By: Bridget Stutchbury, President of Wildlife Preservation Canada
This October, Wildlife Preservation Canada welcomed Lance Woolaver Jr. into the executive director role following the retirement of previous executive director Randal Heide. Lance may be new to this job, but he has a long history with Wildlife Preservation Canada, dating back to 1997 when he travelled to Mauritius for conservation training as Canada’s 7th New Noah.
Wildlife Preservation Canada president, Bridget Stutchbury, sat down with Lance to talk about the winding road that brought him to this point as executive director, and the path that he sees forward for the organization and endangered species in Canada.
Q: Lance, you just celebrated the 20th anniversary since your experience as New Noah. Tell us about why, as a young biologist, you decided to apply to work on endangered species so far away from Canada?
LW: I first started reading Gerald Durrell books and had been a member of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust since I was nine. As far back as I can remember I had dreamed of working for Durrell, saving endangered species from extinction. It was the Canada’s New Noah opportunity that opened doors for me and allowed my dream to come true. I was an undergrad at Dalhousie University when I first saw the advertisement for the program and I knew I had to apply or I would always regret it. So, the decision to apply to work overseas with endangered species was very much an emotional one stemming from my childhood dreams. I was thrilled when I was chosen for an interview. At that point I didn’t expect I had much of a chance of being chosen as a New Noah. I was excited just to have an opportunity to meet the other interview candidates, other young people that felt the same way I did about endangered species conservation. When I was told I had been chosen, it was a surreal moment of happiness that I will never forget. Looking back now it was one of the most significant and best decisions of my life.
Q: What was your background in field work before applying to be a New Noah?
LW: I was fortunate to have been working on a range of contracts with different types of wildlife, as a field technician and biologist for the provincial wildlife division in Nova Scotia which also led to field work with the Canadian Wildlife Service in Newfoundland. I couldn’t believe that I was actually being paid to go out and visit wild places and work with animals in the field. This developed into a Master’s thesis at Acadia University where I researched the nesting ecology of common eider ducks, visiting breathtaking, isolated offshore islands and seabird colonies as part of my daily field work. I already had a fairly extensive amount of wildlife related work experience managing field teams in challenging isolated environments when I applied to be a New Noah. At the same time, I had just finished my MSc so I had a good mix of academic and practical experience, and along with just being open to adventure, this helped me enjoy the New Noah experience to the fullest.
Q: You seem to be drawn to recovery programs with birds, whether it’s the eastern loggerhead shrike in Canada, or the Ridgway’s hawk in Dominican Republic. What is it about bird conservation that pulls you in?
LW: I’ve been lucky again to have worked with a wide variety of animals from tortoises and turtles, lemurs and mongoose, so my work is not always limited to birds although it does seem that working with endangered birds has been a major career theme so far. In addition to loggerhead shrikes and Ridgway’s hawks I also volunteered with the kakapo and takahe projects in New Zealand, released California condors, carried out the first releases of echo parakeets in Mauritius, and managed the recovery program for the Madagascar pochard. In all cases there has also been a major theme around working with the most globally endangered of species, some of them down to just a handful of individuals on the very brink of extinction when I started working with them.
The fantastic thing about working with such a range of birds is that I have found that each group has had very different and appealing characteristics. Shrikes are actually quite similar to hawks, being no-nonsense predators and being such spirited and fearless little birds. Parrots obviously have the intelligence and personality. Ducks have a vulnerability to them. As well, each of the bird projects, while they follow the same general pattern in terms of stages of recovery and steps that need to be addressed for successful recovery, each has brought their own additional challenge to solve; migration for shrikes, lack of wild food for parakeets, human persecution for hawks, lead poisoning for condors, habitat loss for pochard. I enjoy discovering patterns and taking experiences learned from one project on to another, while at the same time having new challenges to solve. I thrive on this problem-solving side of recovery programs and the highs and lows of what is often a very unpredictable process. It’s certainly never boring!
Q: You’ve spent quite a bit of time abroad, with conservation organisations like the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Madagascar, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. What motivated you to return to Canada in 2016 and to rejoin Wildlife Preservation Canada?
LW: Wildlife Preservation Canada is really the only organisation here in Canada that has the same vision as some of these previous organisations I’ve worked with overseas where a recovery program integrates wild population research, conservation breeding and reintroductions across multiple projects across Canada. I followed the work over the years while I was away and admired how the projects remained very hands-on with a focus on developing methods for endangered species recovery. The ability to develop conservation techniques here that can then have a much wider North American and global impact is incredibly exciting. Once we figure out how best to recover migratory songbirds, or bumble bees, or temperate snakes, these are experiences that can be applied to other recovery projects across Canada and around the world. Another thing to keep in mind is that species recovery is a catalyst for restoring and protecting habitats and for engaging local communities – Wildlife Preservation Canada does a lot of that by default already. Even though we focus our message around species, it isn’t simply putting animals out there and leaving it at that. I enjoy working for an organisation that is part of a larger network of complementary organisations working together for a common goal.
Q: Wildlife Preservation Canada has seen exciting growth in the last five years under leadership of Randal Heide and the board. What new opportunities do you see on the horizon and how will you help steer the organization’s mission?
