Conservation at home and abroad for beginners? (Southeastern U.S.)

I’m not sure how to word this, but I’ll try. I am very passionate about conservation measures and emerging technologies to help species on the brink. I am currently in high school, looking at colleges and things, you know the drill. Well, for some time now I have wanted to start getting more professional in a sense. I just don’t really know how or where to start… I want to work with species on the brink of extinction, helping to conserve them, their habitats, and raise awareness. The virus has really put a shut down on most things, but I was wondering if there is any immediate action I could start planning for or taking right now? I want to help the lesser known species, the ones that are disappearing right under our noses. The hard part is finding specific species, and how to go about conserving them once you choose a subject, which I have done none of yet.

It’s all just very cluttered in my head right now, and I’m trying to work through it. I feel like a native species would be a good starting point, so if anyone has any suggestions for volunteer work, or anything, really, for MS, it would be of immense help. My main interests are rewilding, conservation, and really nature in general, but I know the most about amphibians and reptiles at the moment. I just feel like my time would be better spent helping the environment today, rather than doing nothing in my spare time. I just don’t know how to start.

I feel like this topic could help other people aside from me, start working towards their goals as well, and get more of a foothold in the naturalist community.

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I did my thesis on tadpoles. Your state has many threatened and endangered species, a number of which are herps, and/or associated with aquatic habitats. You can see the list at this page: Conservation in Mississippi. I would start by finding out which ones have populations nearest to you, and then find out what, if anything, is currently being done to protect them. Remember, all politics are local politics.

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What Jason said: start locally. I just retired from a career as a conservation biologist for the endangered species program in Massachusetts and I can tell you that almost everything we did for rare species (and for biodiversity in general) was based on real data, on where the presence of a rare species had been documented on the ground. So one of the most useful things you can do is find out what species are considered rare in your state, learn how to identify them, go out and find some, and then document your findings to the state (not just to iNaturalist!). Seriously, it’s really helpful.

In my experience, places that have rare species tend to be “special” places - they are specialized habitats, or have unusual disturbance regimes, or are big undeveloped areas. So while you’re out looking for, say, rare salamanders, learn everything you can about the more ordinary species of that spot. I want to say that, in fact, learn as much as you can stuff in your brain about everything. Read all the books, figure out how to access scientific papers and read those, join whatever bird and nature clubs and organizations there may be around you and learn from other people. Go to as many different places as you can (once the pandemic is over).

Find out what groups are protecting land around you - is it just the state or the federal government, or are there local land trusts? If there are local land trusts, join them and figure out how to help protect more land. Ditto for politics: learn how politics works at your local/state/federal level and support legislation and regulations that help conservation efforts. So read more newspapers and magazines, in addition to the pile of books you’ve acquired.

Trying to figure out how best to help the environment is a long and somewhat discouraging process. Do not let yourself get discouraged. If you do feel discouraged, get outside in some natural area and realize that, yes, native bees still are pollinating the native plants, that frogs and toads and snakes are still hopping and slithering their way toward prey, and that innumerable invertebrates inhabit every cubic inch of the soil and the plants growing out of that soil. (OK, so maybe some of that isn’t happening in February; I’ll grant you that.)

The best thing about doing conservation is that you never stop learning. Never. You will never be bored.

If I can be of more help, feel free to pm me through iNat; I’m lynnharper there, too. It is great you’re thinking about this!

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Hello from Pennsylvania! If you were closer I would steer you to some local organizations up here, although I don’t know much about amphibians or reptiles. But I do know that there is probably someone not too far away who is already working with many of your goals in mind. It would be easier to join a group than to trailblaze. Almost every state has a herpetological society - I would see if I could join it and it’s possible that they might have opportunities to work in conservation or research. Here’s the one in Georgia - I kinda googled something up at random in the southeast.
https://uga.campuslabs.com/engage/organization/ugaherpsociety

