Wildlife officers: Nature teaches us lessons

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Phil Douglass has worked at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources for 25 years, and has spent countless hours watching swans and other wildlife. From aquatic education to caring for wildlife in Northern Utah, he has spent the past 10 years working in refuge and wetland management. The division manages and protects wildlife, and also issues hunting and fishing licenses in the state. He has a long history with wildlife. His parents told him that as a child, they took him up to the ranch near his house to see elk.

Through his efforts, the department also hosts various bird days, where people can come out and watch the birds while learning about them. For more family-oriented activities, the department has a tradition of sleigh rides pulled by horses.

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Tundra swans fly over the Great Salt Lake wetlands where they migrate through every year.
Wildlife, Douglass said, helps us understand life better.

“There are some great things about nature in general,” he said. “We learn lessons of perseverance and adaptation.Those are the big things that I apply to my life. Especially adaptation, wildlife adapt, and I think there’s a lesson there for me, that things change, and I have to adapt to survive. The animals certainly do this.”

Students in the area have been learning too. A program a couple of years ago helped some students in Davis County who were struggling with science. They partnered with the Division of Wildlife Resources, and the students got a grant to put collars on swans to track their migration.

Douglass also spoke about how wildlife saved residents of the state when it was first populated.

“The pioneer’s crops failed, and if it wasn’t for the wildlife in some cases they would probably have starved,” he said. “The fish would migrate up the stream to spawn, and the settlers would block off the stream and de-water it, and would just have piles of fish. The story we often say in the division is that the state bird should be the cut throat trout because they saved the people, not the seagulls.”

Douglass said birds come through Utah twice a year, from Canada geese to tundra swans. The swans come through once in November from their breeding grounds in Alaska, down to their winter grounds in Northern California, then come back through during the spring. Spring migration starts in February and goes on through March. The swans are drawn to Utah because of the rich wetland areas and marshes which contain the nutrient-rich sago pond weed.

Andy Parker, a local who’s been a guide for the past 25 seasons, said most of the birds are migratory, but they come through because of the nutrient-rich food the marsh provides.

“Almost all of the birds here are migratory,” he said. “We have close to 6 million birds that come through each year. The birds come because the Sego pond weed provides around 370 kilo calories per gram. It’s the most important duck food on the continent.”

The wetlands are one of the richest biomass areas in the world, and support everything from insect life to a diverse selection of plants, animals and bird life. From small to large swans, and on to ducks, they are all doing the same thing, moving to their breeding grounds.

Of all the birds he has seen in his years as a wildlife officer, Douglass said the swans are his favorite bird.

“To me, swans are the symbol of arctic wilderness,” Douglass said. “They just seem to have wildness dripping from their wings. So, they’re the ultimate symbol of wildlife and when I see them, it adds richness to my life.”

He elaborated on his passion for the swans.

“There’s a lot about them we don’t know,” he said. “There’s a mystery that surrounds them. They land on a pond in the marsh of the Great Salt Lake each year, and when they get up and fly away, I’m always left wondering, what are they going to see today, where are they going to be?”

Utah’s wetlands are broken down into several areas. In all, there are nine wildlife management areas, along with a federal refuge at Bear Lake. All these are funded by purchases of hunting licenses and equipment. In 1937, the Pittman-Robinson Act made a provision that taxes from hunting and fishing licenses, along with hunting equipment, came back to pay for protecting areas. The nation’s first wildlife refuge that was created under this act was in Utah.

While hunters almost depleted the wildlife here in the early 1900s, Douglass said the answer is balance.

“We balance the needs of people with the needs of wildlife, and make conscious decisions to help that balance, whether through hunting or agriculture,” he said.

David Turner, a former principal at North Layton Junior  High School, said a lot of groups, like the Utah Conservation Society and Division of Wildlife Resources, have programs to educate the public and get kids involved.

“Everyone knows how important it is to get kids off the couch and get the games away from their hands and get them out here breathing some air,” he said.  It’s precious and we have to protect it so the ecosystem can survive, and have our hunting and fishing heritage be there for our kids and grandkids.”

Turner also explained the economic impact the wildlife has on the local economy.

“Hunting is an important part of the tourist industry,” he said. “People come here who are stunned at the beauty of the mountains. We had guys hunting geese with us one day and skiing the next. We have four seasons, and we can do so much in the marshes over the four seasons.”

Parker explained why people need to be educated and do their best to preserve these wetlands.

“There are 148 different species of birds that come each year,” he said. “This is an international treasure, people from all over the world come here, from Antelope Island to Farmington Bay. It’s not the hunters’ responsibility to preserve and protect this, it’s everybody.”

On Thanksgiving Day, Douglass sat restless on the couch after dinner, then decided to take his daughter down to the wetlands with their kayaks. Paddling out, the swans were there en masse, with not a cloud in the sky, and saw them out under the light of the moon. It was one of the best experiences he had, and he believes people can gain that same appreciation for nature.

Douglass had some last words of advice.

“It seems like sometimes people get comfortable with seeing something and just taking it for granted,” he said. “There isn’t just a sparrow. There are so many kinds of sparrows and species and varieties of birds.”

More information may be found at http://wildlife.utah.gov.

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