Featured Scientist

  • January 30, 2020

The Blair family of El Dorado County spends a fall day at the Hope Valley Wildlife Area in Alpine County - 4 people near rock with trees and blue sky in background
The Hope Valley Wildlife Area in Alpine County makes for great hiking in the fall and snowshoeing in the winter. Shelly, who helps manage the area for CDFW, enjoys a fall day there with her family.

An avid hunter, CDFW Environmental Scientist Shelly Blair shows off the buck she hunted in Zones D3-5 during California’s 2019 deer season.
Shelly shows off the D3-5 buck she harvested last deer season.

A sedated bear from the Tahoe basin is given an ear tag and is prepared for release. The bear later was hazed upon release to keep it fearful of humans and – hopefully – out of developed neighborhoods.
Shelly tags a sedated bear captured in the Tahoe basin. The bear was hazed upon release to keep it fearful of humans and away from developed neighborhoods.

Shelly Blair with her children, Jesse and Amy, pose with the three tom turkeys they each harvested during a spring turkey hunt.
Hunting season is family time for the Blairs. Shelly, her children Jesse and Amy, pose with their spring turkeys.

Shelly Blair is an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) North Central Region. She serves as the unit wildlife biologist for Alpine and El Dorado counties.

Based out of her hometown of Placerville, Shelly’s ties to the local community and CDFW run deep. Her father, the late Bob Pirtle, was a California game warden for 30 years, with most of his career spent patrolling El Dorado County. Shelly’s brother, Sean Pirtle, is a CDFW wildlife officer in Yuba County.

In addition to conducting wildlife research and dealing with a variety of human-wildlife conflicts, Shelly manages CDFW lands in the two counties, which include the popular Hope Valley Wildlife Area, and the Heenan Lake and Red Lake wildlife areas. She holds a biology degree from Chico State.

What was it like growing up the daughter of a game warden?

I tell people I was a Fish and Game brat because it was so much a part of our lives. It was a wonderful childhood. We had wildlife around us all the time. My dad would have to confiscate fawns from people keeping them illegally. He would bring them home and we’d care for them a couple of nights. We had injured wildlife of all kinds. And my brother and dad have been avid hunters. They lived and breathed it – and my brother still does. All this amazing exposure to wildlife and the outdoors propelled us to follow in my dad’s footsteps.

In your job, you must run into some of the same people and families that you grew up with and who knew your father.

I do. I feel very privileged to be able to work in the same area my dad patrolled. These are my stomping grounds. It’s like an extension of my backyard. It is an honor to be investing in the people he was invested in – all the ranchers he worked with and all agency folks he had working relationships with. And now I’m able to carry on those relationships. I’m fortunate enough to have my dream job. This is always what I wanted to do – be the wildlife biologist for El Dorado County. I am very involved with the local schools and the community. I love to mentor students who are interested in what I do, and I try to instill a passion and appreciation in them for the work that we do. A lot of people don’t even know this is a career opportunity that’s available to them.

How did your career with CDFW begin?

It was a long and winding path. I volunteered right out of high school at our Wildlife Investigations Lab (in Rancho Cordova) and had a lot of different experiences there. I held a lot of scientific aid jobs while I was in college. I worked for our North Central Region 2 office. I worked in downtown Sacramento for our Upland Game Program. I worked in our education and outreach branch. I worked with the interpretive staff at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, and at the hunter check station at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area. So when I graduated from Chico State with my biology degree I thought I was a shoo-in for a job at Fish and Game. I think I applied for eight positions – and didn’t get any of them.

But I also applied for a position with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. It was the only wildlife biologist position within the entire agency – kind of a trial to interface with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. And they hired me. So that was my first permanent position. And I’m actually so grateful for that experience because what I learned in that job was so valuable to what I’m doing today with all the human-wildlife conflict. It totally prepared me for what I’m doing now.

I did that for five years. Food and Agriculture lost funding to continue the position, and I had kids at home and wanted to spend more time with them so I quit. About a week later I got a call from Pam Swift at our Wildlife Investigations Lab about a scientific aid job with the Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) monitoring program. She told me I could work from home – and that was my foot back into the door with CDFW. That was in 2005. I got a permanent position in the Wildlife Investigations Lab in 2007 and my current job came open in 2010.

What’s a typical day like?

It completely varies. I can have a day all planned out where I am going to focus on a specific thing and then I will get a phone call about a wildlife conflict event or a wildlife welfare incident and I have to respond.

There’s a lot of field work in the spring and summer. All of our unit biologists coordinate and help each other with our different research projects – whether it’s deer darting or helicopter surveys or elk work. Obviously, there is more access to our higher elevation lands in the summer. I attend agency coordination meetings and county Fish and Game commission meetings so that I can remain engaged in the local community environmental issues and enhance interagency cooperation. The human-wildlife conflict work is often what we spend the majority of our time doing.

What kind of human-wildlife conflicts are you dealing with?

