Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Women in wildlife: Managing critters from bugs to bears gains its own workforce diversity

Wildlife biologist Carrie Lowe prepares to fix a radio collar to a moose that was subdued by a tranquilizer gun shot from a helicopter in Pend Oreille County. (COURTESY / COURTESY)
By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

Annemarie Prince’s family frequented the Florida woods, where the kids were unleashed to fish in the creek, explore and get dirty. “The coolest thing was catching something live with my hands,” she recalls.

Today, Prince is Washington’s district wildlife biologist in Colville, coordinating an office of two men and two women who help manage creatures of all sizes, including wolves, deer, elk, moose and grizzly bears.

Melia DeVivo, adopted at age 3 by American parents from an orphanage in Korea, hadn’t heard of wildlife biology when she graduated from high school. Thirty years later, she has a Ph.D. in the field and she’s coordinating research on predation, disease and other critical issues related to Washington’s big game.

Sara Hansen grew up a Midwest farm girl and self-described “science and math nerd.” Today, she’s Washington’s statewide deer specialist working on models for counting deer populations, including animals that can’t be seen.

The three scientists are in a growing wave of women moving into wildlife management positions in state and federal agencies as well as private companies, organizations and universities.

While women make up about 30 percent of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wildlife Program statewide and 40 percent in the Habitat Program, seven of the 14 wildlife staffers in the Spokane Region headquarters are women.

The trend is more obvious in the pipeline.

“There’s been a major shift at the college level,” said Lisette Waits, wildlife resources professor and head of the University of Idaho’s Fish and Wildlife Sciences Department.

Women accounted for 36 percent of the enrollment in university wildlife biology programs across the country in 2005, increasing to 52 percent in 2015, according to a survey Waits helped compile for The Wildlife Society.

“In my view, diversity is healthy for organizations, especially those that deal with public resources,” Waits said.

Famous primate researchers Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey helped inspire women on a global scale, especially in nongame wildlife, she said, adding, “But women nowadays are interested in all the fields men have traditionally been interested in.

That includes field work, she said.

“Physicality is more of an historic difference between men and women in field work,” Waits said. “Men used to be more involved in moose and grizzly research, but there are many examples of women with excellent careers working on large carnivores or ungulates.

“Research projects have teams of people, some doing physical work, some intellectual. Some men may be stronger while some women may have more endurance to be out there all day walking the hills to collect data.”

In recent years, females have made up 60-70 percent of enrollment at Washington State University’s School of Environment, said Professor Lisa Shipley, who specializes in big-game forage and nutrition.

“It’s a full phenomenon in biology in general,” Shipley said. “Males are still the majority in fields like physics and engineering, but in biology and veterinary medicine it’s pretty much flipped.”

DeVivo was on track toward medical school when she saw a notice posted by an ecologist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania seeking a field technician for an elk calf study.

“I had no idea what an elk calf was,” she said. “But I was convinced I needed to look at the world in a different way, since medicine didn’t seem to be my passion. The ecologist took a chance, throwing me in the field with another tech in a cabin with no running water or electricity for a summer. I absolutely loved it.”

Catching elk calves and snugging radio-collars on them changed her career path. She went on to work with the Pennsylvania state wildlife veterinarian, who introduced her to wildlife necropsies and insight into wildlife diseases. That led to her doctorate through the University of Wyoming involving chronic wasting disease in mule deer.

“My timing was perfect” for the position that opened with the retirement of veteran WDFW research biologist Woody Myers in 2017, she said.

According to a report published by The Wildlife Society, roughly 75 percent of the country’s natural resource professionals have retired in the past 10 years, opening opportunities. Most of the Wildlife Program women in top slots in the Spokane Region have filled positions vacated by retirements.

“Most male biologists I work with are excited to see the change,” Waits said. “Many have daughters they want to have the same opportunities as their sons.”

“I would never want to come off saying it was bad in the past because of a low ratio of women in the career,” DeVivo said. “But having more diversity helps our agency to better connect with the broader range of the public.”

Five college students – all women – volunteered for a weekend last fall helping state biologists process animals coming through the WDFW hunter check station at Deer Park.

“The top women wildlife biology students are super enthusiastic,” Shipley said. “They’ll do anything they can to get through the door – a lot of volunteer work, field tech positions, paid or unpaid. The ones who want it want it real badly.”

Hansen joined WDFW in time to get her feet on the ground and poised to fill a new statewide deer specialist position the agency created four years ago. She’d been preparing for years.

