2020 (bio)Diversity Interview Series: Melanie Hill
We asked WILD’s program directors to share with us their biggest hopes for our future and the obstacles they face to help us get there. Each week until the end of the year, our team will publish their answers to these, and other questions, in our year-end, (bio)Diversity interview series.
This week, we feature Melanie Hill and the role she is playing in helping to lead the Wild Boulder program.
What specific urgent challenge does your project take on/address? What in your past, upbringing or conservation career, inspired you to address this challenge at this time?
Every time a bear enters a city, it is in danger – in danger of being hit by a car, in danger of consuming something poisonous, in danger of potentially being euthanized should it become a nuisance. Wild Boulder is reducing the danger for black bears and other wildlife who live in and around Boulder by helping residents become better wildlife neighbors.
Colorado’s rapid population growth and a reduction in municipal spending due to COVID-19 is increasing the dangers for bears and other wildlife. We work to build community support for the protection of these wild animals and their natural habitats through wildlife coexistence initiatives, citizen science projects, & collaborative outreach programs.
Ever since I was a child, I couldn’t bear to see any animals in pain. Anytime I came across an injured songbird or bunny, you could count on me to take action! Fast forward to the present day and I continue these activities by transporting injured raptors to wildlife rehab centers or “bearsitting” black bears that meander into Boulder’s urban areas in search of food. In short, ensuring the wellbeing of individual animals has been and always will be a top priority for me. What I haven’t always understood, however, is that in order to thrive, these wild beings need large, interconnected, healthy swaths of land to call home. Protecting wildlife means protecting their environment. We can’t think of one or the other in an isolated manner. And that’s why Wild Boulder emphasizes building community support and positive actions for wild nature.
If you could change one thing about your education or career experience in order to better prepare you for the conservation challenge you are trying to solve, what would it be?
While I don’t get too caught up on this anymore, I for a while wished I had done my undergraduate degree in something like wildlife biology. At the time, I didn’t realize that line of work was possible; it wasn’t something that was necessarily promoted to students. In the past, I felt disappointed I didn’t have that core knowledge and schooling in place. Now I feel it makes me a stronger communicator by not having the education. Much of my work centers around community engagement with the general public, so I realized that if I don’t understand something an expert is communicating to me, it’s quite possible that the average person may not either. It has become my gift to translate the technical to the non-technical folks out there and to strengthen their love for nature in this way. I’ve also worked to overcome my educational concern by supplementing in additional schooling and taking advantage of other resources like webinars, articles, books, and research papers.
In your current work, what has been your biggest failure to date? How have you adapted to address it?
Much of my work centers around collaborations with key partners and stakeholders. My role with many of these projects is as a facilitator, and early on I made the mistake of assuming I had a full understanding of the situation, and that each stakeholder shared the same general goal. I was wrong! My intention was to make the collaborative process quick, focused, and painless for all, as facilitating work with numerous groups can be very cumbersome. Instead, I made assumptions instead of slowing down and trying to get a detailed picture together from each partner. That has been a valuable learning lesson for me. Don’t make assumptions! Take your time, have 1:1 conversations with each partner beforehand, and then come together as a group to talk and learn from one another.
Many people don’t understand how this type of work is conservation or how it is more necessary and more effective than other types of traditional conservation programming. What is the typical criticism that you receive and why is it not accurate?
