PRINCETON — For 20 years, the nonprofit Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey has worked to protect rare species in the Garden State and beyond.

While the past year in particular has presented many challenges, executive director David Wheeler said one positive is that New Jersey residents showed a renewed interest in and reconnection with the natural world around them.

Many of those people are the organization's volunteers, hundreds of whom work on various projects throughout the state.

Right now, Wheeler said, their collective schedule is 24/7, as it is peak nesting season, and "everything is happening."

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The projects are not always glamorous, but what people are able to uncover is crucial to the continued success of the foundation's mission.

"In many ways, they become our eyes and ears that allow us to make an impact across the whole state, which otherwise, for a small nonprofit like ours, would be really tough to do," Wheeler said.

The foundation has always worked closely along the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, its biologists collaborating with those under the state's employ on field surveyance and monitoring, habitat restoration and enhancement, and environmental education and public engagement.

Some specific current initiatives include nest protection for bald eagles, ospreys, and barn owls, and efforts to fight off climate change and development that could portend habitat destruction for coastal species like the piping plover and diamondback terrapin.

For animals like bald eagles, of which there are about 300 pairs currently in New Jersey, and peregrine falcons, it's been a long road back from near extinction in this area.

Other species of shore birds, amphibians, and bats have declined over the years, but biologists are persevering to salvage and rehabilitate their populations.

Wheeler said despite New Jersey's dense human population, the state has as much biodiversity in its wildlife and natural habitats as any other region of its size in the United States.

"It's a pretty interesting dichotomy, to have so many people in a small area and yet still have wildlife species either thriving or hanging on, depending on the species," he said.

So this spring, Wheeler urges residents of the Garden State to get outside as frequently and safely as possible.

And when not exploring the outdoors, he said, anyone can check out Conserve Wildlife Foundation's live, free nature webcams, on its website.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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