Seven conservation lessons I learned in government work

By Andrew L. Rypel

Fig. 1. “Sampling” for bluegill on Lake Monona, Madison, Wisconsin.

Before joining the faculty at UC Davis, I spent the previous five years as a research scientist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Madison, Wisconsin. Apparently this experience is somewhat rare among academics. A peer even once described me as “approximating a unicorn”, which I’m still not sure is a good thing or a bad thing! Ultimately, the experience of having lived in both spheres has provided useful perspectives, particularly on the anatomy of successful conservation efforts. So, I’d like to share with you a set of lessons I took from my government work.

  1. Look for questions only science can answer.  Perhaps this seems obvious, but there is much about organisms, habitats, and humans that remains unknown. This is where science is useful. Aldo Leopold (one of the great champions for science-based natural resource management) famously said, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Indeed this is true. And while it can be quite sad to look upon the ways that humans have violated the natural world, scientific studies shine the path towards novel solutions and futures. It is ultimately okay, if biologists and managers do not know all the answers to every conservation question right now. It is actually one of the exciting features of natural resource jobs – to make important decisions in the absence of complete information where uncertainty is high. Nonetheless, identifying which questions we know and do not know answers to is a key part of the process of building quality policy. Further, as a scientist, identifying high priority science questions in collaboration with decision makers can lead to more impactful and actionable science. This should be a central goal for managers and academics alike – to pursue science that will be useful in decision making.
  1. Long-term data is extremely important. Ecosystems are extraordinarily complicated and flux in unpredictable ways. Some ecological dynamics (like phosphorus-chlorophyll relationships in lakes) show few signs of change up until a threshold is crossed, after which point management is excruciatingly difficult and expensive (Carpenter and Lathrop 2008). Identifying and staying away from these thresholds is key. In other cases, change appears directional and operates in more of a relentless pattern. The warming of aquatic ecosystems over the last century due to climate change has more or less followed this type of dynamic (Sharma et al. 2019). Detecting change in ecosystems is ultimately a tricky proposition, and while there are increasingly better modeling tools available, they will never obviate the need for high quality long-term ecological data. These data are also needed to validate future models. Some of the best long-term ecological datasets available in the USA come from the NSF Long-Term Ecological Research Program (LTER) which tracks key aspects of ecological change at 28 sites across the country. A new NSF program, the National Ecological Observatory Network or NEON will soon also provide useful and standardized data on the heartbeat of ecosystems across the USA. However, other more local examples of long-term monitoring programs have existed for some time. They are more numerous, even coming down to just a single biologist doggedly sampling the same population or ecosystem year after year for the span of a career. These seemingly small efforts generate compound interest and turn enormous conservation profits over time. These are the datasets frequently used to uncover decline of populations and fisheries, the rise of an invasive species, effects of climate change, or impacts of watershed disturbance or water extraction.

As just one California example, if biologists only recently began monitoring the Delta, they might conclude that the Delta Smelt is a naturally rare species. Yet smelt have not always been rare (Börk et al. 2020). Delta Smelt became rare as humans increasingly modified the Sacramento-San Joaquin Rivers and the San Francisco Estuary. Long-term data, notably the fall midwater trawl carried out by an army of dedicated CDFW staff since the 1950s has provided the data necessary to track the decline of smelts, ultimately leading to important efforts to save the species.

Ironically, in tough budget times one of the first things that seems to get cut is monitoring work. It is inherently laborious, time-consuming and expensive. In this author’s opinion, collecting monitoring data is one of the best investments of precious public resources, and often yields some of the best returns on investment. Almost without exception, these activities should be amplified and encouraged rather than cut down.

