IU prof seeks US wildlife conservation network

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — To take an overall approach to conservation, a group of researchers is advocating for a network for wildlife conservation to bring together governmental and private entities to work toward common goals.

Indiana University professor Vicky Meretsky and the co-authors of a recently released article finished a program involving eight universities. Across the U.S., graduate students looked at state wildlife action plans that were completed in 2005. The students also interviewed wildlife managers and even reviewed press releases to see how the plans had progressed.

"It was a good time to sort of look at what had been done on those plans," Meretsky told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/T89Ix2 ).

The students found that many states were expanding on what they were doing and increasing partnerships to help achieve their goals. By expanding their collaborations, state wildlife officials can garner access to new sources of funding and expertise. But not all states were as successful.

"Overall, it was a pretty uneven story. Some states had embraced the opportunity. Some states found it a pain. Some states had capacity to respond readily and were able to do things like respond to funding opportunities," Meretsky said.

The idea for a national network is not an advocacy for a federal program. Rather, it would encourage states to partner with each other and private initiatives and, in some cases, the federal government to protect at-risk wildlife and habitat. It would also be a way for the network to respond more quickly to any threats to flora or fauna.

Meretsky points to the nation's frog population, which has been affected by chytrid fungus, a potentially lethal skin disease that affects amphibians. Chytrid fungus has caused the nation's frog populations to decline, particularly in the West. If a national network were in place, the chytrid fungus plight would get attention and benefit from coordinated efforts to react to the issue.

Some issues quickly become a problem for the federal government. With many bat species suffering from white-nose syndrome, initiatives were quickly put into place, Meretsky said

"In that case, the federal government has really stepped up, largely because it very quickly hit two endangered species. And it's also very rapidly caused things to land on the endangered species list. That isn't necessarily the case with other things that were out there," Meretsky said.

When it comes to creating this national network, Meretsky said she thinks of the U.S. as a mosaic.

"There's still some pretty substantial cracks, so what we're suggesting is a more comprehensive, well-thought out approach to cementing the mosaic into something that is really a coordinated whole," Meretsky said.

The recently released article is meant to call together the various states and entities to create the network. Meretsky said the article includes five goals for the new network:

— Establish a common habitat classification map suitable for wildlife conservation;

— Identify at-risk species;

— Coordinate and leverage capacity-building opportunities;

— Facilitate and enhance the dissemination of information;

— Incorporate new data tools.

"We've provided a list of five points that we thought would be good ways for people to get going with something like this that would not overly step on toes and that would really improve efficiency and allow a national level of effort to come together," Meretsky said.

While the group merely provided suggestions and assistance in getting the network started, Meretsky said they aren't "sold" on the federal government taking the lead as the network needs to have a consistent ongoing mission.

With changing administrations, the group believes the states would be less affected by politics. And states are often responsible for wildlife conservation.

"Given that the federal government only deals with a handful of kinds of species, the states, as the major safety net for conservation, had a lot of many positive things, but there could be more done to help the overall approach to conservation," she said.

Meretsky said they are planning meetings at national conferences in an effort to reach out to national players. With the state wildlife action plans, the states looked out for species that were under the radar. By looking at those animals, it will help to highlight those in need before they reach the endangered species list.

If one state perceives a problem with a particular species, it can collaborate with another state, which is a new concept for many. Meretsky and others on her team can act as bridges to those states.

"We are now ourselves facilitators if you like. We talked to a number of the major players who think and act on these areas so we now have our own network," Meretsky said.

A summary of the paper has been distributed to 24 different agencies and organizations to keep people "in the loop." One group that could possibly be a model for this network is NatureServe, a nonprofit that provides a database of national species and ecosystems.

"It's just going to take some talking and some thinking," Meretsky said.

Her hope is that in the next year or two, the network will begin to form.

"Two years out, I think should see us probably well along. One year out would give us a huge amount of information to close up the rest of the holes," she said.

While the hope is to involve existing private entities to help progress common goals that are established, Meretsky said the network can also encourage partnerships.

For example, butterfly monitoring or learning frog calls are ways to involve school children in useful and educational ways.

"There are many ways of bringing partners to these issues," she said.

Response to the article has been positive, and Meretsky and the co-authors are currently putting together a symposium proposal as well as speaking opportunities to talk up the network.

"The level of interest and good will that has accompanied the responses to this is very heartening. People are interested and they want to be involved. If you can start with good will and good people, you go a good ways," Meretsky said.

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Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com

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