A Tree-mendous Career in Conservation Comes Full Circle

Wildlife biologist connects early tree climbing to her current work with reclusive red tree vole

By Amanda Smith, public affairs officer, Pacific Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Blogger’s note: Red tree voles are charismatic and mysterious. These little furballs live primarily in Oregon’s old forest treetops, and eat a scrumptious diet of conifer needles. They are rarely seen with human eyes, but are an important source of prey for northern spotted owls, weasels, and other forest dwellers. Wildlife biologists need special skills to get a closer look at these adorable arboreal animals, but tree climbing capabilities aren’t on everyone’s Curriculum Vitae.

Luckily, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and species lead Shauna Everett is an avid and qualified tree climber who has spent much of her career reaching for new heights. As a species lead in our Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office, Everett’s role is to work with partners and the public to gather as much scientific information as possible on the North Coast Distinct Population Segment of red tree vole to determine whether it meets the definition of endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Earlier this month, I had a chance to interview Everett to learn more about her career and her work with the red tree vole. Spoiler alert: They are both fun to “hang out” with!

A young (31 day old) red tree vole (Arborimus longicaudus) eating a Douglas fir needle. Michael Durham photo.

How did you become interested in a career in conservation?

I’ve had an interest in wildlife since I was a child growing up in rural Arkansas. I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a wildlife biologist. I was always digging, climbing, exploring and chasing critters around. I’m so thankful to my family for supporting my wild interests. As a kid I thought being a biologist meant studying animal behavior (you know, the stuff you would see on nature programs — cue David Attenborough). As an undergrad I figured out that ecology, and really conservation, is where my heart truly lies.

Bear hug! Everett brings down an anesthetized bear from a den tree (left) as part of the Louisiana black bear repatriation program, which contributed to the delisting of the bears from the Endangered Species Act in 2016. Everett smiles from her perch in an unoccupied bear den tree in Mississippi (right). USFWS photos.

Do you have any mentors or conservation heroes?

I kept a cut out of a National Geographic picture of Jane Goodall on my desk in college. In the picture, she is squatting down to eye level with a chimpanzee, her hand reaching out, just a small gap between the two of them. It represented so many things for me — a female leader, a need to connect to nature, and a passion to seek answers in the natural world. She was one of my first conservation heroes. Fortunately, two professors in college took me under their wings and honed my interest in conservation. I became intrigued by all things ecology, so was naturally drawn to E.O. Wilson (whom I had the pleasure of meeting — he was so kind!). I then had a series of phenomenal mentors, from my graduate school advisor to several supervisors and coworkers at the Service. I’m so thankful for the variety of things this diverse group taught me. These days, my husband — who is also an endangered species biologist — and our kiddos provide me with regular inspiration and motivation to conserve our natural world for future generations.

Everett climbs up to get a closer look at a bald eagle’s nest. USFWS photos.

How did you find your way to the Service?

I applied to so many federal wildlife biologist jobs out of graduate school … and didn’t even get an interview. My first job was working for Louisiana State University leading the Louisiana black bear research field crew. At the time, the species was federally listed and we lived and worked on Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. That immersion gave me an education on endangered species and wildlife refuge work. I knew for sure I wanted to work for the Service at that point! I also picked up other skills that I didn’t know would be useful, like how to work with a high profile species, and all the personalities and politics that often come with the job. When the need for a wildlife biologist arose in neighboring Mississippi in 2004, I had the experience to get the position. I spent nearly seven amazing years in the Service’s Mississippi Ecological Services field office. I primarily worked in listing and recovery as lead for mammals and the gopher tortoise, which led me down a path of environmental markets. That path turned (in a roundabout way through the Service’s Stepping Up to Leadership program) into an opportunity to transfer to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office in 2010, where I am today.

Safety first! Certified tree climbers through the U.S. Forest Service’s National Tree Climbing Program, Everett and colleagues make the necessary safety precautions and ensure everything is secure before heading up to the treetops to look at a red tree vole nest. USFWS photos.

Tell us about your job — what do you do at the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office?