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Southeastern USA grasslands are a particularly at-risk habitat. Here are some people to network with about them:

https://www.facebook.com/southeasterngrasslands

A really great plant ID resource for your region was just updated a few months ago. Even if your interests are ultimately more animal-oriented, often the first step in describing where you found a rare animal involves identifying the plants around it. Alan Weakley’s Flora of the Southeastern USA is available for free from the UNC Herbarium website. You might find the introduction section interesting even without a mystery plant in-hand:
https://ncbg.unc.edu/research/unc-herbarium/floras/

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Are you on FB? That would be a good place to start networking. Mississippi Native Plant Society, Mississippi Snake Forums and Identification, Reptiles and Amphibians of Mississippi, Mississippi Naturalists are FB pages loaded with people who could offer you information. TNC does Dusky gopher frog management on Camp Shelby within the DeSoto National Forest and The Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR also is involved in habitat management for the Dusky gopher frog. Several people involved in those groups do research on reptiles and amphibians and could offer you advice beyond just Dusky gopher frog management, but it’s a starting point.

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As other people have talked about native plants, may I suggest you add some to your garden/balcony? Since you’re probably spending a lot of time at home already, If you have a decent patch of land available, you can even landscape different “mini-ecosystems”. For example, planting shrubs and bushes in one place, creating a sort of forest with big trees in another, making a pond and surrounding it with aquatic plants, etc. That way you maximize the amount of different organisms that may come to visit your area, and you help preserve the unique biodiversity of your state.
Also: consider researching what behaviours your target species have. Do most of the frogs in MS dwell in or near the water, or are they more land based? What animals do the snakes around you feed on? Things like that help you better understand which actions you should take to increase the chances of attracting them. And even if you end up not coming across any reptiles or amphibians by planting natives, I guarantee that you will get immense joy in discovering what critters choose to visit them anyway!

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So… I work on the conservation of one of the most endangered species on the planet, a primate with only about 70 individuals living in the wild and only about 5 or 6 in captivity that most likely can never be released. We also do biodiversity conservation of a much wider range of species via over-all habitat and ecosystem conservation.

There are a few things I’d draw your attention to, all of which are important, but it’s difficult to place them in any specific order, so don’t take the order as being indicative of anything.

  • Terms like “Critically Endangered” are somewhat misleading as there are a variety of criteria that go into determining status. This means that a species with more an 80,000 individuals can wind up in the same status as a species with less than 100 individuals. I’m not complaining about this as there are good reasons for it, but it creates an artificial equivalence in terms of actual probability of near-term extinction risk.

  • Associated with this is the idea of “functional extinction”. There are at least three definitions of this, but the one that is most relevant is the idea that once a species drops below a certain number (said number id dependent on many other factors) it no-longer plays a functional role in the ecosystem (eg. nutrient transport, seed distribution, predation, etc). This indicates that in a cold-hard conservation context, not an emotional one, some species may not be the best representatives in terms of their actual present ecological importance in the ecosystem. This is a very uncomfortable idea to approach, but it need to be looked at critically and with a clear mind. That said, there is value in “charismatic species” that effectively are no-longer meaningfully participating in the ecosystem as they can bring much needed attention to a region and help to protect many other species that would otherwise get little to no attention, and which may well be more important in terms of their ecosystem roles.

  • The vast majority of species are not in the public eye, despite their potential importance to the relevant ecosystem. This is especially true of invertebrates and plants, but good luck getting funding to protect snails even if their roles as primary decomposers and mechanisms of nutrient transport place them as a keystone group in certain ecosystems. So, how to you protect them when there is no popular interest in, “those gross animals?”

  • There are more and more species that are falling into Endangered and Critically Endangered status. There is an ongoing discussion concerning whether it is actually more important to protect endangered species or whether it’s more important to protect relatively common species in advance, species that have a large role in the ecosystem, in advance to prevent them from falling into endangered status, rather than focusing so many resources on species already on the brink and that now have little ecosystem impact as a result of their population decline. This is not a question that has a good answer at present, but it is one that needs to be explored. A problem is that funding is often tied to both how endangered a species is and how charismatic it is.

