Authored by Dr. Stephen Spear
This month, I will be leaving The Orianne Society to take the position of Director of Wildlife Ecology at The Wilds conservation center near Columbus, OH (part of the Columbus Zoo). My decision to join The Wilds is in part due to their strong history of Eastern Hellbender conservation, including facilities for head-starting young hellbenders to increase population numbers, as well as possibilities for a variety of wildlife conservation work on The Wilds property, which constitutes 10,000 acres of restored coal mine land that currently provides important habitat for a variety of wildlife species. I am excited for this new opportunity, but at the same time, I recognize the critical role that my time with The Orianne Society played in my life as a conservation scientist. Simply put, I would not be where I am right now without the opportunities and support provided by The Orianne Society.
As I prepare to leave Georgia for Ohio, I have been thinking about the past seven years that I have been a scientist with The Orianne Society. When I received my Ph.D. degree in 2009 from Washington State University, I honestly wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. My assumption was that I would try to go into an academic career and become a professor. I knew that I wanted to work on reptile and amphibian ecology and conservation, and that seemed the most logical route. I always wanted to do conservation projects as well, and so I was intrigued to see a job announcement from a group called Project Orianne (what soon became The Orianne Society) advertising a position to work with Eastern Indigo Snakes, and at the same time be based out of Idaho, which is where I wanted to stay at the time.
A herp conservation group? That sort of thing just doesn’t exist, right? I wanted to learn more and put in an application. I didn’t end up getting the position (rightly so; the organization was in the process of moving the headquarters to Georgia, a move that wasn’t right for me at the time), but The Orianne Society was now on my radar. Soon enough, I did have the opportunity to work for The Orianne Society. I was hired to work on a Midget Faded Rattlesnake conservation project using both GIS and genetic methods, which was the type of project I did in grad school and was very interested in, and best of all, had direct conservation implications. The Orianne Society agreed to take on this project, and I found myself an Orianne scientist, but still able to stay out in Idaho–the perfect arrangement for me.
What began with Midget Faded Rattlesnakes soon grew to a number of other landscapes and species: Eastern Hellbenders in the southern Appalachians, priority herp areas in the Southeast, bushmasters in Costa Rica and Panama and Western Rattlesnakes in Washington, as well as supporting projects involving Eastern Indigo Snakes and Timber Rattlesnakes. Over the years, I moved from Moscow, ID, to Clayton, GA, and finally to Athens. I developed relationships with many conservation partners, both public and private, that will continue to be important to me throughout my career.
The other wonderful thing about The Orianne Society is that it’s not an isolated group of herp people—public membership and outreach are important components of its mission, and because of this, I’ve gotten to meet many wonderful people who follow and support The Orianne Society, especially during the Places You’ve Never Herped (PYNH) and Indigo Days events. I’ll especially remember last December’s PYNH on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. I was excited to show people the Osa Peninsula, a place I have come to love through several visits there as part of our bushmaster work. But I was also nervous. The Osa is a remote place, and it is easy to get lost in the rainforest. Would everybody make it there okay, and if so, would there be problems with people getting lost or hurt? It turns out I needn’t have worried. It went off without a hitch, and it was so exciting to be with Orianne members as they experienced species that most had never seen before, from nesting sea turtles to tree boas to caecilians. It was probably the most physically demanding PYNH, but you would have never known that from the excitement of the participating Orianne members.
I’ll miss getting to work with the great group of Orianne staff and scientists, as well as their enthusiasm for reptile and amphibian conservation. Even though I lived 2,000 miles away from everyone else for the first four years of my Orianne employment and rarely saw everyone in person, I always felt like I was part of the team, and this is because of the welcoming nature of Orianne personnel. I’ll also forever be grateful to collaborators at the University of Idaho and University of Georgia as they were critical to my success as an Orianne scientist. The nature of the work I did at Orianne often required lab space and facilities that don’t exist at smaller nonprofit organizations like The Orianne Society. At Idaho and Georgia, I was offered an opportunity to work within existing labs while an Orianne employee, even though they had no obligation to do so. I am especially indebted to the Department of Fish and Wildlife Science at the University of Idaho, which not only provided me lab space but also an office while I lived in Idaho. And of course, I’ll miss all the wonderful Orianne members and supporters who often remind us why we put in the long and hard hours to work to conserve the animals that we love.
Finally, even though I will no longer be an employee, I have no plans of disappearing and I hope and expect to see many of you again. I’m planning to maintain partnerships with The Orianne Society on the current hellbender and viper work, and I’m sure I’ll be joining in on another PYNH in the future. Until then, thanks for being part of seven great years!