Keys to Building Lasting Partnerships: Time, Field Work and Getting Stuck in the Mud

A group stands around a restored spring in the southwest Nevada desert. Within this oasis, Killdeer flit around the shallows and a Yellow Warbler vocalizes from willows. Christiana Manville, a partner biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife (PFW) Program, is touring the area with private landowners. They discuss what took place to restore this spring and how this successful project can be emulated elsewhere.

As the group turns back to their vehicles, Manville steps off dry ground to look at a plant and immediately sinks up to her hips in the mud. The landowners watch her struggle for a second before starting to laugh and lend hands to pull her out.

“Talk about a good way to break the ice, they loved it,” Manville said. “At that point I knew I was headed down the road of acceptance.”

Manville met David Spicer in 2009 through the Amargosa Toad Work Group, which was formed when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would conduct an in-depth status review of the toad to determine if it warrants federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Amargosa Toad occurs only in Oasis Valley, Nevada, specifically along a 10-mile stretch of the Amargosa River and upland springs. The Town of Beatty occurs at the southern end of the toad’s range.When Manville joined the PFW Program she quickly learned about the complex, and sometimes unpleasant history the community of Beatty, Nevada has had with federal agencies and species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. But the current critter of concern, the Amargosa Toad, isn’t part of that contentious history. In fact, it is the central character in a success story about how a community can restore a species and prevent the need for it to be listed as endangered. 

Spicer is a landowner and a leading figure in the Beatty community. Born and raised there, he has been doing riparian and wetland restoration for years for associated wildlife benefits. Spicer recognized that digging springs to encourage open, shallow water would attract the toads and a diversity of birds. But some people were skeptical of Spicer’s restoration methods and didn’t like seeing the machinery in the springs.

Manville spent a lot of time with Spicer on his properties and learned he had a lot of knowledge that the biologists lacked. Working together, they obtained the funding and permits for a project on a piece of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) land that neighbored Spicer’s property. This restoration project created a corridor of toad foraging and breeding habitat between the springs on Spicer’s property and the spring he was contracted to restore on the TNC land.

Spicer helped open the door to the community and the conservation work Manville helped him and others enact. To date, 12 springs have received the restoration treatment Spicer developed, in addition to other river restoration work targeting the toad’s core habitat. These projects have resulted in the provision of over 120 acres of Amargosa Toad breeding habitat on public and private lands. As a result of these projects and partnerships, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the toad not warranted for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2010.

If you ask Manville what are the keys to building productive partnerships with private landowners, she attributes success to three key things: time, talk and fieldwork.

“It takes a lot of time,” Manville said. “Sometimes a community or landowner isn’t interested in working with you at the time and you have to be willing to walk away and check back with them in the future.”

Being such an arid state, these restored springs are crucial to migrating birds as feeding and resting places during their long flights to winter and summer habitats. Spicer has also worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to develop a patch of coyote willows to create habitat for Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. He was part of a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant to conduct a restoration project that removed salt cedar and restored native vegetation to maintain open waters and willows that benefits species like the Amargosa Toad and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

“In my experience, spending that time working side by side with the landowners out on the landscape helps melt down barriers,” Manville said. “It’s important to be available when they need it, which means working on the weekends, sitting at a booth at their local fair and listening to what they have to say.”

And sometimes getting stuck in the mud can be the best thing, especially when there is a friendly hand to pull you out.