  1. Money is (unsurprisingly) essential. Conservation activities (monitoring, permitting, grants, science, policy) require funds to conduct and complete. The funding landscape in California is quite different than Wisconsin. For example, fisheries work in Wisconsin is mostly funded through fishing license sales and Sportfish Restoration Act dollars (aka the Dingell-Johnson Act). Those funds are also available in California, but they make up a much smaller portion of the pie. Here, endangered species and water management projects generate the primary funding streams. While this reality is a testament to failed conservation of species (notably fishes) over time, it also provides exceptional opportunity for engaging in cutting-edge conservation practices. As biologists we should all be looking for novel and creative ways to leverage the unique conservation resources of California. However, my personal opinion is that as a collective, we need to get bigger and bolder with our ideas. It is becoming painfully obvious that the status quo in California is simply not working.
  1. Seize the momentum! Government work (but also conservation work is general) is frustratingly slow. It takes hard work, dedication, science and public engagement just to get traction and movement on any given issue. Momentum is an asset. As with any business, staff and leaders move on, budgets change, elections happen and priorities shift. I have seen many projects and teams slowly atrophy and break apart. And this isn’t always anyone’s fault – which make these situations all the more frustrating! The lesson is clear – the time is now. If you can act and move the ball forward on a good science-based conservation policy, you should. Never assume the opportunity to enact change will always be there.
  1. Become an equal opportunity collaborator and conservationist. Unfortunately, people will never agree with you 100% on everything. My experience has been that good policy is not made from getting people to agree with you on everything all the time. Rather, good policy always seems to be strategically built by getting people who don’t agree on everything, to agree on something. I have always been baffled by how birders and duck hunters seem to dislike one another and refuse to work together as much as they could. The arguments usually go something like this (note this is a heuristic and hyperbolic example and certainly not true of all bird people):

Duck hunter: “We buy the licenses and duck stamps that support all the habitat work that the birders are enjoying. They simply aren’t paying their fair share.”

Birder: “That person is wearing camouflage. They must not believe in climate change and are killing birds! Why would anyone do that?!”

Ironically on conservation issues, these two groups are naturally aligned and should be partners. Both groups share a love for birds and waterfowl and are commendably devoted to the preservation and restoration of wetlands. If both camps came together, they would be a definitive force in advancing the conservation needs of declining fish and wildlife in our country. Bringing groups together enlarges the power that any one group might have individually. Uniting factions brings additional financial resources to bear on problems and majority politics suddenly become more realistic. However, such reconciliation necessitates people be open to “working with the other side” and having conversations that are not always totally comfortable.

  1. Get out there! It is exceedingly easy to stay in the office and busy oneself with meetings, reports, and various other administrative duties. However, some of the best experiences I had as a government scientist came from organizing and engaging in public meetings and having conversations with people at boat landings, gas stations and diners.

There was a hashtag that circulated on Twitter several years ago (#actuallivingscientist). It involved scientists introducing themselves as an “actual living scientist” because apparently, so few people know one. But unfortunately there was a twinge of condescension at play here. For example, it’s not really any one of the public’s fault they don’t know a scientist. And are we even reaching those people on social media where the proprietary algorithms tend to bin together people with similar interests? Ironically, the blame if any, should fall squarely with us scientists. As a group, we are simply not great at reaching out and talking plainly with folks. Even in our own families, this can be hard! Of course it would be wonderful if more people knew of the great diversity and talent of scientists and biologists, and I think this was the original intent of the hashtag. It helps reduce fear of science and government employees, and believe it or not, can enhance the science if we learn how to listen. But there is no shortcut (on Twitter or otherwise) to the really hard work of getting out there, meeting people and getting to know them and their lives. Hashtags don’t reach large blocks of the population, and I suspect it may stay that way for some time. For these reasons, in my classes at UC Davis I emphasize how important it is to learn to become excellent scientists AND science communicators. Elements of this topic were explored in a classic book, Escape the Ivory Tower, aimed at academics. However, many of these same principles also apply to government work. 

  1. Anyone can make a difference. Everyone’s work has value and dignity. Government employees do have latitude to make change, suggest change, do simple things, or work to redefine their role to be more effective. These are all opportunities to make a difference in conservation and the public sector. It can be excellent, fulfilling, and worthwhile work.