  • Species need a habitat to survive. This may occupy a large or small area, but either way a habitat/ecosystem is a system, a network of species relationships. Focusing on a specific species in that association of species runs the risk of managing the entire local ecosystem for that species to the detriment of other species, some of which may be equally imperiled, or more ecologically important, but don’t get the necessary attention. A holistic approach that focuses on ecosystems and habitats may be a better approach than focusing on a specific species.

  • The global ecological problems the world faces are due to how humans prioritize things, the decisions we make, and the actions we take. Remove humans from the equation and things will work out ok. This indicates that the most effective conservation work is work that focuses on humans not on other species. We need to get humans to change their behavior, their actions, and to adjust their priorities. This happens largely via politics, education, and economics (as well as religion). Focusing on issues of policy, or corporate environmental responsibility; of where our food comes from and how local communities meet their needs (livelihoods); of re-empowering communities to manage their own areas (Community Base Natural Resources Management); etc is where the real and long-term effective conservation work gets done.

At the moment those of us out on the ground in conservation are a bit like EMT workers, or firefighters. We are racing from immediate problem to immediate problem and trying to fix that, but what we need is policy changes that prevent these problems from happening, much like regulations on seatbelt use in cars radically changed the mortality and roles of EMT workers when car accidents happened, or how regulations concerning how building are constructed and necessary safety features changed the role of firefighters.

In all honesty, we don’t actually need many more new people out in the trenches, it’s damned crowded down here and getting ever more-so. What we need, desperately so, is more people in politics, law, business, education, farming, restaurants, ranching, tech industries, etc bringing a long-term ecological and sustainability mindset to their industries and passing that along to their fellow citizens.

I’m not at all saying this to be discouraging. We welcome you with open arms, but think carefully about where your interests and strengths are and how those may be best applied to conservation. It may not be where you’ve been trained to think it is by the popular media view of conservation.

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I would like to echo @abrub - one of the best things we can do individually is increase the habitat available to all wild life in the area. That will slow or stop the decline of what may be common species (don’t get me started on lawns!). As for endangered species, there are folks more knowledgeable than me who have, or will, offer advice.

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I seriously appreciate all of these well thought out answers. It really does help me put things into perspective. I have a lot of research, communication, and thinking to do.

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Three things:
The first one you probably already know about. If you want to survey amphibians, make sure you know how to do it without spreading the various diseases that are devastating some areas.

Second, if you want to work in conservation, any identification skills will put you at an advantage. It is amazing how many people get into conservation jobs in Wales with virtually no knowledge of wildlife. I don’t know whether that is also the case in USA.

Third, as Earthknight alluded to, you might want to consider a role that isn’t hands-on with the wildlife and the habitats. For example, conservation organisations are often short of IT skills because anyone who is good at IT can get a salary three times as big working for an IT company. If you are good at IT and willing to work for conservationist pay, you’ll always be in demand. I guess the same is true of people with legal training.

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im from florida but i found some mississippi equivalents to things i like from here. getting involved with these could really help you meet people and learn things that can help you on your path. i wish you the best of luck!

https://www.mississippinativeplantsociety.org/

https://masternaturalist.extension.msstate.edu/student-naturalist

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The other thing you can do is volunteer for regular work with a land caring group, once a month or once a week. Start with seeing what’s on the ground. 90% of species extinctions happen due to loss of habitat and all that that entails. I’m in Australia, South East Queensland bio-region, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit that the same sorts of things that cause species loss here, also happen where you are.

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I am half way around the world, but what worked for me was spending as much time as possible outside and observing everything I could. I know that sounds over simplified, but it has led to me being the first person to observe a few species on iNat and opened a world of learning new stuff all the time. Just get outside and observe and the rest will come.

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In central Mississippi, check out the Pearl Riverkeeper. It’s a local organization working on one of “America’s most endangered rivers.” Lots of different things to get involved with - water quality, unique species, policy, etc.
http://www.pearlriverkeeper.com/

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