As this most unusual year concludes, Defenders of Wildlife’s regional field offices have spent some time reflecting upon the year’s accomplishments. The Southeast team certainly has a lot to be proud of and is excited to continue our conservation work in 2021. This year brought many challenges to everyone around the globe, including wildlife…but still, the Southeast team was hard at work defending our nation’s precious natural resources in the name of wildlife conservation. 

View of Pisgah National Forest through the trees
Gary Peeples/USFWS

From June to July, the U.S. Forest Service sought detailed feedback and comments from valuable stakeholders upon the department’s release of the new draft Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest Plan. Southeast Program Director Ben Prater served as Defenders of Wildlife’s representative in a multitude of partnership and stakeholder meetings, advocating strongly for increased protections for wilderness areas and the maintenance of biodiversity in western North Carolina’s expansive national forests. Because of Ben’s outstanding work and collaborative efforts, Defenders of Wildlife was able to contribute substantively during the Forest Service’s public comment period alongside other key stakeholders. 

Kat Diersen

In other good news, Southeast Representative Kat Diersen was able to secure over $1.5 million in National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) funding that will be allocated to support farmers in the implementation of private lands conservation practices which will benefit hellbenders and a plethora of other southeastern aquatic species. This year, Kat’s diligent work with multiple partners across many sectors created opportunities to advance research, management and habitat restoration for the Southern population of the bog turtle, a species that is currently experiencing precipitous declines. These efforts have laid the groundwork for new, coordinated policies and programs that will ensure bog turtles get the resources needed to keep the species from the brink of extinction. Kat’s extraordinary efforts and hard work ensure a safer future for reptiles, amphibians, fish and more in the biodiverse Southeast! 

Young Bog Turtle in Grass
Gary Peeples/USFWS

And this summer, biologists confirmed that captive-reared Florida grasshopper sparrows, the most endangered birds in North America, are successfully reproducing in the wild! Funding from the Conserve Wildlife license plate in Florida initiated by Defenders provided crucial funding to support captive breeding and release of sparrows, which scientists hope may allow the critically endangered birds to rebound in the coming years.

Florida manatee Crystal River NWR
David Hinkel/FWS

The Southeast field office was able to formally welcome a new addition to the team, Liz Neville, who started as a contractor working with Defenders on manatee conservation but joined us full time as Defenders’ new senior gulf coast representative. Liz dedicated the last year and a half to advocating for the restoration of the Great Florida Riverway on behalf of Defenders and helped to draw public attention to the Ocklawaha River, the heart of the Great Florida Riverway, by emphasizing the necessity of habitat connectivity for species like the Florida manatee and Florida panther, and the regional importance of this river system. As a result of Liz’s fantastic work, public awareness of conservation issues in the Ocklawaha has never been higher! 

Also in Florida, Kent Wimmer, senior Northwest Florida representative, and Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative, have been hard at work advising Florida Department of Transportation about environmental and economic impacts of the proposed Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) project. The project is the largest road expansion effort undertaken in the state since the 1950s and, if constructed, would cause enormous harm to wildlife and habitat. In fact, Kent, Elizabeth, and Southeast Program Coordinator Tracy Davids hosted a superb webinar spotlighting the dangers that M-CORES poses to Florida wildlife, including the endangered Florida panther. Elizabeth serves as the conservation representative on the federal Florida Panther Recovery Team and a member of its transportation sub-team. She works to conserve habitat, prevent mortalities on roads and help people coexist with panthers to allow expansion of the small panther population. And in more good news this year for wildlife in the Southeast,  biologists confirmed another female panther north of the Caloosahatchee River, proving the population is expanding and bringing more hope for the state animal.  

Florida panthers caught on trail camera
fStop Foundation

In addition to M-CORES, Kent’s efforts helped Defenders play a key leadership role in working for the successful passage of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA), which was signed into law June 20 by Gov. Ron DeSantis. UPHPA’s passing ensures that landowners are provided with necessary tools to better manage their land, protecting important wildlife habitat from forced development projects. This is a great victory for people and wildlife, since the act also protects the transferal of wealth between generations of individuals of lower socioeconomic status largely within marginalized communities while simultaneously increasing the restoration of viable and contiguous wildlife habitat. 

Red knots and horseshoe crabs

Southeast Program Representative Christian Hunt continued the fight this year to conserve Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge along the Georgia/Florida Line and Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. Defenders initiated litigation over the illegal harvesting of horseshoe crabs, a critical resource for shorebirds, in Cape Romain and plays a leadership role in the fight to protect Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge from the threat of titanium mining. 2021 will be a critical year for both campaigns, but supporters can rest easy knowing that Christian will keep up the fight. Stay tuned for when we call on you to raise your voices in support of these refuges and their wildlife!

Red Wolf walking down path with tongue out

Southeast Outreach Representative Heather Clarkson has gracefully adapted her tremendous outreach efforts to continue offering accessible wildlife outreach and education opportunities in a virtual format. Through Heather and Tracy’s leadership, Defenders supporters were able to learn more about red-cockaded woodpeckers from an informative presentation composed by two spectacular Defenders volunteers, Eric Guay and Amy Beal. Tracy has continued to pave the way for Defenders’ innovative online outreach efforts, collaborating with Heather, Ben, Christian and Kat on several webinars, including a webinar about the Amphibian Extinction Crisis, and our Red Wolf Wildlife Workshop and Walkabout webinar, which was so well-received that we were compelled to host an encore presentation! Red wolves were a major focus of the Southeast team in 2020, and with the help of Christopher Lile, Defenders was able to receive funding for increased Red Wolf conservation efforts through the Concert for Conservation.

It’s been an interesting, tough and challenging year, but Defenders of Wildlife’s Southeast team is looking forward to a hopeful and optimistic 2021 ripe with conservation successes. If you’d like to follow along all year with the Southeast team and be the first to hear about future webinars, join our Facebook groups (NC/SC/TN/VA, FL/AL/GA and Red Wolves) to stay in-the-know. We have an exciting presentation lineup for our  Lunch and Learn webinar series: Saving a Swamp: The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (1/12), Marine Wildlife and the Problem of Plastic Pollution (2/16), Living with Florida Panthers (3/18), and Help a Manatee – Free the Ocklawaha River (4/22). 

Maddy Watson

Maddy Watson is a current Western Carolina University graduate student pursuing a Master of Public Affairs for Nonprofit Management. A lifelong lover of nature, she continues to develop her passion for wildlife conservation through both a philosophical and sociological lens as a Southeast Field Office intern for Defenders of Wildlife.


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