served by state employees like Murphy, Morin and the other professionals who manage and protect our parks, waterways, wildlife and natural resources. Typically working behind the scenes, these men and women are regularly called upon to coordinate with hunters, fishermen, conservationists, environmentalists and others with a vested—and often economic—interest in the work they do.

Brent Lonner, a wildlife biologist for the state of Montana, says he and his co-workers “are entrusted with managing a valuable public resource.” And that often means communicating directly with the public. “Involving and listening to the public is a vital part of the work we do,” he says.

Landowners, hunters, students, nongovernmental organizations and tourists are among the groups that Lonner and his colleagues often work closely with. “Working with and balancing the interests of these groups is important to make sure wildlife management in Montana—and nationally—remains a success story,” he says.

Protecting the fish and the fishermen

Currently in his 25th year as a fishery management biologist for the state of Alaska, Murphy sees his job as protecting both the long-term future of the state’s salmon population and the livelihoods of the fishermen and boat crews that depend on the salmon.

Each summer, Murphy leaves his home in Kodiak for Port Moller, where his top priority is ensuring that enough salmon migrate annually back to the waters of Alaska so the species can continue to propagate. The Alaska Public Employees Association member marvels at how the fish that spawn in the Alaskan rivers in 2014 will migrate out to sea for four to five years, depending on the species, and then return to the same river where they were born. “We have thousands of rivers in Alaska, yet these fish somehow find their way back to the exact same river,” Murphy says.

Using a contraption on the water called a “weir”—a barrier across a river designed to not alter its flow characteristics—and an aerial view from small airplanes, Murphy and his co-workers count the fish as they migrate into the state’s major rivers.

When the salmon count is low, they are often forced to make the tough decision to close the waters to the local fishermen.

“These are small, remote communities and fishermen throughout the state that depend on the fishing industry to survive, and we sometimes have large-scale closures that affect the livelihoods of our fishermen and the money they can make during the summer to survive during the winter,” says Murphy.

While he sympathizes with the fishermen when the state is forced to close a river, he knows that “if we allowed them to fish when the count was low, the salmon population would be wiped out and there would be no fish for them to catch and sell.”

The wild Alaskan salmon from the rivers regulated by Murphy and others end up in restaurants and on dinner tables across the country.

 ‘I think snapping turtles are beautiful’

About 10 years ago, Maryland state officials started receiving phone calls from residents who reported seeing truckloads of snapping turtles. When state workers investigated, they discovered that turtles from Maryland waterways were being shipped to China. Turns out, the turtles are extremely popular in China, where they are both eaten and used in traditional medicines that are said to boost everything from the immune system to sexual prowess.

“The Chinese had basically wiped out their native turtle populations because they didn’t have any controls on their harvesting,” recalls Morin, a member of the Maryland Professional Employees Council and a veteran employee of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Led by Morin, Maryland developed a snapping turtle management plan. “We wanted to find a way to allow our fishermen to have an income while at the same time maintaining a sustainable fishery of snapping turtles,” says Morin. So Maryland “navigated a middle ground” that protects the species from extinction yet allows the state’s watermen to make a living catching them.

The regulations prevent the harvesting of snapping turtles in nontidal waters such as ponds and lakes. They also protect smaller snapping turtles, which are typically the females and the ones responsible for future generations of the species.

The efficacy of the Maryland program has brought attention to both the state and Morin, who has received wide recognition for his role in managing the state’s snapping turtles population, presenting papers and speaking at national and international meetings.

Through his work, Morin has developed an affection for snapping turtles. “Most people think snapping turtles are scary looking,” he says, “but I think they’re beautiful.”

Maintaining these resources into the future

Lonner says “there really is no limit” as to what wildlife he and other Montana wildlife biologists come in contact with. His work can involve animals ranging from elk, mule deer and antelope, to bighorn sheep, mountain goats and various species of birds and other nongame animals.

Not unlike fishery biologists Murphy and Morin, Lonner’s responsibilities often revolve around those individuals who use the state’s parks, wildlife management areas, mountains and waterways for income and recreation. “I like to think that working with wildlife is the easy part of my job,” Lonner says. “It’s working with humans that makes things a challenge, given the multiple interests.”

He appreciates that challenge, however, because “it shows that people have an interest and care.”

Lonner and his co-workers, who are charged with protecting endangered species that can be as small as Least Terns or as big as grizzly bears, use research and survey data to help manage not only wildlife populations, but their habitats as well.

A critical—and relatively unknown—aspect of Lonner’s work is the time he spends educating the public, particularly youth, about wildlife management. “Our nation is really a fairly young one, but it provides one of the best existing forms of wildlife management in the world,” he says. “The dedication and quality of our wildlife professionals, and the public’s involvement, are what have gotten us to this point. Maintaining these resources into the future is the next challenge.”

­­— ROGER S. GLASS