Wild turkeys. Mountain lions. Bears. I manage a lot of the South Lake Tahoe bear issues, and it’s one of the biggest challenges for my area. We’re getting more vineyards in my counties so I’m getting a lot more deer depredation calls. I deal with a lot of animal welfare issues because there is a huge wildlife feeding problem in El Dorado County. The result of that is deer getting caught in fencing, wire getting wrapped around their antlers and a lot of deer congregating in certain areas. I’ve had to rescue a lot of animals the last few years.

Besides being illegal, folks are doing more harm than good by feeding the deer?

They are bringing the animals closer to homes by feeding them – and that’s where there are a lot of obstacles they can get stuck in. Feeding encourages animals to congregate unnaturally, causing disease spread, habituated behaviors and unhealthy food options for the animals.

What’s the most rewarding project you’ve been involved with at CDFW?

I have a deer research project that I’m leading in the Crystal Basin area. We’re in the fifth year. It’s the Pacific Deer Herd on the western side of the Sierra. They are a mule deer-black-tailed deer cross. They are migratory deer, but they winter with resident deer, which is really interesting.

It started as a capture and collaring project to figure out survival and mortality, but it has expanded because the GPS collar data have given us great information on their migration, timing and behavior. We are discovering a lot of interesting things about these deer; it’s like pulling back the curtain on an amazing ecological mystery on the landscape. These deer haven’t been monitored since the 1980s, and the technology is so much better now that we can not only see what they are doing but sometimes understand why they are doing it or at least speculate as to why.

So what are we learning about these deer?

Their movement patterns, for starters. Some of them will go from winter range to summer range and then back in a two-week period. These exploratory movements cause an enormous amount of energy expended in such a short time. They spend a lot of time in burn areas and old fire scars. Obviously, there is better feed there and successional growth but how long are they going to keep doing that? We’ve also learned that they die a lot. There is a huge mortality rate for this herd – mostly from mountain lions, but we’ve also had four poaching incidents and three diseased deer.

In all of our many hours trying to dart and collar deer for the study, we drive around in varying areas of their summer range. Most of the time we find the deer hanging around campground areas where there’s a lot of human activity and recreation. So we’ve started to think about that while looking at the high mortality rates. And none of the mortalities ever really happens in those areas. So one theory we have – and I’m not sure how we would actually prove it – is that these deer have learned it’s safer to be around people because there are not as many predators that want to be in those areas.

Other observations are in the more remote areas where you think you would find a lot of deer and where there is just all this beautiful habitat – and we don’t see deer in those areas anymore. It begs the question: Are these deer changing their behavior to adapt to the predators? It’s just really interesting.

Tell us something about yourself many people would be surprised to learn.

I’m a hunter education instructor. I got the idea after my kids went through hunter education and I thought I could create a fun, interactive class. I teach with my colleague Sara Holm. We enjoy seeing the kids succeed and then venturing out to participate in this hunting tradition.

I love to hunt and fish, but I worry that the hunting tradition is dying. I’ve tried to instill in my own kids an appreciation for the entire hunting experience; that it isn’t just about the harvest. It was important to my dad as well. Before he passed, he bought us all lifetime hunting licenses. I’ve had the most precious, memorable times with my dad, brother, husband and my kids while we’ve been out hunting.

When we teach our hunter education classes, there are some people in there who just want their kids to learn gun safety. They are not really interested in hunting. But we really emphasize the whole experience of hunting. Hunting affords you such unique opportunities to experience wildlife and ecology and become part of that natural process. And if you go out and don’t get anything you’ve still had a great day.

What do you most like to hunt and fish for?

I love spring turkey hunting. It’s such an adrenaline rush and beautiful to be outdoors that time of the year. I love duck hunting because there really is no other reason to be up at 2 a.m. to sit in an often wet, cold duck blind other than to watch the sunrise and hear the birds flying and chattering above. I love fly fishing. Unfortunately, my busy family schedule doesn’t allow me to do it very often but there’s just something about the rhythm of it and being on the water.

I haven’t done much deer hunting, but I did get a deer this past year hunting with my brother in D3-5. I’m not a trophy hunter. You can’t put the antlers in soup. I want the meat. There’s something unique about harvesting game that you will consume. It’s delicious and healthy, too.

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Shelly rescues a deer that was tangled up in a rope swing. Wildlife welfare and human conflict issues occupy much of her time.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • July 6, 2017

A man in T-shirt and cut-offs holding a large gopher snake
A man wearing camouflage waders hold a silvery fish on a riverbank
A small, thin snake held in the hand of a middle-aged man

Joe Croteau is an environmental program manager with the Timberland Conservation Program in CDFW’s Northern Region. He oversees a team of scientists and administrators responsible for conservation and regulatory compliance on approximately 5 million acres of non-federal timber production lands in the Northern Region. The team includes dedicated people working in Fort Bragg, Eureka, Yreka and Redding. Joe’s office is in Redding, but his job takes him to all corners of the region, occasionally headquarters in Sacramento, and to the hidden forests in between.

