At a fraction of their salaries and with no stock options or bonuses, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager near Cheney has done what many high-powered CEOs have failed to do.
She left Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge in better shape than when she took over.
The Eastern Washington refuge has expanded both its boundaries and its outreach in the 18 years under supervision of Nancy Curry.
The trees and brush have been thinned during her watch to compensate for decades of unnatural fire suppression. Wetlands have been enhanced for waterfowl. Major planning documents have been completed and wildlife diversity has expanded.
The elk herd has boomed to the point that it’s eliminating aspen stands and bird habitat. After eight years of discussion and study, Turnbull has responded by paving way for limited hunting that’s likely to be allowed next year for the first time since the refuge was established in 1937.
Moose and turkeys have appeared as they spread in the region. Bald eagles recently have been documented nesting on the refuge for the first time.
Curry retired last week from the helm of the 16,017-acre refuge after 32 years of federal employment mostly with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Like any federal manager, she hasn’t satisfied everyone. But she’s not leaving in a firestorm of criticism. And she’s quick to acknowledge the efforts of others.
“I didn’t do anything on this refuge alone,” said Curry, 55.
She said she’s particularly pleased to see how area volunteers have stepped up to expand the number of local students involved in refuge environmental education programs from 800 a year when she arrived to 8,000 last year.
“We all worked as a team,” she said, noting that the refuge has only six full-time employees, plus nine working on fire management and roughly eight seasonal employees.
“I’ve had a truly wonderful staff,” she said, “and volunteers do a huge amount for the refuge.”
Turnbull has recruited about 800 volunteers, including birdwatchers, families and retired teachers, who have invested 22,300 to 27,000 hours in refuge projects during each of the past three years.
“Nancy was the main promoter of the Friends of Turnbull group to help with environmental education,” said Marian Frobe, former group president. Stipends to pay for seasonal workers and even the stationary binoculars anchored on a wildlife tour trail are among the many things the group has provided by applying for grants, she said.
“Nancy has tried hard to get out on the refuge as much as she can, but there’s a lot of demand for office time in that position,” said Mike Rule, refuge wildlife biologist. “It can be frustrating,” he said, noting that most wildlife biologists are attracted to the position by their love for what goes on outdoors.
Curry is among the rare breed of birders who can identify a long list of species by their song, with no visual inspection.
In 1975, she was a summer intern for the refuge while studying wildlife biology at Washington State University.
However, she owes her foothold in civil service to former Turnbull manager Don White who hired her in 1976 as a clerk. “At that time, almost all of the jobs were going to veterans,” she said. “I was basically a secretary. Typing. It was my foot in the door.”
She later worked stints with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service – “I nearly went nuts working inside with test tubes” – and the U.S. Forest Service – “I followed tree planters up and down the hills on the Olympic Peninsula.”
Her U.S. Fish and Wildlife stints stationed her at the Upper Mississippi Refuge in Wisconsin, the Cibola Refuge on the Colorado River in Arizona and Iowa’s DeSoto Refuge, famous for snow goose migrations.
She returned to Washington to work at the Maritime Refuge, which includes Dungeness Spit and Protection Island before coming full circle to manage Turnbull in 1990.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t encourage people to stay this long, but having 18 years at Turnbull has allowed me to get projects going and see the fruits of my work,” she said.
“It was frustrating at first,” she said. “Some people had land for sale and they wanted to see it be part of the refuge. I was all excited because they would have been great additions.
“But the regional office said I needed a project plan to show the vision for expanding the refuge.”
Once that was submitted, regional officials said they couldn’t approve the project plan until she submitted a habitat management plan.
She worked five years with refuge wildlife biologist Mike Rule to satisfy that requirement before finding out there was another step.
“I was ready to go after some land acquisitions, but the region have us another hoop to jump through – a comprehensive management plan.
“That took another seven years.
“Of course, we missed the opportunity at some choice properties in that period.”
Nevertheless, the refuge has expanded by about 1,200 acres under Curry, and about 90 percent of the entire refuge has been treated with tree and brush thinning or prescribed burns to help mimic how nature would have been dealing with the ponderosa pine forest if humans hadn’t moved in with logging and fire control.
The comprehensive plan worked out with much public involvement lays the groundwork for the next refuge manager to purchase or negotiate conservation easements on up to 12,000 acres.
A federal refuge manger needs perseverance to deal with persistent issues such as weed control, she said.
And a manger needs patience and the gift for bequeathing it to others, as demonstrated by the recent conservation easement signed to restore a 40-acre wetland on private land outside refuge boundaries but within the broader 45,000-acre refuge stewardship area to which the staff offers assistance.
“After we came to the property five years ago, we wanted to restore the 40-acre wetland that had been altered for farming and cattle,” said Becky Sciba, who lives with her husband, Darwin, two miles east of the refuge off Jennings Road.
“The first time Nancy and Mike Rule came out, they were amazed at what we had and the potential for wildlife. They were very encouraging. That was the start of a long, long process – five years worth – an astonishing journey, actually, involving Ducks Unlimited, many meetings and much patience on my husband’s part.
“But Nancy was wonderful and very upfront in dealing with us. She made it tolerable.”
As long as Curry has been at the refuge, she knows some of her charges have been there longer.
Among them is Solo, the geriatric male trumpeter swan that pulled off a clutch of cygnets this spring for the first time in 21 years since its mate was killed in 1988.
“That old swan had a family of seven cygnets in 1975 when I first came to the refuge,” she said. “That was my exciting intro to Turnbull.
“Now he’s produced another family almost as though it’s my going away present.
“I’ll call it my swan song,” she said.