She was studying biology, geography and chemistry as an undergraduate in California when she started seeing connections between her academic interests and wildlife professions.

For a decade, Hansen crossed the country for seasonal technician jobs in 10 states.

“One of my first internships was working with gray squirrels in Klickitat County before moving to work on other wildlife, including desert tortoise, sagebrush songbirds, swift fox, bobcat, gray wolf, raccoons, wild turkeys and deer,” she said. “I was also an endangered species biologist for the National Park Service.

“That broad background has given me a huge set of tools, experience and context to use for my job. I didn’t realize it at the time. I just wanted to try everything I could. I jumped around learning from so many people from so many other backgrounds. That gave me a huge set of options.”

For master’s research on coyotes and deer in upstate New York she tapped songbird survey techniques she’d learned.

“It worked because of the way coyotes vocalize,” she said. “I essentially built a sound model that can help estimate their abundance.

“You never know what information is going to be useful later in a career in wildlife biology. Everyone has a different approach to advancing in this field.”

As Washington’s deer specialist, her job involves developing population models and coordinating surveys across the state for blacktail, mule and white-tailed deer. The data is critical in the setting of state big-game hunting seasons.

Wildlife management blossomed as a profession in the 1940s led by Aldo Leopold, a University of Wisconsin ecologist and avid hunter.

“Historically, men have been more interested than women in hunting,” Shipley said. “Hunting likely translated in many cases to an interest in wildlife management or enforcement.

“But as the field changed to become more ecosystem-based, with more emphasis on things like plant communities and nongame species, more women started saying, ‘Yes, this is a profession I can do.’ ”

“The great thing about our field,” Hansen said, “is that we’re all here for the same reasons: to further wildlife science, study population dynamics and perpetuate species and ecosystems.”

“As hunting is declining across the United States,” Shipley said, “other values of wildlife have become more prevalent. More and more people are living in urban areas and they may be thinking of wildlife in different ways than students from rural areas.”

Washington’s population, for example, has more than doubled in the past 50 years to 7.4 million, with most of the increase in urban areas.

“While a lot of my female students are not involved in hunting,” Shipley said, “I encourage all of them to understand what it’s all about.”

Prince said that for a few years before being hired as a wildlife biologist in Washington she had been a vegetarian because of a personal objection to the environmental abuses of large-scale animal industries.

“I was never anti-hunting,” she said, noting that she’s a full-fledged omnivore nowadays. “I bird hunted and liked it, but I didn’t go after big game, mostly because I didn’t have a rifle, a place to hunt or somebody to hunt with – the things that keep a lot of adults from being hunters.”

But she had some advantages.

“While staffing deer hunter check stations in Florida, I learned how to shoot the bull with hunters,” she said.

And when she finally put it all together and shot her first deer in Washington a few years ago, the rest was easy.

“I’d already done necropsies on deer, so gutting it out was no big deal.

“I love the idea of living off wild meat from my freezer and vegetables from my garden.”

DeVivo got into hunting through her interest in wildlife biology rather than the other way around.

“I was a large-game researcher at the time and since hunters were the major user group, I wanted to fully understand where they were coming from when talking to them,” she said. “I took hunter education. I wanted the experience of harvesting an animal.”

After bagging her first pronghorn in 2011, DeVivo has hunted every fall.

“That’s how I get my meat for the year now,” she said. “I totally appreciate that. It’s helped me both personally and professionally.

“I suppose I go about field dressing a buck a bit differently that most hunters. I skin it, and I’m careful to keep the meat cool and clean. But I’m always poking around, satisfying my curiosity on whether the animal is pregnant, whether a bump is a tapeworm cyst or whatever. And I always collect samples of brain stems or whatever agencies might want.”

In the early 1980s, WDFW habitat biologist Carmen Andonaegui recalls being “the only female wildlife biologist on field projects” out of the Spokane region. Now she’s the agency’s habitat program manager in Ephrata supervising a unit of five women and one man.

She worked early in her career to give watershed planning more footing in agricultural practices in order to protect wildlife-rich shoreline habitat and fisheries. It was a hard sell to Palouse farmers bent on channelizing streams through croplands, she said.

“I feel much more comfortable nowadays dealing with people in agriculture and timber,” she said, noting that cultural changes have improved the working environment for women in wildlife.

“I just hired the most qualified candidate I had for an environmental engineer position. It was a woman. As long as they’re educated, qualified and motivated, I say get out of their way.”