Portrait of Craig Groves
Big Conservation Groves, a biologist, is leading a cooperative that puts policy experts and scientists in the same room. © Mike Greener

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Interview: Craig Groves

A career wildlife biologist is now leading a partnership that aims to find ways to protect nature while enhancing prosperity and human well-being.

April/May 2016

Courtney Leatherman Freelance Writer


You once told your mother you’d be happy if your job allowed you to wear blue jeans to work every day. You’re more than 30 years into it as a lifelong scientist. Where does that wardrobe goal stand?

I’ve pretty much made it.

Congratulations. You’ve also said you’re at the pinnacle of your career with your new job leading SNAP—Science for Nature and People—which is a collaboration of The Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. What excites you about this new position and group?

SNAP is very much a partnership. It was created to solve some of the toughest conservation problems facing people and the nature they depend on. We’ve set up working groups, which include scientists, policymakers and corporate leaders. And the groups are funded for only two years. We’re looking for rapid research and ideas that can be implemented.

Scanning the topics the 20-some groups are working on, SNAP seems to be all over the map: hydraulic fracturing, the Chinese ivory trade, sustainable aquaculture. Even religion and conservation. How are these groups moving forward on so many different issues? 

Most conservation projects that involve trying to do well for both people and nature involve trade-offs. Many SNAP working groups are exploring these trade-offs.

For example?

Take our group working on Amazon waters. Several migratory fish species live there. They are big business and a big source of local protein. The Amazon Basin is also the site of many proposed dams, which could have significant impacts on the rivers and the fish. The SNAP working group mapped the distribution of 30 commercially important migratory fish species to find out which areas of the basin are most important for them. And the group developed a watershed map that’s overlaid with the maps for fish and for planned dams. Now we’ve got a big picture of the entire basin that allows countries to work across borders. We’ve already engaged government agencies in Peru and Brazil.

When you started out, your work was all about protecting animals. But it seems like you’ve been sidetracked by people. What happened?

I would say both nature and people are the focus of my conservation work. That is not without controversy, especially in North America. But there probably isn’t a major conservation project in the world that doesn’t involve people both as the source of the conservation problem and as a part of the solution.

Still, it was the animals that drew you in, right?

At Wake Forest University I was a pre-med student for three and a half years. Then in January of my senior year, I took a course on the ecology of East Africa. I went there with a professor and got to see all kinds of wildlife research across Kenya and Tanzania. That completely changed what I wanted to do in life. That was the end of pre-med.

And the beginning of studying obscure Western animal species: Coeur d’Alene salamanders, flammulated owls, northern bog lemmings?

I was the only non game-species biologist for the entire state of Idaho for about a decade starting in the mid-’80s, and federal and Idaho state agencies were funding a lot of that work. I got to travel all over Idaho. Those were exciting days.

It must also have been exciting when you were working in Wyoming on a survey of black-footed ferrets, which at the time were listed as endangered and thought to possibly be extinct.

It was a long time ago, and I can’t remember too many details. But some of the weeks in the winter of 1981 were incredibly cold. I can remember during the daytime walking prairie dog colonies looking for signs of ferrets in the sun, and it was sometimes minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. It wasn’t always that cold, but it was quite a physically tough winter to find ferrets, though we ended up finding quite a few.

Speaking of physically tough, I hear you’re a trail runner. You take 15- to 20-mile runs a few times a week at your home in Bozeman, Montana, to train for your annual marathon. Why?

It’s a good stress reducer.

What kinds of wildlife encounters do you have on the trail when you’re running?

I tend to go in areas where I’m less likely to run into a bear. But certainly I see deer and elk, and as the summer goes on, and I can run up high, I see mountain sheep and mountain goats and occasionally a moose. For me, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Ah, but it does, right? If you’ve got your iPod, and Taylor Swift and Katy Perry are along for the run. How many of your science buddies know about your thing for pop divas?

Too many.

Courtney Leatherman spent a decade as an editor for Nature Conservancy. She now contributes to the magazine as a freelance writer.