I’m old-fashioned. I like to have a hard-copy newspaper in my hands every morning, if only for the funnies and crossword puzzle. More importantly, a newspaper is absorbent. Sometimes, I read something in the opinion section that is so ludicrous, I snort coffee out my nose.
It happened again recently. An OpEd opined, without evidence, that Gov.-elect Janet Mills’ choice of Judy Camuso to head the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife perpetuates a system that is corrupt and broken. The piece asserted that the department only concerns itself with hunting and fishing, and cares little about wildlife-watching. I snorted a full cup — one reason my wife insists on reading the paper before I do.
Judy Camuso was a Maine Audubon naturalist in 2003 when I approached the organization with a plan to develop the Maine Birding Trail. Judy was assigned to help me. After all, wildlife-watching was her thing. We continued to collaborate, even after she went on to join DIF&W as a field biologist.
Over the years, some of my columns have been inspired by the work of DIF&W biologists, while they serve as Maine’s professional wildlife stewards in the field. I’ve been out on department studies of ruffed grouse, which is a game species, and spruce grouse, which isn’t. I’ve flown with department biologists to count nesting eagles. I’ve walked foggy mudflats surveying shorebirds. I’ve tagged along during a study of great blue heron nesting. I’ve climbed mountains at night to search for the rare Bicknell’s thrush at dawn.
Yes, the department studies game animals such as moose, deer and bear. But I’ve encountered DIF&W biologists in some of Maine’s most remote places, where they study non-game animals like lynx, martens and cottontails. Even butterflies, dragonflies and rusty-patch bumblebees get the department’s attention. Wildlife-watching may not make the headlines, but there would be a lot less wildlife to watch without the DIF&W. This is especially true for Maine’s birds.
Planning is a big part of the job. Yes, the department produces a Big Game Management Plan for huntable critters. But it also produces a State Wildlife Action Plan, which identifies species of greatest conservation need. On that list, there are four amphibians, 11 reptiles, 22 mammals and 130 birds.
Maine has just completed the first season of an ambitious new breeding bird atlas. Hundreds of birders have volunteered to survey the entire state over five years. It’s been 30 years since the last atlas, so we’re overdue for an update. As director of the department’s Wildlife Division, Camuso has been a major force behind the project. Concurrently, the Maine Birding Trail is getting a facelift. Camuso is part of that review team, as well.
Ironically, much of the funding for the atlas project comes from federal dollars provided under the Pittman-Robertson Act. This 1937 law places an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment. It is responsible for billions of dollars in aid distributed to states for the purpose of wildlife conservation. The law requires a state contribution, which typically comes from hunting and fishing licenses. In short, the so-called consumptive users of wildlife in Maine are paying the freight for the study and conservation of non-game species.
The DIF&W has also launched a new initiative aimed at getting people back outdoors. The Recruitment, Retention, Reactivation initiative goes by the nickname R3. Wildlife-watching is just as important to the success of the plan as hunting and fishing.
When it comes to pure wildlife-watching, it’s hard to beat Maine’s Wildlife Management Areas. These DIF&W-managed resources offer some of the best birding in the state. Many are undeveloped wetlands that reward paddlers armed with binoculars. Beware of moose.
Beyond her work with Maine Audubon and the DIF&W, Camuso’s spare time activities have garnered her a fair amount of fame within Maine’s birding community. For more than two decades, she banded saw-whet owls as they migrated through her Freeport backyard every autumn. She typically captured 200 of the tiny owls during each 8-week span, which contributed greatly to our understanding of these rarely-seen denizens of the northern forest.
In nominating Camuso, Mills has selected a professional biologist who has risen through the ranks of the department, gotten her hands dirty doing field work, managed a large staff, and mastered the art of bringing stakeholders together to improve wildlife stewardship. As a birder, I’m particularly excited. For the first time in a long time, I can say the words “blue-gray gnatcatcher” and the commissioner will know what I’m talking about.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.