As a young boy, Dan Ashe and his brothers would set out alone on Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge off the coast of Georgia, traipsing past alligators, handling venomous water moccasins and looking for mischief.
Other days, he'd bike a mile down a dirt road from his Atlanta home with rod and tackle box to his favorite fishing hole, North Lake, or spend time firing his shotgun in the woods.
The screened-in porch of his three-bedroom home was a menagerie of lizards, snakes, turtles, orphaned birds and the occasional baby possum or raccoon. At times, the milkman refused to deliver for fear that a scaly creature would emerge from the milk box, Ashe said.
"My mother would just constantly tell us to get out of the house," Ashe said in an interview last week after cross-country skiing near his Rockville, Md., home. "'Come back when it's dark outside,'" she'd say.
Ashe, 57, said he carries his passion for the outdoors into his job as director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, where he oversees 150 million acres of wildlife refuges and manages thousands of threatened and endangered species and birds.
It's a job that has come with its share of controversy as the Obama administration seeks to balance species protections with a boom in energy development.
In his first three years in office, Ashe has implemented a watershed Endangered Species Act settlement with environmentalists, brokered conservation deals with the oil and gas industry and wind developers, and fought withering criticism from Capitol Hill, all while facing sharp budget cuts.
He's navigated those minefields with a mixture of diplomacy, flexibility and candor that observers say is rare in Washington, D.C.
"It's clear when you're talking to him that this isn't a job; it's a mission," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the service's most frequent litigants. "He really wants to save species from extinction and preserve as much habitat as he can."
Critics say Ashe has been too accommodating to states, oil companies and ranchers, at the expense of wildlife. But supporters say those partnerships are increasingly important as wildlife faces more diffuse threats from climate change, habitat fragmentation, invasive species and population growth.
"Dan understands that species protections requires a nation of citizen stewards, and that means partner building, whether with a farmer or a rancher," said Lynn Scarlett, managing director of public policy at the Nature Conservancy, who served as Interior deputy secretary during the George W. Bush administration, working alongside Ashe. "He's a person who likes to listen, who likes to draw knowledge from many sources."
A bygone era
Ashe said his father's 37-year career at Fish and Wildlife had a big influence on him.
From an early age, Ashe took trips to refuges at Blackbeard Island, Okefenokee, Sanibel Island and Big Pine Key, where he learned to band birds, fish, hunt and hike.
He met people who would later become service legends, including Jack Watson, a physically imposing game warden who fought poaching of Florida's Key deer and later became the first manager of the National Key Deer Refuge. Watson once let Ashe hold the Tommy gun he kept in the back of his white Cadillac.
After earning a graduate degree in marine affairs from the University of Washington, Ashe in 1982 was awarded a National Sea Grant congressional fellowship and moved to D.C. to work on the former House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries.
"That Sea Grant fellowship probably made all the difference in the world to me," said Ashe, who would serve on the committee for 13 years. "I knew nothing when I arrived on Capitol Hill."
His fellow staff members included future environmental leaders, among them Don Barry, who was Interior's assistant secretary under President Clinton and now works for Defenders of Wildlife; Lori Williams, who is now executive director of the National Invasive Species Council; and Katherine Skinner, who is executive director of the Nature Conservancy's North Carolina chapter.
It was a bygone era of bipartisanship, Ashe said. His boss, former Chairman Walter Jones Sr. (D-N.C.), worked across party lines with former Reps. Joel Pritchard (R-Wash.) and Edwin Forsythe (R-N.J.), Ashe said. The panel, which is now housed in the Natural Resources Committee, rarely had party-line votes, and its bills often passed the House with little dissent.
"Walter Jones used to talk about disagreeing without being disagreeable," Ashe said. "That's been lost in Congress."
In 1995, Ashe was hired by the late FWS Director Mollie Beattie as the agency's assistant director of external affairs, and from 1998 to 2003, he served as chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
During the George W. Bush administration, Ashe was named science adviser to the director, a position Barry likened to "exile."
"Dan was viewed as a very bad boy," he said, particularly for his views on protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and his past work on a refuge improvement bill, which conflicted with the administration's. "He was too conservation-oriented."
But Ashe "made lemonades out of lemons" in his new post by crafting FWS's climate change adaptation strategy, the first for an Interior land agency, Barry said.
After Obama took office, Ashe was named deputy director for policy in 2009 and was confirmed as director in summer 2011.
'We can't save every species'
Much of Ashe's challenge has been balancing his agency's mandate to protect wildlife with the Obama administration's goal to expand domestic energy production.
"He is in power at a very difficult time, dealing with a very difficult issue, which is not of his making," Suckling said. "Dan didn't create that boom. President Obama did."
