Aspen stand in Tallgrass Aspen Parkland
Tallgrass Aspen Parkland. Aspen stand in Tallgrass Aspen Parkland landscape in Minnesota. © John Gregor

Stories in South Dakota

Fellowships Help Develop New Grassland Stewards in Minnesota, North Dakota & South Dakota

Paulson Family Grassland Conservation Fellowship Program

It’s a conundrum that many college graduates face: How do you get work experience when you need experience to get a job?

The Nature Conservancy is committed to empowering the next generation of conservation leaders, so it’s a problem we wanted to help solve. Thus, we launched the Paulson Family Grassland Conservation Fellowship Program - designed to help recent grads rev up their careers and develop the next generation of grassland conservationists.

Our Fellows

South Dakota

Casey Binggeli has loved the outdoors since he was young, and knew he wanted to pursue a career in conservation as early as middle school.

“I’ve always loved being outdoors. As a child, I purchased a butterfly net with the very first allowance I received,” Binggeli said. “In 8th grade, my biology textbook had a section on how everyone can help protect the environment. It suggested writing to environmental organizations – so I did. They sent me pamphlets and information and that’s when I decided I wanted a career in conservation.”

Casey followed up by obtaining a bachelor’s degree in ecology and biology and a master’s degree  natural science from Plattsburg State University in New York.

As a native New Yorker, Binggeli is a long way from home while assigned at The Nature Conservancy’s Samuel H. Ordway, Jr. Memorial Preserve in South Dakota. But this is not his first time away from the East Coast. Casey has experience working in conservation in Nevada, Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, doing everything from monitoring plants, thinning trees, controlling invasive species and assisting with controlled burns.

Despite his varied experience, Binggeli is still learning new things through his fellowship with the Conservancy.

“Being a fellow offers me the chance to further develop skills I gained in the past while also experiencing things I’ve never done before. Each day brings different tasks. I think that’s what is most rewarding.”

Binggeli hopes to learn more about working with large grazers, such as bison, and become more experienced in operating mechanical equipment.

Minnesota

Calla Olson is a grasslands conservation fellow in the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands region of Minnesota. Like Binggeli, Olson has been capitavated with the natural world from an early age.

“Before I could walk and talk, my parents would take me on hikes, teaching me to identify and wonder at all that was around me. Our home in central Iowa was surrounded by nature. Rare grassland birds nested along our property. Foxes, skunks, raccoons and opossums were regular visitors and badgers and beavers could be spotted at a nearby tributary.”

Olson began to discover her interest in conservation in middle school.

“I started to realize that not everyone was as enthralled with nature as I was and that the very lifestyles people led – even my own – were at odds with the health of the natural world.”

Before even applying for college, Olson said she knew she wanted to work for the Conservancy one day.

“I’ve wanted to work for The Nature Conservancy ever since I picked up an issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine from my parent’s coffee table in high school. I knew these were ‘my people’ and this was the type of work I wanted to be doing.”

After graduating from Luther College with a degree in biology and partaking in multiple conservation-related volunteer opportunities and seasonal positions, Olson developed a passion for restoration and land stewardship.

Now, as a grasslands conservation fellow, Olson hopes to determine how she can best contribute to the world of conservation and restoration.

“This opportunity has been wonderful so far. I love restoring these landscapes.  If the work becomes difficult or monotonous, all I need to do is take a moment to look around and I’ll quickly find something to marvel at that reminds me why I’m out here in the dirt and weeds - to preserve and protect.”

North Dakota

The Nature Conservancy plans to hire a new grasslands conservation fellow for North Dakota in early 2018.

Sara DeMaria, who completed her fellowship with the Conservancy in the fall 2017, assisted at our Cross Ranch, Davis Ranch and John E. Williams preserves. She offered some advice for future fellows:

“Say ‘yes’ as often as you can. Things that I’d never thought about before my fellowship – like repairing wiring and preparing outreach materials – have become some of my favorite tasks. If I hadn’t said, ‘Yes, I can do that,’ I would have missed out on so much. This experience will meet and exceed your expectations. I have gained a much more complete picture of the work that is required to keep places like Cross Ranch healthy.”

Although the fellowship program was developed to provide in-depth learning and leadership opportunities to people interested in a career in conservation, the Conservancy has benefitted as well through the addition of year-round, experienced staff to help lead our management and research work. People such as Binggeli, Olson and DeMaria are important to the survival of prairies and to the Conservancy.

“We’d like to establish an endowment so we can continue to provide these opportunities to develop the next generation of grasslands stewards,” said Neal Feeken, who directs our grasslands program in the region. Anyone who is interested in supporting an endowment can contact Feeken via email.

One can also donate directly to support the Conservancy’s work in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.