I joined the Fish and Wildlife Service family in 1968 when I married Jim Baker, a student trainee at the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi doing Ph. D. research on wood ducks. Our first home had tall pine trees, red cockaded woodpeckers and overlooked Bluff Lake. We shared a “party line” with Refuge Manager Burt Webster and his wife Margie. I visit Mississippi occasionally and a lot has changed—except the refuge.
We finished our Ph. D.’s in 1971 and headed for Merritt Island NWR in Florida. Jim was the refuge biologist, and I resumed my college teaching career—first at the University of Central Florida, and then in a permanent position at Seminole Community College. In 1975 we moved to Washington, DC where my FWS career began as a botanist in the Office of Endangered Species. Bruce MacBryde and I gathered information on candidate plant species, contacted botanists around the country and wrote proposed rulemakings. Jim (also in OES) negotiated cooperative agreements with States and traveled a lot—mostly with Don Barry, then a Department solicitor. In 1976 we went back to Florida; Jim returned to his biologist job and I went back to teaching.
In 1977 I re-joined the FWS as an “ascertainment biologist.” I gathered information on vulnerable wildlife areas in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and traveled to all of them. Although I only started a very long process, there are a few refuges I like to claim as mine—Crocodile Lake and Florida Panther (FL) and Sandy Point (USVI). It was the best and most fulfilling job I had with the Service. By 1979 we had moved again—to the Jacksonville (FL) Area Office where we both did endangered species “consultations” with other Federal agencies. The new pipeline for the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority was financed by Farmers Home Administration, so I consulted on behalf of the American crocodile, silver rice rat, Key deer and other species. Although this consultation culminated in my being yelled at by two senators and a congressman, the existing water pipeline was replaced, not extended. I did other Section 7 consultations, but none as memorable!
In December 1981 we moved to Anchorage. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) established several new refuges and many jobs were open. Jim became the Marine Mammal Coordinator and I was an ascertainment biologist in the Division of Realty—dealing with land exchanges, rights-of-way, easements, etc. The trips were short and sweet, and the report-writing long and tedious. My most significant project was writing a report on a potentially disastrous land exchange involving St. Matthew Island, part of Alaska Maritime NWR. I refused to put my name on it because “someone else” wrote an introduction that was contrary to the conclusions of the report. Audubon sued and won; the judge read the whole report, not just the introduction.
In 1986 I became Chief of Resource Support—a group of professionals who supported Alaska refuges, including a plant ecologist, fire coordinator, oil and gas specialist, wilderness specialist, archeologist and several others. Supervising such a diverse group was never boring and I learned a lot. Once a year I held a morning “meeting” at my home called the “Branch Brunch.” I remained in this position for over 7 years; the group and my office location changed, but years after leaving I sometimes answered the phone with “Resource Support, this is Gail.”
Jim’s career evolved as well, and by the late 80’s he was Chief of Migratory Birds. A few days after his 49th birthday, on a gorgeous March day, he suddenly died of a heart attack while cross country skiing. All of Region 7 mourned with me, and the flag at the office flew at half-staff. That’s when I really learned that the Service is a big, caring family. I can remember saying, “I am still married to the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
The 90’s brought many changes. In 1991 I married R. Doyle Bruner, a computer programmer and database administrator with the Federal Aviation Administration. Doyle grew up in Oklahoma and his favorite place on the planet is Wichita Mountains NWR! We visit every couple of years and enjoy the bison, scissor-tailed flycatchers, prairie wildflowers and the mandatory drive up Mt. Scott. In 1994 Doyle retired and we moved to West Virginia, where I became the first manager of Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. I had a cubicle in the West Virginia Field Office in Elkins and no staff except Tom Gardner, the maintenance worker at nearby Bowden National Fish Hatchery, who always helped out when needed. (He transferred to the refuge when the hatchery was conveyed to the State in 1997.)
Canaan Valley was a controversial refuge. First suggested in 1961, it was approved by the FWS in 1979 and finally established in 1994. Because I had not “come up through the ranks” and had little familiarity with the Refuge Manual, I was an unconventional manager. I don’t know what the people in Tucker County were expecting, but it wasn’t me—and that was good. I thought my most important task was to be nice to the locals and explain that it was their refuge. Tom helped in this effort, as he is “Mr. Congeniality.” The “Hunt Plan” was not controversial for local folks because we honored our promise to the State and basically followed their regulations, which included a short bear season using dogs. We sent the plan to interested parties in West Virginia and nearby states, so I was shocked to get critical emails from animal rights groups in Croatia, the Netherlands and California. That was my introduction to the power of electronic media—18 years ago.
I retired in December 1997. I couldn’t pass up the “early out” opportunity, but left reluctantly. We moved to the Florida Panhandle, where I resumed my teaching career and got a full-time position (at 60) in the Science Department at Northwest Florida State College. I taught Microbiology, Botany and General Biology, and learned a lot—mostly about microbes, infectious diseases, and antibiotic resistance--things I never thought about before. It was the icing on the cake of my long career as a biologist, but last summer (at 70) I reluctantly retired again. We’ve traveled a lot since then—spending 7 weeks in Southern Africa and 3 weeks in Europe and shorter trips in between. In retirement Doyle has become a specialized travel agent for hunting and photo safaris, primarily in South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania and Botswana. I’m getting more involved in his business, volunteering at the local state parks and may teach some “continuing education” biology courses in the future.
It would take another page to mention all the Service colleagues who have enhanced my life over the years. I stay in touch with many through Christmas cards and emails, and see others only at special events. A few are cherished, long-time friends. I’ll end the way I began: The Fish and Wildlife Service is a family, and I will be a member for the rest of my life.