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Keep Calm and Conserve On

Learning the Secrets of Success in Endangered Species Consultation from a Public Service Icon

By: Amanda Smith, public affairs officer, USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest

Larry Salata kneels on a river bank with a trout in his hand
Photo: What a catch! Longtime public servant Larry Salata plans to do more fishing during his well-deserved retirement

These are uncertain times. We hear this over and over and even a self-proclaimed word nerd such as myself has a hard time coming up with synonyms for “unprecedented” and “new normal.” Regardless of terminology, there is a palpable feeling of being unsettled and a yearning for stability. As I reflected on this indefinable need we share as humans for stasis, I realized that the wildlife we work to protect also require stasis in order to recover. When a species is on the brink, we go outside the species itself and consider its environment. Working with partners to create a landscape conducive to conservation is a bit like creating order from chaos — it begins with the unknown and ultimately becomes a calming, cohesive plan. While I felt more peaceful just thinking about collaborative conservation, I wasn’t really sure what it looked like. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to interview recent retiree Larry Salata, a longtime public servant whose steady presence has provided both expertise and a smile to the complex world of Endangered Species Act consultation.

While I was eager to learn more about how entities with seemingly opposing aims could work together for the sake of conservation, I was equally as excited just to reconnect with an old friend. In what seems like a lifetime ago, I was often hustling from meeting to meeting when I’d run into Salata in the stairwell and his ever sunny demeanor reminded me that our work is something to find joy in.

“I only wish that I could go back and do it all over again!” Salata tells me on the phone with a smile in his voice. As Branch Chief for Consultation and Conservation Planning of the Service’s Ecological Services program in Portland, Oregon, his job wasn’t an easy one. What began as a temporary appointment at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge at the Kennedy Space Center in 1979 became a 40 year career in wildlife conservation. Soon after he began work at Merritt Island, Salata faced a twofold tragedy. He witnessed the dying out of a species — the Dusky seaside sparrow — and lost a close friend and colleague in a wildfire. Salata credits these early experiences as having guided him ever since, “I learned quickly to fully utilize the authorities under the ESA, show proper attention to detail, step up when leadership moments are warranted, and savor the friendship of your colleagues.”

The least Bell’s vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus), Credit: USFWS
The least Bell’s vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus), Credit: USFWS

Salata’s lessons could be a career mantra for me and for many of us in the wildlife conservation field. I was particularly keen on his Endangered Species Act expertise. In 1973, Congress, under President Nixon, passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to recognize that our rich natural heritage is of “esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people.” The ESA is carried out by the USFWS and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). While the Service and NMFS bear the primarily responsibilities, all Federal agencies are beholden under Section 7 of the ESA “to use their authorities to conserve endangered and threatened species in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” This is where Salata came in. It was his job, in coordination with Service Field Offices, to work with other Federal agencies to ensure that their operations were not jeopardizing listed species or their habitat. In addition to making sure wildlife wasn’t being harmed, Salata always looked for ways conservation could be furthered.

Proactive and respectful communication helped Salata negotiate with entities that didn’t necessarily prioritize protecting wildlife. “It is really important to build strong relationships and find some common ground to begin with,” says Salata. “Initially, conservation may not be on an agency’s radar and they may not like the idea of modifying their actions but once they are able to understand the impact of those actions on fish and people, they are on board — cooperation makes all the difference for conservation.”

Salata’s ability to foster this kind of cooperation led to what he considers one of his “greatest career achievements” — establishing an important population of the critically endangered least Bell’s vireo.

In 1984, Salata began working on Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base as part of a 15-year intensive monitoring program for the rare songbird. At that time, the total population of the vireo throught its range (from Mexico to Southern California) was only about 300 pairs. Increasing that number was no small feat. “The project involved extensive and intensive nest searches, removal of cowbird eggs and young from vireo nests, cowbird trapping, and the banding and color-marking of adult and juvenile vireos,” Salata says. In addition the biological work, Salata also had to apply his communication skills to facilitate a working relationship between the Base and the Service. “It can involve additional work for federal agencies, like the military in this case, to understand and comply with the Endangered Species Act side of things — and no one likes extra work — but once we help them understand that they can complete their mission while helping us with ours, it becomes a win-win.”

Photos: Salata was awarded throughout his career for his outstanding contributions to conservation (on the right in photo 1 and in the center in photo 2). Credit: USFWS

Perhaps we could even call it a win-win-win. After all, the wildlife certainly benefit from such coordination. The vireo population on the Base, for instance, responded to the inter-agency cooperation — increasing from about 20 pairs in 1980 to about 800 pairs in the mid- to late 1990s. The Camp Pendleton vireo population remains as the premiere population of this species. In addition to this professional milestone, Salata’s time at Camp Pendleton impacted his personal life as well. His work involved regular coordination with Base personnel, including his future wife who was the Base wildlife biologist. The two met in graduate school and are still sharing the same “nest.” What is it they say about birds of a feather?

Photo: The coastal California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica californica), Credit: USFWS
Photo: The coastal California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica californica), Credit: USFWS

After working with the Marines on endangered species, Salata worked with the Navy on invasive species. From 1984 to 1988, he coordinated research and recovery actions at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego and at San Clemente Island where he focused on removal of feral pig and goats. “San Clemente Island is a very special place that is now devoid of goats and pigs, and subject to mostly passive, natural restoration of the island ecosystem,” says Salata. “I’m very proud to have contributed to that effort.”

Another key California conservation project Salata contributed to was the proposed and final listing rules to list the coastal California gnatcatcher under the ESA. The gnatcatcher is a small songbird inhabiting the remnants of a once extensive shrubland community along the coast. That listing action facilitated changes in land use planning in San Diego and Orange counties to benefit native species like the gnatcatcher.

Salata moved to Portland, Oregon to become part of the Ecological Services Program Regional Office. And, lucky for me and the rest of my Portland-based colleagues, he has roosted here ever since. After 26 years of overseeing the consultation and conservation planning programs, Salata decided to retire to spend more time hiking, fishing, and, of course, bird-watching. “Professionally, I feel like I made a difference in helping species recover and I consider myself a very lucky man,” Salata says. And, after working with and learning from him, I feel pretty lucky too.

Photo: Salata in one of his favorite photos from his days of field work on the Santa Margarita River in California

USFWS Pacific NW Region

Conservation in the Columbia Pacific Northwest