December 2016

Vol. 44, No. 6

Interview: Bill Peterson, Refuge Manager at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

David M. Larson


Bill Peterson, Rye, New Hampshire. Photograph courtesy of the author.

In 2014, Bill Peterson started work as the new Refuge Manager at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Essex County, Massachusetts. Bill grew up in St. Joseph, Minnesota, so he is obviously a wonderful person [full disclosure, the author is also a Minnesota native]. Bill started his 20-year career with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) as an intern at Sherburne NWR just north of Minneapolis. He worked at Necedah NWR in Wisconsin where he met his wife Stacy (who was working on Whooping Crane restoration there), before taking the Refuge Manager position at Wapanocca NWR in northeast Arkansas. Bill says that he has not seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker at Wapanocca, but cannot prove that they are not there. He came here to the Parker River NWR position from Arkansas. It is a safe bet that there are no Ivory-billed Woodpeckers here, either.

Bill has a background in biology and is particularly interested in ecological management efforts. He has been heavily involved in stewarding reestablishment of degraded and altered habitats at previous refuges. At Parker River, the challenges are different. Here, the focus is more on maintaining habitat. The main habitat priority of the refuge is salt marsh. And that habitat focus includes the breeding birds, e.g., Saltmarsh Sparrow and Willet, and the migrating birds that use that habitat. Given the reality of accelerated sea-level rise due to climate change, the health of the salt marsh is of great concern. Normally, during times of natural sea-level rise, salt marshes would gradually migrate inland in response. With the accelerated sea-level rise due to anthropogenic effects and with human development along the upland edges of the marshes, important ecological management questions are: how fast can the salt marshes migrate and where can they go? Clearly, there are areas of the refuge that are suitable for salt marsh expansion. Building in this sort of resilience will be a long-term goal of the refuge, along with partnering with local government, nongovernmental organizations, and interested citizens to perpetuate off-refuge marsh.

A significant challenge for Bill and the rest of the Refuge staff is the current flat funding of the USFWS. Flat funding over the past years has resulted in positions being frozen as employees retire. Right now, Bill’s staff includes only one maintenance worker and one enforcement officer. He has no assistant manager. Also, the Parker River staff is the staff for Thatcher Island NWR in Massachusetts and for Great Bay NWR and Wapack NWR in New Hampshire. The lean staffing situation has resulted in painful prioritization of tasks. For instance, the Refuge is far behind on developing their 15-year plan, developing mitigation plans for sea-level rise, and addressing other planning issues, as well as general maintenance. During the summer of 2016, long-delayed repairs to the Hellcat trail boardwalks were underway and the refuge sent out a bid request for designers to increase the ADA-compatibility of the Hellcat trails. So, given funding over the coming years, rebuilding those trails to reduce or eliminate stairs will happen. In addition, the Marsh Loop trail will be shifted back along the edge of the cattail marsh in order to facilitate management of the marsh.

Of more immediate significance, by the end of 2016 the Refuge will grant increased access at Stage Island. The last remaining cottage was torn down and cleanup is well underway. After some site improvements, the trail will be opened for foot traffic from Parking Lot #6 to the Plum Island Sound. No expansion of Lot #6 is planned, but the access will allow for increased birding opportunities.

Bill is an open and engaging person, interested in optimizing experiences at Parker River NWR for all types of visitors, including birders, photographers, school groups, casual visitors, and beachgoers. As for the inevitable differences of opinion and conflicts with visitors, abutters, and other players in the area, he has a calm and relaxed manner. He enjoys working with the various interested parties on issues such as the fate of the Pink House along the Plum Island Turnpike. His hope is for “clean water and healthy birds,” and he plans to be around for some time to help steward that hope.

The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge celebrated its 75th birthday in 2016 and, in the spirit of the occasion, I asked Bill what the greater birding community could do to help the Refuge. He encourages birders to support environmental education, youth birding, and other wildlife-dependent recreation activities to foster the next generation of conservationists.

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