Furthermore, outside of the government, small groups of citizens can have an out-sized impact if they are motivated and well-organized. In fact, grass roots conservation efforts are often the seeds and engine for real change. In Wisconsin, no one thought about restricting harvest regulations on Muskellunge populations until a small group of concerned anglers and citizens pushed hard for it (Rypel et al. 2016). Government agencies should recognize the rightful and important place of these groups and encourage them as best possible. There are many grass roots conservation organizations in California that pursue excellent science-based natural resource management policies. These folks and their organizations are a treasure to the state and its ecosystems. Margaret Mead may have said it best, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

For brevity, this is an incomplete list. Maybe some of you have important lessons from your own experiences. If so, please feel free to share them in the comments section below!

Andrew Rypel is an Associate Professor and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Chair of coldwater fish ecology at the University of California, Davis. He is a faculty member in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology and Acting Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences

Fig. 2. Peterson Lake at Dusk, Burnett County, Wisconsin

Further Reading

Baron, N. 2010. Escape from the ivory tower: A guide to making your science matter. Washington, DC: Island Press. 

Bik, H.M. and M.C. Goldstein. 2013. An introduction to social media for scientists. PLOS Biology. 11: e1001535.

Börk, K., A.L. Rypel, and P. Moyle. 2020. New science or just spin: science charade in the Delta,

Börk, K., P.B. Moyle, J. Durand, T.C. Hung, and A.L. Rypel. 2020. Small populations in jeopardy: a delta smelt case study. Environmental Law Reporter. Published Online. 

Carpenter, S.R., and R.C. Lathrop. 2008. Probabilistic Estimate of a Threshold for Eutrophication. Ecosystems 11: 601-613.

Magnuson, J.J. 1990. Long-term ecological research and the invisible present. Bioscience 40: 495-501.

Moyle, P., K. Börk, J. Durand, T. Hung, A.L. Rypel. 2019. Futures for Delta Smelt,

Rypel, A.L., J. Lyons, J.D.T. Griffin, and T.D. Simonson. 2016. Seventy year retrospective on size-structure changes in the recreational fisheries in Wisconsin. Fisheries 41: 230-243.

Sharma, S., K. Blagrave, J.J. Magnuson, C.M. O’Reilly, S. Oliver, M.R. Magee, D. Straile, G.A. Weyhenmeyer, L. Winslow, R. Iestyn Woolway. 2019. Widespread loss of lake ice around the Northern Hemisphere in a warming world. Nature Climate Change 9: 227–231.

About Andrew Rypel

Andrew L. Rypel is a Professor and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Chair of coldwater fish ecology at the University of California, Davis. He is a faculty member in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology and Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.
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5 Responses to Seven conservation lessons I learned in government work

  1. Ann Spaulding says:

    Thank you Andrew. I grew up in WI and was unaware of the differences in how conservation work is funded between WI and CA. As someone who has been involved in Delta protection, I found your perspective and experience enlightening. Hope folks here listen!

  2. Chris Mahoney says:

    Incredible piece and fascinating perspective! Your work in ‘sconi is greatly missed. The panfish work left a real mark here. Thanks again.

  3. Alice M says:

    The academic and government silos certainly need to be breached. I’ve been watching this past week the Wilson River in Oregon, the home of many Tillamook Cheese Coop dairy farms where their long term care of their land and wetlands has made their river one of the cleanest in Oregon and with no outside help last week they just beat off a big local wildfire with the help of their local lumbermen. Also been watching the Cal Trout’s Flood Plain Fatty program led and eBird’s Bird Returns pop-up wetlands program both for rice rice farmers using citizen science data to help those farmers know when to flood their fields for ideal steelhead salmon and migratory bird habitat. Involving private wetlands owners and their neighbor citizen scientists is a very efficient way for academic and government scientists to help us get the long term data we all can use and real results in the field, often without government funds.

  4. Jazmin Lopez says:

    Loved point number 5 and it applies to policy making not just at the local and state level, but at the federal level. But how do we get these groups to compromise? Great write up, thank you for sharing your insights.

  5. Saxon Holt says:

    Excellent perspective and will be quoting “good policy always seems to be strategically built by getting people who don’t agree on everything, to agree on something.”

    A great example cooperation is found in the California Native Grasslands Association (composed of many UC Davis scientists by no coincidence I am sure…), where native grasslands are studied for the benefit of rangeland management as much as for habitat and ecosystem services.

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