We’ve found that some land/wildlife experts are skeptical to get involved with the citizen science portion of our program because it does not provide the type of data they are looking for. Citizen science isn’t always viewed as real science due to the facts that many of the participants lack formal training or experience, the accuracy of the data tends to be more variable than professionally collected data, and these projects sometimes require more direct oversight and supervision. While those concerns are reasonable to have, WILD and our partners want to reinforce that the purpose of these citizen science initiatives is to connect people with nature, while also teaching participants how to submit useful data points. Our citizen scientists range in age and abilities, but all share the same passion for wild nature. A while back, one man named David came to a presentation we did for a local Audubon chapter. He had recently retired, was hobbyless, and looking for a way to engage in the community. David and his wife had decided to take up birding for the first time ever, and just weeks after joining our Boulder County Wildlife Project on iNaturalist, he became one of our most talented photographers and captured a number of rare species on camera. Those observations are now providing essential data points for our local wildlife experts, and for David, he has all the encouragement he needs to continue contributing to our project. We’ve heard similar sentiments from a number of participants in our program – whether they be long-time wildlife photographers that wanted to bring a purpose to their work, young people looking for their path in life, or individuals who are just eager to learn about the wildness that surrounds them – Wild Boulder is helping to mobilize new advocates for wild nature through our citizen science and engagement initiatives. And all these unique data points are available for wildlife experts and researchers through iNaturalist. We are thrilled to see our program grow year after year!
What keeps you motivated to continue this work?
In addition to working with current stakeholders, it is important to find ways to involve other members of the community. One specific group I’ve been working with is undergraduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder and developing opportunities for students so they can engage not only with the environment, but the local community. We even started up the university’s first Wildlife Club. Students learn about the sciences and formal relationships of conservation and environmental studies in their coursework, but they don’t always have the opportunity to participate in meaningful on-the-ground community initiatives. It’s important for the students to be the ones driving the projects, so we work together to create meaningful opportunities as well as provide support and oversight. This generation of young people can make a huge positive impact on our environment, both here in Boulder and in the other communities they settle in after graduation. I want to help empower them and show them that they can play a major role in the protection of our planet’s wildlife and wild habitats.
I’d also say that being able to hear appreciation from our partners and members of the community for the work we do is incredibly powerful. I’m a firm believer in sharing positive feedback, and unfortunately I just don’t feel this happens enough in the world. Oftentimes, you only hear from someone who’s unhappy about something. Constructive criticism is always important for improving your work, but positive responses also provide the affirmation that you’re on the right track. And, it’s inspiring and energizing!
What are you excited for in 2021 and the next decade?
Although 2020 has proven to be a challenging year for so many reasons, it has given me time to build a solid foundation for Wild Boulder; when January 1, 2021 comes around, I will be ready to hit the ground running. Numerous planning and brainstorming sessions have produced quite a long list of activities to launch in 2021, and I can’t wait to begin all this work. We’re planning to hold a webinar series that touches on a variety of topics in regard to living peacefully with wildlife (sign up for updates here!). The CU Wildlife Club has some awesome projects we’re working on and hope to kick off in the spring 2021 semester, including installing bear-resistant waste receptacles on campus, continuing their weekly bear & trash monitoring walks, and encouraging university communications to incorporate more wildlife coexistence messaging for students and faculty. We’ll be leading the charge on Denver-Boulder’s participation in the annual City Nature Challenge in April 2021. WILD and our partners also have some great outreach campaigns we’re working on. I feel a lot of fresh and positive energy coming through to the next year, and I can’t wait to get started. I feel very hopeful for the future.
What are you most grateful for? How can others help?
I am most grateful to be living in a community that cares so deeply about the wellbeing of its wildlife and wild places, and to have such dedicated collaborators and teammates to work alongside. There’s still much work to be done here in Boulder, but the foundation is strong and provides a great deal of opportunity for the future.
Community engagement is a priority for Wild Boulder, so we have many avenues for locals to get involved!
- Join our citizen science initiatives on iNaturalist. Participate in the ongoing Boulder County Wildlife Project anytime by uploading observations of wildlife found throughout Boulder County. We’re also looking for new participants to join the annual Denver-Boulder City Nature Challenge, a 4-day bioblitz followed by a species identification period which takes place April 30 – May 9, 2021.
- Get involved with our wildlife coexistence campaigns. Help us teach the Boulder community (and beyond!) how to be good neighbors to wildlife like black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and more.
- Volunteer. Reach out to us if you have a specific skill set you’d like to contribute!
- Partner with us. Our work is collaborative in nature, so we are always looking for new organizations and groups to connect with.
- Sign up for email updates and follow us on Facebook!
- Make a donation. Your support helps us continue this essential work for years to come!
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