An avid outdoorsman, Joe has been a member of The Wildlife Society, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, The Wild Turkey Federation and the California Licensed Foresters Association. He served as President of a local unit of the Backcountry Horseman’s Association and is a Hunter Education Instructor.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

The “who” is my mother. She made sure I could go fishing, play in the poison oak and bring home lizards and snakes … and she took me to the doctor’s office when I was reckless. She turned me on to Wild Kingdom where I latched on to Marlin Perkins’ conservation movement. I immediately connected with Marlin and his friend Jim Fowler as they explored all critters, both safe and dangerous.

The “what” is just an innate curiosity and admiration of fish and wildlife … and my mom informing me I could actually earn a degree and have a career doing this kind of stuff.

How did you come to work for CDFW?

I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management from Humboldt State University in 1990, and came to CDFW’s toxicology laboratory in Elk Grove in 1991 as a scientific aid. The Cantara spill happened in July 1991 and so I participated in the evaluation of that ecological disaster. A train car fell into the Upper Sacramento River spilling about 19,000 gallons of the herbicide metam sodium. I was part of a team that was responsible for evaluating the damages and measuring lethal doses to aquatic species. After bouncing around a bit, I finally landed in in the Timberland Conservation Program.

You’ve been with the Timberland Conservation Program since 2001. What is the purpose of the program, and why is it important?

The California Forest Practice rules require an entity that wants to harvest timber on non-federal lands to first file a timber harvesting document. CDFW is the trustee agency that reviews and provides recommendations for the proposed harvesting plan. Our top priority is to ensure the conservation of fish, wildlife, and plants on land where timber harvesting is going to occur. We think of ourselves as a Swiss army knife and can tackle just about any conservation challenge.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

Personally, my typical day includes correspondence or a meeting to make sure our team has the funding, tools and inspiration to do their jobs. The better story is a typical day in the Timberland Conservation Program. Today, one of our staff members is probably walking in the woods with a forester to look at a timber harvesting plan, a proposed bridge and a meadow restoration project. A couple others are administering grants for Yreka Phlox and Townsend’s big-eared bats. Two or three others are working through the challenges of developing safe harbor agreements for Humboldt Martens, Great Gray Owls, Gray Wolves and Coho Salmon. Somebody is probably at their computer looking at multiple monitors to model wildlife habitat or a decision support tool. Somebody is thinking about how to incorporate drones and bio-dogs into our workplace. Somebody is working on regulatory rules to conserve sensitive plants. Several are involved with various working groups like the one dealing with barred owl impacts to northern spotted owls, or doing strategic planning. Certainly, somebody is preparing for, attending, or summarizing a meeting. The supervisors are looking forward, motivating and enabling their staff to challenge the system.

Every one of them is thinking about how best to monitor the effectiveness of everything we do. Oh, and there is the whole email thing … we call it “whack a mole.”

What is the most rewarding project that you’ve worked on for CDFW?

I would go back to the Great Gray Owl project that I was encouraged to tackle by my manager in 2008. The Great Gray Owl is a state endangered species we knew very little about. At the time, we were aware of breeding pairs in Yosemite and in Southern Oregon, but we weren’t sure if there were any in our region. I pursued a state wildlife grant that enabled us to look for breeding pairs, and nine different private and federal landowners allowed us to conduct surveys on their properties. We found two reproducing pairs during the study and have identified a couple more since. I remember getting a text message around midnight from a scientific aid in the first month of the study. It said, “If or when you wake up, call me. Male GGO!” That was an awesome moment.

Websites, conservation strategies and textbooks were later modified based on that work. Scientific aids from that project went on to become environmental scientists. Safe harbor agreements are being crafted because of our study. That’s the personal project that makes me proudest.

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do today?

Wow, fun. I would like to create a fire-resilient landscape that enhances deer, elk, pronghorn and sage grouse carrying capacity. I would probably eliminate all but the few oldest junipers from the landscape, and I would work with our internal and external experts to return our cheatgrass-infested basins to support low sage and bitter brush habitat. I would try to bring our mountain meadows back to life by removing suppressed conifers and restoring hydrologic connectivity. I would then hire enough people to investigate and brag about all the good we are doing.

What is it about the work you do that you find most interesting or rewarding?

I often miss getting on the ATV, chasing down an owl or a fish, and just getting dirt on my clothes. But – and this is somewhat surprising to me – the best part of my job is probably not handling a fish, bird or plant. What I really enjoy is recruiting people to our team, helping somebody else prepare for an interview, and seeing people promote and move on to bigger challenges. Allowing people to seek training, explore new information technology and feeling safe to challenge the system is enormously rewarding.

I am most grateful to be associated with a team and a department loaded with hardworking, intelligent and dedicated people. This is what I brag about to family and friends.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Remembering to strive to be an inspirational leader so that staff can embrace our most difficult challenges. Reminding myself what I represent, who I represent, and thinking forward with a vision … the ability to do that is not something anybody is born with. Those are learned behaviors, and it’s always a work in progress for me.

Do you have any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

Be persistent, and know that it is not for material gain that any of us do this. You need to be willing to move around a bit, embrace uncomfortable challenges, and strive to become really good at what you do.

Categories: Featured Scientist
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