I work in the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office’s forest resources division, but I wear multiple hats. My primary role is helping private entities balance their interests with endangered species conservation as an Endangered Species Act Section 10 biologist. Along with this, I provide technical assistance on compensatory mitigation programs and policy. This means that when development impacts to a species cannot be avoided or minimized, we look for a way to offset the residual loss to that species. This collaboration is challenging but rewarding and something I have worked on throughout my career. Another thing I love about my job is the ability to focus on individual species conservation. I’m part of a multi-state team assessing the status for Northwestern pond turtle, and I’ve been leading the species status assessment for the North Oregon Coast Distinct Population Segment of the red tree vole. As a species lead, one of my jobs is to work with partners and evaluate the latest science to help determine if these species warrant listing. I feel like I’ve come full circle, back to working on mammals that have a special connection with the forest canopy.

You clearly enjoy “hanging out” with the tree vole and other forest critters. Why climbing?

Sometimes you gotta go right where the species are, and a lot of them are in trees! I got started tree climbing because in my first job we had this need, and ability, to monitor and then move bears out of dens, many of which were up in the canopy. But before that, I loved tree climbing as a kid and did some rock climbing in my 20s. Tree climbing as a job duty was a natural fit. It is something I truly do enjoy as an ancillary part of my job and wish I could climb more often.

Any particularly memorable climbing moments on the job?

One female bear with newborn cubs in Louisiana didn’t fully appreciate our conservation work. I was high up in the tree, trying to dart her through a crack. I heard her huffing and popping her jaw. She came out of her den and gave me a stern warning in the form of a paw swipe pretty close to my face. I remember using my legs to push against the tree to lean back and away. Then she backed off on a limb. The crew said stuff started falling down (which was me dropping anything in my hands so I could work the descending gear — a note to always wear helmets!) and I came down as fast as they’ve ever seen, though it felt very slow to me! I’ll never forget that moment. That mama bear was very clear in her message, yet still cautious, and I listened!

What do you think is the most interesting thing about your work with the red tree vole?

Tree voles are so special. They are tiny but tough, cryptic but charismatic, and spend nearly their whole lives high in the Pacific Northwest forest canopy eating, of all things, conifer needles. Best (and most challenging) of all is that to really get to know them, biologists have to get up to their level, sometimes over 100 feet up in the canopy. When you mentally or physically get out of the human comfort zone, it really forces a perspective shift. This is even true of biologists like me who spend most of their time interpreting the science that others have completed.

A nest! A tree vole researcher with our partner, The National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, Inc. (NCASI), climbs up to inspect a red tree vole nest (left). Nests are made mostly of small conifer cuttings and the discarded parts of needles from the tree vole’s feeding (center). Everett’s colleague (right), Ian Shriner (NCASI), examines the reproductive status of an adult red tree vole. NCASI photos.

What’s your favorite thing about working for Service?

Our agency mission is so important to my core values. That mission to work together to protect nature can be implemented through so many venues, from focused species work to conservation permitting to policy. I’ve explored various aspects of the Endangered Species Act and other statutes throughout my career. The mix of interesting and challenging conservation issues and all the wonderful colleagues you collaborate with along the way is my favorite thing about working for this agency. I love that I can focus on one species or project, like a Habitat Conservation Plan, but also influence national policy and practice through my mitigation instruction and policy work. This variety, with a singular conservation goal, keeps me going even when the pace of conservation seems to move, for this Southerner, slow as molasses.

The Everett family enjoying spending time in nature. Personal photos.

Where is your favorite place in nature to hang out? Why?

That’s a hard one. I was fortunate to start my conservation career living and working on a National Wildlife Refuge in Tensas, Louisiana. I’ve had the privilege to experience many landscapes and I love each one, from the openness of the prairies and sagebrush sea to the closeness and humidity of southern forests and swamps. Take a deep breath in each place and they imprint on you forever. I think, however, that I’m most at home in the forest. That is my happy place. I could probably retire in a tree fort somewhere.

What advice do you have for someone interested in a career in conservation, public service, or with the Service?

A rewarding career in conservation and public service can come from a variety of pathways -administrative, legal, science, policy, engineering, and more. What are your core values? I recommend finding out what drives you and play to your strengths while stretching your boundaries. Seek out new people and try new things. Look for those slightly open doors, those opportunities that can provide you with obvious or not-so obvious skills that will round out your background — it might not even be traditional “conservation” work. Polish those communication skills. Join professional societies and take advantage of everything they have to offer. Network. Have fun. Stay passionate. I keep an E.O. Wilson quote in my office, by pictures of my family, to remind me of the importance of my role here and to keep going. It reads, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual satisfaction.”

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USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

Conservation stories from one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.