Mr. and Mrs. Iowa Wildlife
Bruce Ehresman cradles a banded female milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) the Iowa DNR rescued from illegal pet captivity. Milk snakes are listed as a state protected species. A male ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornate), listed as a state threatened species, perches on Marlene Ehresman's palm. It is illegal to take either of these species out of the wild and into captivity.
Sitting around a table at the Iowa Wildlife Center offices in Ames, Iowa, Bruce and Marlene Ehresman were eager to talk about anything except themselves. But after a bit of coaxing, the beloved conservationists began to open up about the challenges – and rewards – of a shared “wild life.”
Professionally, Bruce Ehresman works for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources as a wildlife diversity program biologist (he cares for all the critters you can’t hunt, fish or trap), and he is a renowned Iowa bird expert. Marlene Ehresman was a program and planning associate at Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation for over a decade and is now the executive director of the Iowa Wildlife Center (IWC), a wildlife rehabilitation and environmental education organization. Collaborating both in and out of the field, the Ehresmans celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this past November. “Our professional lives have been greatly improved by our partnership — our marriage. We’re better professionals and better people for it,” Marlene said. Bruce agreed, describing their lives together as being about “family and what we do.”
The value in individual wild animals
The couple has worked together on wildlife rehabilitation ever since Bruce brought the first injured wild animal home to Marlene in 1980. “After that, I devoted my energy to helping individual animals, while Bruce dedicated himself to working with populations,” Marlene said. “Along the way, I encountered some people who didn’t think working with individuals was worth it. They thought everything had to be on a population level to have an impact.”
This is a perspective with which the Ehresmans fundamentally disagree. “Not everyone in the public understands population dynamics,” explained Bruce, who has worked extensively in environmental education. Marlene agreed, noting that the plight of a single animal is often more resonant than that of the population. Animals that can no longer survive in the wild are often placed on special permits at wildlife rehabilitation centers or nature centers and used for education, so efforts on the behalf of these individuals can have far-reaching impacts on the public’s understanding of wildlife.
It was with this in mind that Marlene started the IWC in 2007, made possible by a gift from the Alma Natura Trust. INHF handled this and other early donations and finances while IWC applied to incorporate as a nonprofit. The center’s mission is to provide professional wildlife rehabilitation services for native Iowa species, environmental education and wildlife assistance skills training. Revealing the real need for IWC’s work, every year has brought greater numbers and diversity of animals to Marlene’s door.
WildWay — a new home for IWC
Wildlife rehabilitation is a field where fervor is seldom equaled by available funding. IWC is currently fueled largely by volunteers, who contribute their time, verve and sweat equity. Volunteers are constructing the organization’s first building, bolt by bolt, at WildWay — IWC’s future home. Bruce described WildWay as “an ideal place to release wildlife.” Located in the Des Moines River corridor in Boone County, the 76-acre property is incredibly diverse with prairies, woods and wet areas. INHF holds a conservation easement on WildWay, ensuring the special area’s permanent protection.
Wildlife rehabilitators see many sick and injured animals brought for treatment, so they are uniquely able to help the conservation community find links to what may be causing the problems. Marlene recalls finding a sick robin as a child, observing that now she knows it was probably suffering from the effects of DDT. Likewise, the Ehresmans remember when songbirds began to come in either sick or dying from other early pesticide use.
“It’s all connected,” Marlene said. This, the Ehresmans agreed, is why understanding Iowa’s wild inhabitants is so important: Wildlife is a key piece of the state’s biodiversity and the larger ecosystem that links us all. “For humans to think we’re apart from nature is just silliness,” Bruce reflected, noting that the concept of humans as a part of nature is actually relatively new —evolving over the last few decades. “We need to develop an ecological conscience. Once people understand our role and relationship with the natural world, we can really get things done.”
IWC provides professional wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, as well as education about Iowa's native wildlife and their habitats. The organization is nearly finished building a truly "green" clinic and education center at WildWay, IWC's future home. To help complete this exciting step, or to donate to IWC's operating fund, visit the Iowa Wildlife Center page at altruo.us.
Habitat loss presents challenges for wildlife
Habitat loss remains one of the greatest challenges facing Iowa’s wildlife, and it is for this reason that the Ehresmans consider their continuing partnership with INHF to be so important. “We have eliminated huge numbers of wildlife through such massive conversion,” said Bruce. “You can’t take away 85-90% of the habitat and expect to maintain the same wildlife diversity.” What drives him is the evidence that shows that even a small amount of habitat, in the right place, can support an incredible degree of biodiversity. This knowledge fuels Bruce’s work establishing Bird Conservation Areas across the state —projects that have flourished thanks to the strong relationship between the Iowa DNR and INHF.
The Ehresmans acknowledge it is difficult to keep moving forward in the face of so many challenges. But, Bruce remains an optimist. “You have to be,” Marlene gently chided him. “Otherwise you wouldn’t still be doing what you do.” For the dynamic couple, every morning is a new opportunity to make a difference. Marlene offered, “when you wake up, and your heart is filled with hope, it really does seem like anything is possible.”