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Learning in the field, interns visit Oak Ridge WPA

USFWS Wildlife Biologist Chris Trosen emphasized the important role volunteers play in the collection of data at the St. Croix Wetlands Management District. Pictured are visiting interns and staff. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 5
USFWS Fire Management Specialist Joel Kemm described the role fire management played in the restoration of habitat at Oak Ridge WPA. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 5
St. Croix Wetland Management District Project Leader Bridget Olson explained how proceeds from the Federal Duck Stamp Program are used to purchase property for waterfowl production areas. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 5
Caitlin Smith, USFWS Private Lands Biologist, explained to interns how partners for the fish and wildlife program enable her to work with private landowners to fulfill the USFWS mission. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia 4 / 5
In late July, the staff of the area US Fish & Wildlife District, the St. Croix Wetlands Management District, hosted an afternoon of learning for a busload of summer interns in one of the best classrooms in the state, the Oak Ridge Waterfowl Production Area (WPA). Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia 5 / 5

It starts with the same reason so many choose to live here: the outdoors, nature, close to rivers and lakes, hunting, fishing, birding and kayaking. We live here because it inspires us daily, often subtly, sometimes it takes our breath away. Many of us entertained thoughts of finding a way to work outside in this landscape when we were growing up. Most of us ended up in other careers but still covet time outside enjoying and participating in this environment.

For those fortunate few who did manage to make the environment and conservation their calling, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is one of the premier agencies in the world for which to work fulfilling that dream. In turn, that agency cultivates those dreamers in small rural communities across the country who are able to combine their abiding passion for conservation with education to become wildlife biologists, specialists and technicians.

In late July, the US Fish & Wildlife District staff, of the St. Croix Wetlands Management District, hosted an afternoon of learning for a busload of summer interns in one of the best classrooms in the state, the Oak Ridge Waterfowl Production Area (WPA). As part of a week-long training held at the USFWS Regional Office headquarters in Bloomington, Minn., more than 50 interns from eight Midwest FWS Districts were bused to the WPA where they divided into groups and headed out into four different field classrooms to learn firsthand about the responsibilities, opportunities and activities unique to managing a Wetland District.

The four classrooms were headed by Project Leader Bridget Olson, Fire Management Specialist Joel Kemm, Private Lands Biologist Caitlin Smith and Wildlife Biologist Chris Trosen. Olson provided interns an overview of the wetland management district. Trosen spoke regarding habitat, the bio program and the research that goes on in the district as well as partnerships with different agencies within the state and volunteering. Smith addressed the partners for fish and wildlife program for private lands. Kemm spoke about the fire program and habitat work the fire program had done at the Oak Ridge property specifically.

Surrounded by a group of interns in the middle of a section of prairie habitat, Smith discussed her role as a Private Lands Biologist.

"In Wisconsin, about 80 percent of the land is privately owned. Through the USFWS private lands program, I'm given a special allocation of dollars to work with private landowners. The reason I brought up the percentage of private land is, wildlife doesn't recognize boundaries or borders. It doesn't recognize political boundaries or state lines or property lines. So it's critical that we work with private entities in order to pursue our mission as the Fish & Wildlife Service to conserve and protect the wildlife and their habitat for future generations," said Smith.

Olson discussed the framework of a wildlife refuge with her group.

"A refuge boundary is pretty static. When they looked to establish that refuge, they already drew a line around, biologically, this is what we would like to own over the next hundred years. This is where we are going to focus our efforts. We get our money for land acquisitions from duck stamp program proceeds. Those funds come back directly to the Fish & Wildlife Service and get distributed out according to both the FWS Director as well as the Migratory Bird Commission. They decide where those duck stamp dollars go. Then they are used to purchased waterfowl properties," explained Olson.

Trosen described a unique attribute of the St. Croix Wetland Management process: volunteers.

"Something that's really unique about our biology program that may be a little different from some of the other field stations is that we like to work with volunteers to collect our data. I strongly believe that our future is dependent on the connection that we make with our local community. You're going to go to school for a long time and you're going to get a really fancy diploma and you're going to put it on the wall and you're going to be able to look at it. You'll be able to walk out to a piece of property like this and you'll have all the ideas in the world about how to manage it. But when you walk up to the edge of it, will you have enough training and expertise to develop those meaningful connections with your neighbors? The public doesn't like to be "educated." They are very well informed. Be careful with the way you say things, the way you explain things. Provide them with information and then allow them to make their own decisions about what you're doing," explained Trosen.

Each group of interns rotated to meet with the different members of the Fish & Wildlife staff. After all rotations were completed, the group reunited and headed across County Highway H to the DNR Seed Farm for a presentation from Trosen about the seed farm operations and the USFWS partnership with the DNR.

You never know where the seed of an intern might be planted, maybe a morning spent planting lupine or clearing invasive species on Service Learning Day. It can be that kind of experience, exposure to a landscape and the opportunity to ask questions and physically walk and work in that habitat that provides the spark. To understand in detail how it all connects and to appreciate why what we do to it is so important, education is the next step.