Refuge Manager


(This 1210th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 1, 2014.)


Virginia Rettig shows some of the tons of refuse

left by Hurricane Sandy

photo by Evan Hirsche


As we advance through school and college graduation season, it may be useful to young men and women thinking about their future to consider how one of their predecessors has fared. And, equally important, why she was successful.


Virginia Rettig is now manager of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses over 73 square miles of coastal marshlands in New Jersey. (For comparison, the area of the Iroquois refuge is about seven square miles.) Forsythe, which combines two refuges whose names are more familiar to birders, Brigantine and Barnegat, is one of the most important in the eastern United States and hers is an equally important job.


Virginia grew up on the Niagara Frontier. She loved the out-of-doors and, as a student in North Tonawanda High School, she fueled that interest by visiting Dr. Killewald's veterinary surgery to watch him perform operations and by volunteering at the Buffalo Zoo. In each case she sought to learn more about animals.


By the time she graduated from North Tonawanda High School, Virginia knew that she wanted to pursue a career in wildlife management. She applied for and was accepted by the SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry College (ESF) at Syracuse University but, since at that time the ESF program was only an upper division program, she attended Canisius College for two years first.


Upon graduation from ESF Virginia continued her studies in a master's degree program at Louisiana State University, which she tells me was the most important part of her education. In that program she learned how to take responsibility for all aspects of an extended research study.


At the time Virginia was looking for a research topic most government support for avian studies was tightly focused on ducks and geese because they were hunted. When she asked her advisor for direction, he first suggested a waterfowl project but then, frowning, he turned to a desk drawer and drew out a folder. "You might also consider this shorebird study."


This project would not have appealed to many hunters, because among the shorebirds only snipe and woodcock are hunted. But the many species of shorebirds are of much interest to bird watchers and the purview of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was beginning to extend to those who participate in what is now designated as "wildlife-associated recreation." Today in fact those in this third category outnumber hunters and anglers combined so, without realizing it, by studying these birds Virginia became involved in a growing aspect of federal wildlife activities.


FWS had gathered much information about when and where the various shorebird species occurred but this qualitative information lacked accompanying numerical data. It was one thing to know that, for example, migrating killdeer occurred along the Gulf coast, but that told nothing about how common or rare the birds were. With the agency's support Virginia set out to provide some of that quantitative data. She spent a full year counting the sandpipers and plovers, stilts and yellowlegs, willets, godwits, curlews and phalaropes passing through the rice fields of Louisiana and Mississippi.


Virginia laughed as she told me about learning to identify the dozens of shorebird species in the fall when she first started her censusing, but then facing just as many identification problems in spring when the birds appeared in different plumage.


Upon graduation Virginia began a number of years of migrating often cross-country from job to job, in the process learning much about wildlife, habitats, people and management. "At this stage of my career," she told me, "I felt it was important to take every assignment they gave me and to fulfill it to the best of my ability."


She began as a management trainee at the Bayou Sauvage refuge in New Orleans, went on to become manager of part of the Cat Island refuge complex north of Baton Rouge. Along the way she even took temporary assignments as far west as California.


Today Virginia's work continues to center around repair of the widespread damage done to the Forsythe refuge by the 2012 Hurricane Sandy. She is administering over $15 million in cleaning up 22 miles of debris fields that piled over 150 wrecked boats and even a house onto refuge beaches.-- Gerry Rising