There are many new opportunities for developing methods for saving endangered species across Canada that will be applicable not just here but around the world. I feel we can have the greatest impact by developing these techniques and theming our recovery efforts to ensure that they that are relevant for a larger group of endangered species; shrikes and migratory songbirds is a great example. At the same time, we absolutely need to stay true to our mission of hands-on recovery of species-at-risk in Canada. This is what makes Wildlife Preservation Canada unique. Our priority species list, which is based on government recovery strategies that identify a need for population level intervention whether it be conservation breeding or reintroductions, is growing each year so there is no limit at the moment in terms of project growth. It’s a matter of staying focused and strategically choosing which species to work with in order to have the greatest conservation impact. While we have grown significantly in recent years, we are still a relatively small organisation, but one that has a focused mission and strong set of values. I want us to continue building on these strengths, developing our partner networks, and choosing our programs strategically while at the same time working toward the larger vision of increasing our conservation impact through the development of model endangered species recovery programs that will be taken on by other projects in Canada and around the world.
Q: What challenges does Wildlife Preservation Canada still face, and what ideas do you have to overcome them?
LW: There are a number of challenges we face but none are insurmountable by any means. We are very fortunate that Canadians in general care about wildlife. Most of us have grown up in areas with access to wild places and even within our cities there are opportunities to interact with urban wildlife. Canadians therefore see wildlife as part of our heritage and genuinely do not want species to disappear. We are also a very wealthy country by global standards and are fortunate to have resources that can be used to ensure that Canadian biodiversity does not decline. That being said, Canadians often don’t know which organisation they should turn to and if their support is even going to make a difference. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for Wildlife Preservation Canada. We need to get our message out to more Canadians so that people know we are an organization that has the unique skills and dedicated people to keep species from disappearing from our country.
Working with Canadian species does add in additional challenges; migration across borders for species that leave during the winter and hibernation for those that stay. These are factors that species recovery projects in more tropical climates don’t necessarily need to contend with. This makes it interesting for me though because once we can figure out solutions to these challenges then other projects and species will benefit from them.
Species conservation in Canada also faces challenges that are not unique to this country, such as climate change and industrial and urban development leading to habitat loss and fragmentation. Learning how conservation breeding and reintroduction methods can be used to recover populations will provide future recovery programs as an option that can be used to recover populations if habitats shift faster than species can move, or after habitats have been restored. Even though we focus our message around species-focused recovery, it isn’t simply a matter of putting animals out there and leaving it at that. Species conservation is very often a catalyst for restoring and protecting habitats and for engaging local stakeholders. Wildlife Preservation Canada does a lot of this already and we work with partners that do this as well.
I have also been involved with conservation projects that worked closely with industry and there are examples around the world where development projects have taken into consideration the value of ecosystem services, whether they be cultural or physical services. I get really excited about projects where very different stakeholders and non-traditional partners work together. I am optimistic that we can create these types of model projects where development partners contribute to species conservation here in Canada. The opportunities are there.
Q: Lastly, if there is one extinct animal that you could bring back with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be?
LW: I don’t think I can choose just one. Even though there are some spectacular creatures that would be amazing to see, like the elephant bird from Madagascar or the Tasmanian tiger, I would want species back that have disappeared from the landscape around us here in North America. I wish I lived in a world that still had ivory-billed woodpeckers, great auks, passenger pigeons, Labrador ducks, and sea mink. If I had that magic wand I would bring back those species that we used to be able to see here not that long ago. I feel like the world around us is diminished because they are gone. There is a generational amnesia that happens where we forget what used to be here and will let a species disappear from our own backyard because it can still be found elsewhere and, while it is just my opinion, I think that is wrong, especially for a country as wealthy as Canada. We have to take a stand and say, ‘no more’. We can do that, and we are doing that, without magic. We are doing this with hard work, dedication, and a desire to make sure that no more species disappear on our watch.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT LANCE
Birthplace: Wolfville, Nova Scotia
Current residence: Guelph, Ontario with his wife and two sons
Education: BSc at Dalhousie University, MSc at Acadia University, PhD at York University
Previous job: Seven years as Head of Species Conservation and Research for Durrell’s Madagascar Programme.
Favourite hobby? I love watching hockey, so it’s great to be back in Canada! Canoeing is my favourite way of restoring my internal battery.
Favourite holiday location? Difficult to choose but our best holiday ever was to Cairo where we saw Tutankhamun at the Egyptian Museum, visited the pyramids on camel back and went inside the centre of the great pyramid of Giza. I was able to go around dressed like Indiana Jones and fortunately my kids were still young enough to think that was cool.
Favourite animal? At the moment I have to say our Newfoundland dog Malala as she sits at my feet during most of my work days at home. We adopted her as a puppy when we were living in Madagascar, from the only NF dog family in the entire country and we brought her back to Canada with us. In terms of ‘non-pets’ it would be elephants as they instill a feeling of awe in me every time I’ve been lucky enough to see one.
Piece of gear you always take into the field? In the tropics it is a rain poncho and here in Canada it is mosquito repellant! In both places it is a copy J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as one never knows when you will be delayed during field work and have time on your hands.