DDWS Celebrating 40 Years of Supporting Refuge, Many Accomplishments

by SC Feature Writer Reanna Haase

DDWS Executive Director Birgie Miller, left, and Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland hold the 2021 Regional Director’s Award, one of several awards earned throughout 40 years. Photo provided

The award-winning ‘Ding’ Darling Wildlife Society endeavors to support the J.N. ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge in its efforts to protect wildlife and their habitat. It helps fund research projects, educational programs and so much more. It’s also a strong advocate for the refuge.

And throughout the past 40 years, DDWS has worked tirelessly to ensure ‘Ding’ remains a place of refuge for wildlife and people on Sanibel while having a positive impact beyond the island’s shores

Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland said anything creative at the refuge is because of DDWS. “It makes my job fun,” she said. “Ranger’s jobs are fun. I get to go out and teach and do all the stuff, (but) it is the creative side where you get to develop things you never could before.”

‘Ding’ Darling is a federally funded refuge, but only select projects, such as the new Roseatte Spoonbill entry sign on Sanibel Captiva Road, receive funding. DDWS helps bridge the gap by raising funds for “fun” projects like interpretive exhibits, scavenger hunts and the upcoming Project Refuge, a couture fashion show using trash.

DDWS also raises funds for important land acquisitions, such as the Woodring Homestead in 2013 and the Lee Anne Tauck Conservation Track in 2019. Right now, DDWS is working to purchase 8.5 acres adjacent to the refuge that holds a six-acre lake directly feeding into the fragile Tarpon Bay and is home to several species of wildlife.

“We were very close to purchasing this highly desired island property, and then the pandemic happened, driving real estate prices and demand through the roof,” said DDWS Executive Director Birgie Miller in an announcement this week. “It is such critical habitat that even with the increased value and purchase price, we believe it is crucial to protect.”

When not fundraising for exciting projects or habitat protection, DDWS is an enormous source of advocacy on behalf of the refuge. Miller said they love to speak on the natural issues facing the refuge because they see them firsthand.

“(Advocacy) was not really done a whole lot in these handful of years,” she said. “We have seen the impacts of water quality and degradation of our lands on our wildlife.”

They attend public hearings, write educational articles and invite the public to write letters to congress. Miller said they hope to inspire the hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world to take conservation back home with them and have a positive impact on their own natural environment.

“We want it to be an inspiration to others to protect other spaces beyond ‘Ding’ Darling,” Miller said. “So those million visitors who come every year, we want them to feel the importance of why they need to protect places like ‘Ding’ Darling around the world.”

Wildlife on Wheels or WoW. Photo provided

Locally, DDWS works to educate those across the Sanibel Causeway who do not have access to the refuge. The most talked about project is Wildlife on Wheels, an urban mobile classroom, debuted this time last year.

WoW visits schools, libraries, community centers, conservation-minded events and under-represented communities in the five-county area to teach about water quality, the ecosystem, wildlife and other topics.

Additionally, DDWS works with schools in lower-income areas to provide much-needed resources for students. Westland said they recently were able to provide students of Tice Elementary, Fort Myers, with all the school supplies they needed for the year.

The amount of poverty we have on the other side of the bridge, and (DDWS) sees it and knows it and they are willing to let us go,” said Westland. “We continue to make a difference on Sanibel, but it is time to make a difference off of Sanibel.”

DDWS started out of necessity all those years ago with a small group of selfless volunteers who wanted to help the refuge in any way they could. Miller said they were “caring people who loved wildlife and loved the refuge and said ‘we are here to help’.”

Today, there are nine full-time staff members and a team of more than 360 volunteers. DDWS also funds the internship program, which brings 10 or more interns to the refuge at any given time. Miller said the interns are almost always college graduates looking to bring new and fresh ideas to the table.

Among its laundry list of accomplishments, DDWS has been recognized for its hard work throughout the years. It was named the Friends Group of the Year by the National Wildlife Refuge Association and earned the Southeast Regional Directors Award for its help with distributing funds for refuge employees affected by Hurricane Katrina. It has also been recognized for conservation in tourism.

DDWS was one of the first three friends groups started in the United States and has become the model for other refuge cooperating associations. Miller said there are more than 566 wildlife refuges around the country and DDWS is one of the stronger friends groups.

“They look to our friends group as a mentor in some regard to help them do what we did 40 years ago,” she said. “We started out as just volunteers and any other group can do that as well.”

DDWS has many, many plans to celebrate its 40 years of amazing accomplishments and support of the refuge. There will be a wellness week and the return of Project Refuge in March 2022. New merchandise will be hitting the shelves at the Nature Store in the Visitor’s Education Center and on Periwinkle Way, as well as online at shopdingdarling.com.

“It is really to try to bring the refuge to as many as possible and celebrating the fact that over 40 years, the ‘Ding’ Darling Wildlife Society has had a huge impact on where the refuge it today,” said Miller.

See a full list of upcoming 40th celebration activities on the DDWS website.

Leave a Comment

We are interested in articulate, well-informed remarks that are relevant to the article. We welcome your advice, your criticism and your unique insights into the issues of the day. To be approved for publication, your comments should be civil and avoid name-calling. It may take up to 24 hours for your comment to appear, if it is approved.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.