Special Honors for Outstanding Work in Education, Outreach, and Internships

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Dan Spencer of the Pacific Region Receives one of Interior’s Highest Awards

By Lena Chang, public affairs officer for the Pacific Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In 2024, Pacific Region information and outreach specialist Dan Spencer received the Meritorious Service Award. This award is one of the highest distinctions an employee can receive from the Department of the Interior and an honor only given once in a person’s career. Spencer received this award in recognition for his outstanding contributions to the Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — specifically for his dedication to dynamic outreach, engaging education, and the creation of an innovative internship program focusing on Tribal youth, underserved communities, and urban audiences.

A man wearing a hat and sunglasses holds a stringed instrument with a harmonica sitting in front of a calm river.
A screenshot from Dan Spencer’s Fishin’ Blues https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYNAPdFQZ3Q

Spencer’s enthusiasm and ability to communicate the importance of conservation — while at the same time making lessons fun and engaging for participants — has made the mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service meaningful to the people that it serves.

Spencer started with the Service in Alaska as a biological field intern in 1999. He then worked fisheries technician and park ranger positions over several years in Alaska before joining the Western Washington Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office as a biological science technician in 2009. Although his major position responsibilities were in field support for projects, he began to share his interest and talent for bringing conservation and the mission of the Service to a wider audience.

In 2017, Spencer became the first information and education specialist for the newly formed Puget Sound/Olympic Peninsula Complex. Building on his technical and scientific experience as a field technician and understanding of the Service’s mission and values, Spencer developed the extensive education, access, and internship program he is managing today.

Providing Education

Spencer delivers educational aquatic conservation programs through multiple venues including Youth Fisheries Academies, summer day camps, school classrooms, field trips, citizen science projects, and activities at public events. These events engage an array of audiences who have had little exposure to natural resources. This combination of venues and audiences has resulted in a highly successful program that both educates students and increases their interest and awareness of aquatic ecosystems and conservation.

The curriculum in Spencer’s program exposes young students to many unique aspects of fish biology and aquatic ecology. For instance, in the Salmon in the Classroom program, students have an opportunity to go beyond textbook biology into the world of resource management and learn hatchery techniques that help raise the next generation of salmon. Spencer has also incorporated fun ways to explore fisheries technology through elements like radio tracking hide and seek, geocaching, and Find your Fish curriculums, allowing teachers and students to use real radio tracking data to understand better how fish use and are dependent on a healthy habitat to survive.

A group of people stand together outdoors holding a large banner that says Youth Fisheries Academy with an FWS logo.
Dan Spencer and the Youth Fisheries Academy at Quinault National Fish Hatchery, 2018. USFWS Photo.

Breaking Barriers and Creating Access

Spencer works with community partners and organizations to develop programs that break down barriers of access to fishing through his Angling for Equity programming. He developed the Library Fishing Tackle Loaner Program, which provides fishing gear for checkout at local libraries to make fishing accessible to those who may not otherwise have the opportunity. This popular program has grown from a single location to five since its launch in 2021. Spencer has also developed a successful collaboration with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, providing gear and hands-on demonstrations of how and where to fish.

Closer to home, Spencer worked with former intern turned permanent employee, Typhanie Shepherd, to produce videos that teach how to tie fishing knots, cast a line, and other angling techniques. And Spencer often provides one-of-a-kind musical entertainment, using his talent to capture the hearts and minds of anglers of all ages through creative and catchy music videos.

A man and girl hold up a fish while smiling and standing in front of a lake.
Spencer with a proud angler at Service event for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Washington. USFWS Photo: Kevin Cody.

Preparing the Next Generation of Conservation Professionals, Building Pathways to Employment

Spencer partners with numerous organizations to provide paid internship opportunities, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs sponsored WaterCorps program, which sponsors 6-month paid AmeriCorps internships for registered Tribal members. He has also partnered with American Conservation Experience since 2018 to provide career building opportunities for youth while supporting population monitoring, hatchery evaluation, and fish production efforts for the Service.

This internship program not only provides professional experience to the interns but also teaches them how to mentor others. The interns gain skills in communicating conservation through multiple mediums, experience managing data and field projects, and receive resume building counseling as part of the internship, increasing their chances to be hired for natural resources positions.

Three individuals wading in river electrofishing and netting for juvenile salmon.
Tribal WaterCorps interns assisting with sampling of juvenile coho salmon on the Tsoo-Yess River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. USFWS Photo: Kevin Cody

Making a Difference

Spencer’s efforts thus far have made an impact on more than 40 interns through numerous avenues such as the Service’s Pathways program, Washington Service Corps, American Conservation Experience, Bureau of Indian Affairs Conservation Legacy WaterCorps program, and MANRRS — Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences. Some of these interns have since become permanent employees of the Service.

Spencer’s efforts and efforts of the Pacific Region’s Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program create exposure, give guidance toward education and careers, and recruit interns who are equipped to do the job, while giving practical job experience and often paving a pathway to employment. This work is truly effective in broadening opportunities for people who traditionally may not have had them.

“It’s been rare that we’ve had interns that have been less than stellar,” says Denise Hawkins, complex manager of the Puget Sound/Olympic Peninsula Complex. “The breadth of Dan’s programming along with his sincere love of his job and infectious enthusiasm have been a tremendous benefit to the Service and conservation!”

And Spencer is grateful for this recognition. He acknowledges people such as Hawkins and former supervisors, college professors, and other mentors who have supported him along the way.

“I am deeply honored by this recognition and feel incredibly fortunate to have a career that brings such fulfillment,” he says. “I have benefitted from a great deal of inspiration, support, and mentoring throughout my life, so I am highly motivated pay it forward and thankful for these opportunities to do so.”

Three people smile standing in front of an American flag, and the man in the middle holds an award.
Dan Spencer (center) receives the Meritorious Service Award with Pacific Region Deputy Regional Director Bridget Fahey (left) and Regional Director Hugh Morrison (right). USFWS Photo: Marilet Zablan.

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USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region
USFWS Pacific NW Region

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