The new director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Aurelia Skipwith, sat down with The Columbian at the Northwest Sportsmen’s Show in Portland last week to talk about her priorities and goals for the agency.
(Director Skipwith’s responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.)
The Columbian: What made you decide to come to this particular show, and what was your aim in coming here?
Skipwith: The Trump administration, Secretary David Bernhardt, and I are focused on hunting and fishing and with this being the second largest sportsman’s expo there is in the nation, where else is there to go but to come here? We recognize that hunters and fishers are the backbone of conservation. That is where we need to make sure that we are engaging with the industry, to come here and let them know that we appreciate what they are doing and that this aligns with what this administration is about.
The Columbian: What do you hope to accomplish during your time as the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?
Skipwith: The Secretary has outlined what our priorities are and it’s delivering on those priorities. This administration is looking at how do we protect our endangered and threatened species; how do we assure that our lands are accessible for people to use to continue our American heritage?
Our other priorities are making sure there is a regulatory balance that the lands are used for various purposes. We know that 60% of private lands are where threatened and endangered species live.
We are making sure that we are incentivizing people to have habitats for those species so we can recover them. We are also making sure that we are working closer with the states because we cannot accomplish our mission on our own.
It takes collaboration, working with other federal agencies, and working with the organizations that we see here today. That is what I will be focused on during my tenure, the priorities outlined by the administration and the secretary.
The Columbian: Can you tell us about your work with urban refuges, and why they are important to you?
Skipwith: I grew up in Indianapolis, but my family was from the South, so I spent a lot of time in Mississippi. I would be outdoors with my grandpa, he had his hog farm and he had his garden, and that’s where we got our food. But, living in the city you don’t have the outdoors as (accessible) as you do in rural areas.
That’s where I grew up. It’s in my blood, its recognizing that other people in urban areas want the same as well, but probably just not knowing that those places exist.
We have over 100 refuges that classify as urban refuges. That is, they are about 25 miles from a city that has a hundred thousand people or more. And, its educating folks that-you don’t have to go all the way to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. There are places in your backyard that you can go to experience the great outdoors as I have, and it’s something that is very important to me.
The Columbian: There has been a push to increase salmon hatchery production in the Columbia River. Does the service have a role in increasing hatchery production?
Skipwith: Coming out to the Pacific Northwest, I have now seen how complicated the salmon issue is, so I look forward to getting up to speed and learning more about it. The Fish and Wildlife Service does play a role.
You have commercial fishing, recreational fishing, tribal nations, and so knowing that this is a species that is important to various stakeholders, knowing that the federal government has an interest as well, we will be working with all the parties. It’s not going to be a single group that is going to have a solution. It’s going to be a team effort.
The Columbian: This administration has reduced protections for some endangered species in some states. There are 12 species of salmon that are ESA listed in the Columbia basin. Will you work to help protect our iconic salmon, or will you reduce protections for them?
Skipwith: Species that are listed are federal trust species. We have a responsibility to protect them, we have a responsibility to recover them, and the service is committed to do that.
I’ll also say that species that aren’t listed, species that are candidate species, we are working to make sure that they don’t become listed. That is not something that we want to see, so with our mission of conserving, protecting, and enhancing, it’s making sure that we are working with our federal agencies and our science to say that these are the conclusions that we see. These are the activities that need to be in place to help mitigate any kind of infractions that are occurring to species that are listed because that is our role.
The Columbian: What has the service done to increase access to fishing and hunting in the federal refuge system?
Skipwith: As a whole we are working to increase hunting and fishing and a couple years ago the service signed a Memorandum of Understanding to increase by 60 million hunters and anglers within 60 months through working with our different regions so that there are opportunities that allow them to increase hunting and fishing.