Conservation Biologist

Dr. Debbie Crouse

At a Glance: Biologist with the Endangered Species Recovery Program at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Q. How did you get interested in pursuing an environmental career?

A. It was roundabout for me, actually. I started out studying meteorology in college, but after my sophomore year I decided to take a break and work for a while. At one point I had a summer job in Colorado, and in the evenings I used to sit outside near a beaver pond and play my guitar. During that time I realized how important it is for me to spend time in nature.

Q. What direction did your education take after that?

A. When I went back to school, I knew I wanted to focus on a career that would allow me to be outside, close to nature. I ended up getting a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD all in zoology. At the time, there weren’t as many curriculum options as there are now for people interested in biology or environmental studies, so I basically created a course of study that was very similar to what is now called conservation biology.

Q. So what’s a typical day on the job like for you?

A. (Laughing): Well, it’s ironic, because these days I’m inside in my office a lot, in front of a computer. But for years I did have jobs that got me outdoors, and I got to travel to a lot of different places. My career has evolved, but I still love what I do because I feel it’s the most effective way for me to help conservation efforts on a large scale. So to answer your question, what I do now, on a typical day at work, is to draft policy and guidance that other Fish and Wildlife Service biologists around the country use to develop recovery plans for endangered species. That covers a lot of ground, and a lot of species!

Q. When you were out doing fieldwork, did you focus on a particular animal?

A. I conducted research on various animals, from frogs to birds, and my PhD dissertation was on sea turtle biology and conservation. I spent a lot of time walking around on beaches, surveying sea turtle nests, and flying in small airplanes over the ocean, counting swimming sea turtles. And once, in Australia, I took part in a turtle rodeo!

Q. Say what?!

A. You heard right! Basically, a turtle rodeo involves jumping out of a boat onto a swimming turtle. You grab hold of its shell—that can be tricky; in some cases you’re talking about a couple hundred pounds worth of turtle—and you push the tail end down so the turtle has to swim up, towards the water’s surface. When its front flippers come out of the water, it can be lifted into a boat, where it’s weighed, measured, and tagged before being let go.

Q. Wow. Sea-turtle wrangling—that must rank pretty high in the “most memorable moments of my career” category!

A. It’s right up there. And then there are the “memorable for other reasons” moments. I did my Master’s research on wood frogs, part of which involved sitting very still while observing frogs in the wild. The place where I was observing them was—well, let’s just call it “mosquito heaven.” There were so many mosquitoes there ready to eat me alive that the frogs started jumping on my legs to pick off the ones that had landed on my jeans!

Q. Let’s get back to the more pleasant memorable moments! What’s one of your proudest accomplishments as a biologist?

A. There are several things I’ve gotten to do that I feel have made a difference. For example, some of my research on sea turtle populations has contributed to regulations designed to protect them, such as requiring shrimp fishermen in the southeastern U.S. to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) on their shrimp nets. Turtles can get stuck in these nets and drown, but TEDs allow them to escape.

Q. Do you have a favorite endangered species recovery story?

A. I have lots of them! Of course, everyone hears about the comeback of big beautiful species like whooping cranes. But I also get excited by the recovery of some of the less glamorous animals. For example, I was recently involved in processing the paperwork to remove the Lake Eerie Watersnake from the endangered species list. I love that recovery story because so many people worked hard to help the public understand that this snake has an important role to play in its habitat.

Q. Do you have a favorite animal, endangered or otherwise?

A. I have many, many, many. Obviously, I have a soft spot for sea turtles! And one of my favorite birds in the whole world is the cedar waxwing. I just love its soft grey plumage and cheerful little call. Another favorite is the wolverine. To me wolverines epitomize the idea of wilderness, and I’ve wanted to see one in the wild ever since I was a little kid. It’s still on my wish list!

Q. Any advice for people thinking about a career in biology and conservation?

A. Yes: Cultivate your skills in working with people. So much of conservation depends on that. I think people often don’t realize just how important human interaction is when they pursue a career in biology—I didn’t—but it’s true.  Another thing I’ve learned is that things may turn out differently than you originally planned, but that’s OK. I got into biology and conservation because I wanted to be out in nature as much as possible. But when it comes to achieving a lot for conservation, I know now that, with my set of skills, I can accomplish just as much or more in a job like I’m doing now, which involves sitting behind a desk and interacting with people. I may have to go on a vacation to actually get out in the wilderness! —but I feel really good about what I can achieve in my job.



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