Morkill leaving for job out WestBy Steve Estes
Anne Morkill, for the last six years manager of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge complex, will be leaving that post in late September to take over as Project Leader for the San Francisco Bay Area National Wildlife Refuge Complex, based in Fremont, Calif.
She says that the challenges she will face in her new job will in many ways be similar to what she did here. The complex consists of seven refuges, four in San Francisco Bay itself, the Farallon Islands offshore, and two units in the Monterey Bay area.
The Farallon Islands are part of an extensive bird species chain with unique nesting issues, and Morkill will still have to work in an area where threatened species are prevalent.
“When I came here, I promised myself that I would only leave if one of two jobs became available,” she said. “This was one of them, and I thought myself a long shot to get selected, so I feel very honored by that.”
“I am very excited for this new chapter in my career, however, my decision to move on is bittersweet as I have enjoyed working with people here on the many challenging and fulfilling conservation projects in the Florida Keys these past six years,” said Morkill.
During her six year tenure, Morkill said she is most proud of the fact that she instilled a culture of using science upon which to base species management decisions.
“One of my goals was to bring good science into the management practices of the refuge. We have expanded our partnerships with various universities for research and we are beginning to lay a good science foundation for the next managers to build on,” she said.
The local refuges have had a long-standing relationship with a few universities who routinely sent interns here to produce master’s and doctoral-level studies in species habits, but that has been expanded to include experts in sea level rise implications, eco-system interaction and fire management.
“We got the Comprehensive Conservation Plan done, which provides a future blueprint for managers to make decisions on what’s best for the refuge,” she added.
Two programs are still in the works as Morkill takes her leave of the refuge, one of which should be ready for roll out before she vacates the position.
“We are putting the final tweaks on the predator management plan and I will have the final version on the streets for public review before I leave,” she said.
That plan has been a controversial one for the last few years as it involves the refuge trapping feral cats on federal lands and has met with stiff resistance at times from animal-rights groups.
“The plan has to be available for public review, with no comment period, for 30 days before it can be implemented,” she said. “I don’t think we’d start trapping cats in the summer around here, but the program will be ready for the next manager to kick off.”
Morkill is also currently embroiled in a public-comment review process for a new back-country management plan, a plan that will determine the available uses of refuge-controlled back country islands and the management practices that will be used on them.
She and National Marine Sanctuary personnel recently completed a series of public scoping meetings to gather thoughts on the proposed future of both facilities.
“We’re looking at a lot of comments about opening up the back country to expanded personal watercraft uses, and a lot against that same thing. We’re looking at comments requesting commercial use permits for back country islands for excursions, sightseeing and diving and snorkeling. We’ve also seen a lot of folks asking for curtailment of uses to establish new nesting islands for birds,” she said.
That management plan will be a two- or three-year effort, she says, and will be completed by the next manager.
Who that might be is unknown.
“We might have someone on staff here fill the position on an interim basis, or they might bring in someone from elsewhere on an interim basis,” she said. “The federal service doesn’t fill a position until that position is empty and it’s a lengthy process.”
One of the things she wishes she had been able to accomplish was the development of a new refuge visitor center on land the refuge owns next door to Skeeter’s Marine on US 1 in Big Pine.
“We were disappointed that the service kept bumping funding to build the center. It would greatly enhance the visibility of the refuge for our visitors,” she said. “We acquired the land, but never could get construction money.”
She said that quest, in addition to being the next manager’s, has tuned from a straight allocation in the federal budget to searching for grants and partners to build the facility.
“We’re looking at partners that can leverage maybe Tourist Development Council bricks and mortar money in a shared arrangement,” she said.
If there’s one thing she believes the refuge needs more of in the coming years, it’s public outreach programs.
“We need to do a better ob of educating people about the dangers faced by the Key Deer, both in vehicle crashes and in feeding,” she said. “We have to do a better job of getting across the dangers of feeding, how to better manage your trash so the deer can’t feed from the cans, and how to make the deer feel less inclined to routinely visit human developments.”
Morkill said she has enjoyed her time in the Keys and will have good memories.