DOINews: USFWS: Transmitting Hope: Using Social Media to Protect Endangered Species

Last edited 09/05/2019

Wyoming toad wearing a backpack outfitted with a radio transmitter.

This story first appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Fish & Wildlife News.

As Service biologists and their partners work hard on a captive-breeding project for the endangered Wyoming toad, one of their scientific efforts has brought the little-known amphibian into the global spotlight, thanks to the smart placement of a creative photo and a little bit of luck.

In August, just a few months after the Service began sharing photos via Instagram, Ryan Moehring, the Service's Web and social media coordinator for the Mountain-Prairie Region, posted an image of a Wyoming toad wearing a backpack outfitted with a radio transmitter. Service biologists have placed these transmitters on select toads to monitor their movements inside Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming.

The post was successful by the account's standards at that time, but no one could have predicted what would happen next.

The Department of the Interior's Instagram account was a "featured account" at the time of the post, meaning its profile was promoted to all 100 million Instagram users. Tim Fullerton, DOI's director of digital strategy, featured the Service's post about the Wyoming toad, and within 24 hours, the Service gained 6,000 followers.

The overnight addition of 6,000 followers is a significant jump on any social media platform. Jessica Sellers, a graduate of Humboldt State University who works on the toad project, was amazed by the explosion of interest in her work that the photograph generated.

"My Facebook account was bombarded by friends interested in the toad sporting a backpack. This picture spread like wildfire before I even knew what the original post was about. It generated good-humored interest in the project I am working on."

This was not the first time that a social media post from the Mountain-Prairie Region became highly visible. In late March, the region published posts on its Facebook and Flickr accounts showing two mountain lion cubs cornered by a group of five coyotes at National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. In a week's time, the post received more than 3 million views across the Service's social media network. The story also featured prominently on the home page of and other major news outlets, reaching untold millions more there.

These social media success stories show that digital communications have become one of the Service's most effective tools and their growing network shows no signs of slowing down.

"It's wonderful watching millions of people using technology to connect with wildlife," Moehring says. "For me, these viral posts reaffirm the power of digital communications. What other outreach tool offers that kind of explosive growth potential and reach?"

Traditionally, the government has not been known to be on the cutting edge of technological innovation, with NASA and the White House perhaps being the most notable exceptions. DOI and the Service hope their burgeoning digital communications programs can carry them to similar waters.

The case of the Wyoming toad photograph is a textbook example of the power of social media and underscores the need for the Service to continue pursuing its digital communications goals. With the simple act of publishing a creative photograph to Instagram, the Service provided an endangered species with a kind of protection it might not otherwise have received: public support.

By: Brendan Davidson, communications contributor, Mountain-Prairie Region

April 18, 2014

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