Featured Scientist

  • June 27, 2018

Woman wearing glasses sitting at table, smiling in front of ocean and beach landscape in background

Erin Chappell is an Environmental Program Manager in CDFW’s Wildlife Branch, overseeing the department’s Nongame Wildlife Program. Until recently, she worked for the Fish and Game Commission, where she served as Wildlife Advisor. In her new position with CDFW, which she’s held since February, Erin oversees a staff of 13 scientists who work with CDFW’s regional offices to help conserve and manage California’s nongame and threatened and endangered wildlife species. She is also responsible for managing two critical grant programs: the State Wildlife Grant Program, which directs federal funds to benefit nongame species in California, and the Endangered Species Act Section 6 grant funding for research, recovery and land acquisition for endangered species. Erin is a graduate of Humboldt State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biological oceanography.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

I grew up mostly in California but I have also lived in Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa, and Germany. My dad was my inspiration. He was a high school biology teacher, both in Germany where he taught at an American school that was part of the Department of Defense Dependent Schools system and in California. He was always exposing us to wildlife. What got me hooked was when he took me tide-pooling in Monterey when I was 10. I was fascinated by the variety of animals all using and sharing such a unique habitat. I wanted to learn more about the species and their interaction with the ocean.

Did you originally plan to pursue oceanography, then?

Yes, I originally planned to be a marine biologist specializing in marine invertebrates but ended up getting a scientific aid position with CDFW’s Stockton office, identifying freshwater zooplankton and larval fish. I also assisted with two diet analysis studies, one for juvenile striped bass and one for Delta smelt. My job was to identify the zooplankton in their stomachs and intestines.

From there, my career path shifted inland. I spent 10 years tracking juvenile Chinook salmon in the Delta for the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), two more years working on a Habitat Expansion Agreement for spring-run Chinook and then six years working for DWR’s climate change program, where I focused on climate change adaptation for the water sector. I joined the Fish and Game Commission in 2016.

How did your work experience lead you to your current job?

Starting in 2010, I had opportunities to work on a number of efforts that involved the concept of integrated resource management. A key aspect of my work was integrating environmental stewardship and ecosystem services into cross-sector planning in a meaningful way.

For example, I worked on ways to use green infrastructure, such as wetland restoration, as way to buffer storm surge, improve water quality, provide habitat for species and recreational opportunities, reduce operation and maintenance costs and improve public health and safety. Another example is restoring mountain meadows as a way to not only provide habitat for species, but also to increase water retention, decrease erosion and improve water quality.

While I was able to gain a lot of experience in fisheries and water management, I was missing an integral piece: wildlife management. So, I began looking for opportunities to work more specifically on wildlife. That’s what ultimately brought me to the Fish and Game Commission as its Wildlife Advisor.

What exactly does the wildlife advisor do for the commission?

My job was to advise the Commission on wildlife and inland fisheries management issues and potential regulatory changes. I had to consider biological, societal and political factors for almost every issue. The advisor also facilitates the Wildlife Resources Committee as a forum for discussions among the Commission, CDFW and stakeholders on wildlife and inland fisheries issues, as well as other stakeholder forums as necessary.

What brought you to CDFW?

As the Commission’s wildlife advisor, I had the pleasure of working and interacting with staff throughout CDFW. Across the board, I was impressed by their expertise and dedication to the protection and enhancement of California’s natural resources. It made me want to become part of the team. My new position will also allow me to expand on the knowledge I gained at the Commission.

What is special about working in the Wildlife Branch’s Nongame Program?

Working in the Wildlife Branch allows me to coordinate and collaborate not just with staff within the branch but with staff throughout the entire department. Being able to capitalize on all that knowledge and experience is essential for effectively conserving and managing species and their habitats against sometimes seemingly overwhelming odds. Finding new ways to help species adapt to and thrive in the face of population growth, land conversion, and climate change is a challenge I just can’t pass up.

What sort of projects are you working on right now?

Most of my time right now is being spent on getting to know my staff and learning as much as possible about all the things they are doing. As far as projects go, we have three big priorities. The first is the California Endangered Species Act. Our staff completed a status review of the tricolored blackbird earlier this year, and the Commission listed it as threatened, consistent with our recommendation.. We are now finalizing the status review for the Humboldt martin, leading development of status reviews for the foothill yellow-legged frog and the Cascades frog, and working to prioritize five-year status reviews.<

Scientific collecting permits are another priority. New regulations were approved earlier this year and will go into effect on Oct. 1. This includes a new online system for applications, so we are working on developing that and preparing guidance documents for permitees to help them make the transition.

And, lastly, we are actively working on a number of conservation strategies – for Mojave ground squirrel, great gray owl and willow flycatcher, and planning for another one on Sierra Nevada red fox. Also in development is the Bat Conservation Plan and an update to the Mammal Species of Special Concern report.

When you look back at your career so far, what project are you the most proud of?

The project I’m most proud of is my work with juvenile Chinook salmon. I was part of an interagency team that designed a decision matrix that could be used in real-time to make operational decisions for the state and federal water projects to protect listed winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon and improve water supply reliability. The project demonstrated how real-time monitoring data could be used to inform management decisions while balancing multiple needs. In thinking about it, salmon are probably my favorite – their life history diversity is amazing and their resiliency is inspiring.

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

I’d like to take on a comprehensive, multi-species, statewide monitoring project. Uncertainty abounds in too many of the management decisions we’re asked to make every day because we lack the basic species data necessary to answer key questions.

What is the best thing about being a wildlife scientist?

Playing an active role in helping to ensure that current and future generations are able to enjoy all that the natural world has to offer.

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

Create a broad network of colleagues from as many disciplines as possible – modelers, engineers, social scientists and others can provide valuable perspectives and help you find some of the missing pieces in Mother Nature’s elaborate puzzle.

Photos courtesy of Erin Chappell.

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