Nongame Conservation Section Chief Dr. Jon Ambrose
Nongame Conservation Section Chief Dr. Jon Ambrose

Q&A with Jon Ambrose

Dr. Jon Ambrose is an old hand at wildlife conservation in Georgia.

The new chief of the Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section started with the agency as an ecologist in 1986, with later promotions to assistant program manager, program manager and, most recently, Nongame Conservation’s first assistant chief.

Ambrose is a 2011 National Conservation Leadership Institute graduate and chair of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Wildlife Action Plans Committee.  He co-authored with Drs. Leslie Edwards and L. Katherine Kirkman the new benchmark guide The Natural Communities of Georgia. In another benchmark, he led creation of Georgia’s first State Wildlife Action Plan, an effort he is leading again as the original 2005 plan is being revised.

From this perspective of experience, here’s what Ambrose see in store for the agency.

What are some of the things Nongame will focus on?

We’ll continue working on at-risk species, ones that have the potential for federal listing or may be considered for listing, as well as others that are imperiled or declining in Georgia.

That’s a big part of implementing the State Wildlife Action Plan. A lot of what we do is basic research and surveys. As a result of these efforts, we often find that populations are better off than we thought previously. And sometimes we find that populations are not doing well and additional protection may be needed. Our work helps fine-tune management of these species.

Another focus is on natural communities in the state – conducting field surveys to identify the best examples and working with conservation organizations to determine ways to protect that habitat. Over the years we’ve worked with many organizations, whether it’s on the coast with the Coastal Georgia Land Conservation Initiative or in northwest Georgia with the Open Space Institute and land trusts. Going forward, we will continue our statewide conservation focus as well as contribute to regional conservation initiatives.

It’s important to work at a variety of different geographic scales, centered on the most critical areas to conserve and using a variety of tools, from management agreements with private landowners to conservation easements and acquisitions. A lot of the conservation that needs to be done needs to happen on private lands, and that’s where the education and outreach part of our section comes into play.

What challenges does the agency face?

One is dealing with the impacts of invasive species on native species and their habitats. There are very few easy fixes. Fortunately, we have a lot of partners in this effort. The Georgia Invasive Species Strategy developed in 2009 set the stage for future cooperative efforts. In many cases the hardest thing is setting priorities and determining where control actions are going to have the most positive impact.

Georgia’s patterns of growth also create some challenges – such as limited opportunities for prescribed fire in the Piedmont, where a lot of infrastructure is centered. With seasonal burn bans and air quality issues, if you’re trying to maintain a fire-adapted natural community near a metropolitan area, it’s a challenge.

Another challenge is a lack of understanding of wildlife behavior and habitat needs among some members of the public. As we expand our areas of development, we take more habitat away from wildlife, and some species suffer population declines as a result. At the same time, some wildlife species are very adaptable and able to live in close proximity to humans, and these can be viewed as nuisances. We should not be too surprised or alarmed when, in a suburban setting, we have a fox crossing our backyard.

Related to that issue is how we can help Georgians who invest time and other resources watching wildlife – 2.4-million-plus people and more than $1.8 billion in expenditures statewide – make the connection between the wildlife they see in their backyard and the agency focused on conserving that wildlife.

Last, the challenge of maintaining habitat for native species provides a great opportunity to work with local governments and other groups at the local level to support conservation planning efforts. I think that has been one of the successes of the Coastal Georgia Land Conservation Initiative, not just the mapping of habitats but also meeting with local planners, developers and others about what habitats are there and the value for communities.

What role does the State Wildlife Action Plan play in all of this?

The development of the Wildlife Action Plan provided a great opportunity for organizations to come together, discuss statewide priorities, and identify individual projects the organizations will work on.

We are revising the plan now, updating it to reflect the current state of knowledge of species and habitats and their conservation needs. The revised plan will outline priorities for the next five to 10 years, but will be flexible enough to allow us to take advantage of new opportunities as they become available.

What changes have you seen within the Nongame Conservation Section?

We’re working more with private landowners. Part of that is due to the development within the Wildlife Resources Division of a Private Lands Program. Nongame’s work with the Game Management Section, particularly on private lands issues, has been an area of growth.

Originally, our ability as a section to do a lot of hands-on management was very limited. While we have added staff, we have also helped train others and collaborated in efforts such as the Interagency Burn Team. It takes a lot of time, equipment and training to do prescribed fire right. Through the burn team, and the training conducted, we’re increasing efficiency and effectiveness.

Another example is the development of partnerships for rare plant conservation, partnerships such as the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance. The alliance includes everything from volunteers who keep an eye on rare plant populations to those who help control invasive species or do other habitat restoration work.

What conservation successes would you point to?

Over the years DNR has been able to protect some key habitats through acquisitions at sites such as Paulding Forest Wildlife Management Area, Sheffield WMA, Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA, Silver Lake WMA and several tracts along the lower Altamaha River. Other examples include conservation projects we’ve worked on with the Department of Defense, such as acquisitions or easements near Fort Stewart and Fort Benning.

Another example of work that has paid off involves the Georgia aster and the whorled sunflower. For the Georgia aster, partners’ teamwork in developing a conservation plan has kept it off the Federal Endangered Species list. And while the whorled sunflower is will soon be federally listed, because of the discovery and follow-up work done by botanists, the Coosa Valley prairie habitat where the plant is found in Georgia is already protected through a conservation easement held by The Nature Conservancy.

Also, right now we are working with partners in Georgia and neighboring states to implement a regional conservation strategy for the gopher tortoise. The hope is that we can document and protect enough viable populations of this species over the next several years that there will be no need to add the gopher tortoise to the endangered species list. That will be a huge conservation success.

There are many other signs of success – the delisting of the bald eagle, the downlisting of the wood stork from endangered to threatened. And then you have the loggerhead sea turtle, a species that has seen a statistically significant increase in nesting in Georgia over the years. That recovery has involved many aspects – requiring turtle excluder devices on shrimp nets, monitoring and managing nests, and controlling nest predators such as feral hogs.

These successes came about through decades of work , pointing out the fact that for some of our imperiled species, you’re just not going to see a rapid comeback.

Not everything we do is an instant success. We’re in it for the long haul.

What do you want people to know about the Nongame Conservation Section?

That we’re focused on the 90-plus percent of species that are not game animals or sport fish, as well as their habitats. That we work with a variety of partners to get conservation in place, a big part of which is education and outreach. That we have a funding network of support, one that depends on fundraising and grants. And that we’re part of the Wildlife Resources Division and work with other sections in the division on efforts such as land acquisition, habitat management and public recreation.

Ambrose and his wife, Dana, live in Watkinsville. They have an adult daughter and son.

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