Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the 2013 Teaming with Wildlife (TWW) Fly-In in Washington DC on March 5-6. I was asked to attend this event due to my participation as a member of the Tennessee Hellbender Recovery Partnership, which was to receive a State Wildlife Action Plan Partnership Award at the final reception at the meeting. When I first found out about the Fly-In, my first reaction was, “What is a Fly-In?”. Most meetings I have attended as a conservation biologist have generally involved presentations by attendees on the projects they are working on as well as a chance to catch up with other colleagues. A Fly-In is definitely different than this. In fact, a Fly-In is essentially an event an organization holdS to bring supporters to meet with Congressional representatives to discuss an issue of importance. In this case, this issue was funding for State Wildlife Grants (SWG),

One of the reasons that we were invited to attend the entire Fly-In event is that the hellbender project I participated in was funded through a Tennessee SWG before the budget cut; if the project were to be newly proposed today, Tennessee would not have enough SWG money to fund it. Therefore, we were an example of a SWG success story. To spread this message, the members of the partnership (including myself) met with as many of the Tennessee congressional offices as possible to tell the story of what we did with Hellbenders in their state. This story described the partnership of several institutions (with Fly-in attendee in parentheses) – Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency ( Bill Reeves), The Orianne Society (me), Lee University (Dr. Michael Freake), Middle Tennessee State University (Dr. Brian Miller), Nashville Zoo (Dale McGinnity), University of Idaho (where I conducted the lab work for the project) and University of Tennessee.

Through our partnership we were able to conduct statewide surveys for Hellbender populations, develop an environmental DNA (eDNA) test for detecting Hellbender presence without surveys (my primary role), conduct population genetic analyses to understand genetic diversity and population relationships (I also assisted with this), test for amphibian diseases, and used cryopreservation techniques to successfully reproduce Eastern Hellbenders in captivity at Nashville Zoo. Our results have demonstrated a loss of Hellbender populations compared to historic sites, especially in middle Tennessee, although some good populations remain in the eastern part of the state. We were able to detect new populations of Hellbenders using the eDNA method and identified some sites where genetic diversity had likely declined in recent years due to fragmentation. The genetic results also provide information on where reintroductions could occur if it were deemed desirable. Finally, while disease organisms (ranavirus and chytrid fungus) are found on Hellbenders, it is currently unclear if the populations are suffering from the diseases.

We repeated this message to 7 of the 11 members of the Tennessee congressional delegation (a snowstorm in the area had closed some of the congressional offices). As you might guess, Senators and Representatives are very busy people, and don’t have the ability to meet personally with every constituent. Therefore, each office has several staffers representing different issues, and these were the people that we met with and would then report on our meeting to the Congressman. It actually was a lot more fun than I anticipated getting to meet and discuss our work with the different staffers. All of the offices we met with took the time to sit down with us for 15-20 minutes and for the most part, appeared quite interested in what we had to say. None of the staffers had actually heard of a Hellbender, so it was our pleasure to educate them on that front! In addition to highlighting our Hellbender work, Bill also discussed some of the other SWG work in Tennessee, which ranged from citizen science programs for monitoring amphibians to control of feral pigs that destroy reptile and amphibian habitat. It was also quite fascinating to wall the halls of Congress and see some of the different offices – Senator Lamar Alexander even had a carving of a Timber Rattlesnake on his office wall!

The final event of the Fly-In was the Congressional Reception, and this is where we received our award. Members of the congressional offices were invited to the reception, and while the turnout was a bit lower than expected because of “snowquester”, there were still several that attended. This included Congresswoman Rose DeLauro from Connecticut, who received a Congressional Members Award for her support for wildlife conservation.

The other award recipients (who were not able to attend) were Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Congressman Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania. When it came time for us to receive our award, each member of the partnership was introduced and we were presented with our award, which was a pintail duck – I’m sure it is the first time I’ve posed for a photo with a duck!

I’m excited to continue representing the Orianne Society as a member of the Tennessee Hellbender Recovery Partnership; hopefully this is but a first step towards successful hellbender conservation in Tennessee and beyond. And perhaps our example will help provide continued support for wildlife conservation in the future.

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