When the service proposed an endangered listing for the dunes sagebrush lizard, a 3-inch-long elusive reptile that roams the Permian Basin, home to about 20 percent of the nation's oil production, Ashe worked closely with major oil companies and the Texas comptroller to broker 650,000 acres of conservation agreements.
The service in summer 2012 said the lizard no longer needed federal protections, though environmentalists are challenging the plan in court (Greenwire, June 13, 2012).
Ashe said the decision was "science-driven" and the result of "an unprecedented commitment to voluntary conservation."
"At the end of the day, it was Dan and the leadership of one of his regional directors, Ben Tuggle, who pulled that together," said former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "I think it's the best example of a win-win for the Endangered Species Act and its conservation values, as well as oil and gas, that would not have happened had it not been for Dan's hard work on the matter."
One of Ashe's biggest decisions will come later this month, when he'll resolve whether conservation plans brokered by oil companies, landowners and wildlife officials in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado are enough to preclude a "threatened" listing for the lesser prairie chicken.
Ashe said state wildlife agencies are "not just our partners. They are our most important partner."
That deference can come at a cost, according to environmental groups that argue only the full force of federal protections can save imperiled species from going extinct.
But Ashe says ESA has its limitations, particularly in the case of the dunes lizard and prairie chicken, which exist primarily on private lands where enforcement is difficult at best. Many times, the better option is getting states and industry to voluntarily conserve a species -- often by ponying up big mitigation bucks.
"Are we shy about taking action when we have to? I don't think so," Ashe said. He pointed to last year's decision to shut down brown bear hunting in Alaska's Kenai National Wildlife Refuge after the level of mortality exceeded what is "scientifically sustainable."
But Ashe said it's also important to acknowledge the limitations of wildlife conservation in a growing world and as climate change permanently alters the Earth.
"We can't save every species in all of its abundance in all of its historical range," he said. "We're going to have more people, and that means using more of the land. We have to find the truly important places that will bring the most biodiversity in the most abundance and distribution in the future."
Those types of changes have affected Ashe personally from a young age.
His fishing grounds at North Lake were eventually filled in by a shopping mall, and the woods where he used to build forts are now surrounded by Atlanta subdivisions.
Willing to 'take the heat'
While his decisions have rarely pleased everyone, Ashe is praised as a careful listener who can walk a political tightrope
"He's trying to be fair," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who in 2011 during Ashe's confirmation asked him to visit the Sooner State to talk with landowners about prairie chicken conservation. "He came out [to Oklahoma] not just once but twice."
Suckling said Ashe is the first FWS director to have visited him in his office -- an Airstream trailer parked outside CBD headquarters in Tucson, Ariz.
"He definitely is a very good communicator, very good at reaching out to the full spectrum of interest groups," Suckling said. "It's been very effective at reducing tensions and making people feel like their interests are being heard."
While that won't eliminate conflict -- Suckling said CBD would probably sue him again before this article is published -- it can keep stakeholders at the table.
Ashe was instrumental in the Obama administration's controversial settlement with CBD and WildEarth Guardians in 2011 to streamline endangered species decisions and limit so-called deadline lawsuits.
"He provided very strong leadership and took a lot of risks and made that deal happen, knowing he'd be consistently attacked for years on end," Suckling said. "And he's willing to then take the heat and defend those decisions when they come down."
Republicans have blasted the settlement as a poster child of the Obama administration's "sue and settle" bond with green groups, but Ashe has made multiple trips to Capitol Hill to defend it.
Support for wildlife conservation in Congress has reached an all-time low, Ashe said, likening the political storm to a "hurricane" that the service can only wait out.
While last fall's budget pact gave FWS a significant funding boost, Congress this year will see the retirement of environmental champions Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.), James Moran (D-Va.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.), author of the Endangered Species Act.
"The most important thing which seems to be missing in Congress today is the ability to forge relationships with people you don't agree with," Ashe said.
Ashe said one of his biggest challenges as director is no longer being the smartest person in the room. He relies more heavily on experts as he juggles wildlife trafficking and sage grouse conservation with meetings with landowners on preserving the Everglades headwaters, land appraisals and Gulf of Mexico damage assessments, among other issues.
He said he finds solace in waterfowl hunting along the Potomac River at Maryland's McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area and Seneca Creek State Park, about 20 miles from Washington. On October mornings, he said, he'll see bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, wild turkeys and songbirds and hear blue herons taking off from the marsh.
Ashe, whose cellphone ring tone is a duck quack, has a wood duck -- his favorite animal -- mounted in his office at Interior Department headquarters.
"It reminds me every day why I'm here," he said.
Reporter Jean Chemnick contributed.
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