Stories in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota

Fellowships Help Develop New Environmental Stewards

Meet Our Science and Grassland Conservation Fellows!

Members of the science team touring a prairie.
Science Team Members of the science team touring a prairie. © Katie Volk

This page was updated on July 29, 2020.

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 grassland conservationists, so it’s a problem we wanted to help solve.

We're pleased to welcome emerging conservation leaders in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota through opportunities like the Ellen Ordway Grassland and Paulson Grassland Conservation fellowships.

South Dakota

Eric Behrens’ love affair with conservation and the natural world started early. His childhood memories include catching frogs and snakes, swimming and chasing fish. But one memory in particular sticks out for Eric…

“We had a career day in elementary school and I showed up wearing my Steve Irwin shirt, I had my plastic crocodile with me, and I told everyone I wanted to be a naturalist.” Pointing to this moment as one of the earlier memories on his path to a career in conservation, Eric laughed as he described the divergent paths taken between then and now.

Ultimately Eric ended up earning his undergrad in ecology at the University of Northern Iowa, and later his master’s in biology from the University of Nebraska. When he wasn’t studying, he was learning first-hand from the Tallgrass Prairie Center as a volunteer where he began to develop his skills around prairie restoration techniques and further his knowledge and appreciation of plant ecology.

Eric’s love of grasslands brought him back to TNC (he served as a seasonal botanist for the chapter in 2017) where he now works as an Ellen Ordway Grassland Fellow based out of Leola, SD. Despite the unusual circumstances of this year’s field season, Eric feels right at home at his new post. A self-described plant-nerd, he loves finding rare plants and sharing those observations with others.

Moving forward, Eric is looking forward to honing some of his existing skills—fire management, sustainable grazing strategies and invasive species management—while also developing some newer skills, like community outreach and scientific communication.

Minnesota

Nina Hill’s passion for nature and the outdoors is rooted in childhood experiences like catching turtles from the neighbor’s pond and picking wildflower bouquets for her mom. But she didn’t always envision herself on a conservation science career path.

“I’m a late bloomer,” she shared with a laugh. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.”

Having earned her undergrad in biology from Augustana College and not feeling super sure about what to do with it, Nina’s natural curiosity has taken her many places including Massachusetts, Florida, Colorado and grad school to name a few. Though the common theme throughout was the opportunity to expand her education beyond academia.

As the chapter’s Science Fellow, Nina has been able to leverage her skills and passion for a number of on-the-ground science conservation projects, including our ongoing Dakota skipper research. But looking ahead, she’s hopeful this fellowship will help her hone her skills as a communicator, explaining “we can do all of the best science in the world but our true impact will be measured by how we communicate and collaborate to achieve results.”

North Dakota

Autumn Jensen has seen some pretty cool things out in the field, though few have gotten her as excited as the porcupines that live at Cross Ranch. “I’ve seen more porcupines here this spring than I’ve seen my whole life in Minnesota,” she excitedly shares. “They look like really small bears the way they lumber around.”

Like most of us, Autumn Jensen has had a strong connection to nature for as long as she can remember. But unlike many TNC’ers, Autumn didn’t really know she wanted a career in conservation until she started building one.

Attributing much of her development to the Conservation Corps of Minnesota & Iowa, Autumn has jumped into her fellowship headfirst and has been gaining lots along the way including new plant identification skills and a deeper understanding of mixed-prairie ecosystems. Through her work with TNC, Autumn hopes to shift public perception towards prairies and help others appreciate just how special these landscapes are.

“That’s where I’d like to go…to try to get the message out about how diverse and beautiful a prairie can be if you just look at it,” she explains. Additionally, Autumn is looking forward to gaining more experience with operating and maintaining heavy machinery. So if you see Autumn rolling by on a tractor this summer, be sure to give her a thumbs up!