Biologist Sheila Conant wins national conservation award

January 15, 2014  |   |  Comments
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Sheila Conant

Sheila Conant

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Professor Sheila Conant has won the American Ornithologists’ Union’s Ralph W. Schreiber Award. The award honors extraordinary scientific contributions to the conservation, restoration and preservation of birds and their habitats. Conant has studied Hawaiʻi’s native and endangered species for nearly 50 years.

“I love plants and animals, and knew early on that I wanted to study native organisms,” said Conant, who grew up in Mānoa and prefers to describe herself as a naturalist first and a biologist second.

Conant’s recent research and scientific papers have focused on geographic variation in morphology, genetics, and behaviors of three endangered birds in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and how birds were used in pre-contact Hawaiian material culture.

“Sheila has an inquiring mind,” said Betsy Gagné of the State of Hawaiʻi’s Natural Area Reserve System Commission, a longtime professional colleague and friend. “She sets a high standard of excellence that’s unassailable. But for me, it’s her sense of humor and her own productivity that sets her apart.”

Gagné cites Conant’s quirky devotion to SPAM as an example of her welcome humor. The popular canned meat product is Conant’s nickname of choice for a conservation approach advocating ’science, policy and management’–and has prompted a legion of inside jokes and SPAM-related gift paraphernalia from her devoted students.

Conant releasing a Millerbird

Conant releasing a Millerbird at Laysan Island (photo by Ryan Hagerty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

In addition to her academic research, Conant has written numerous management plans that have been used to inform the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s actions and policy decisions. Notably, she helped establish the scientific basis for the USFWS Nihoa Millerbird Translocation Project, which brought a second population of the rare bird to Laysan Island to guard against its possible extinction.

Conant had the opportunity to participate in the second translocation expedition during which 26 birds were captured on Nihoa and moved to Laysan in 2012. The project is widely considered a conservation success story. “It is incredibly rewarding to go out and see that the things that you wrote could actually be done,” she said.

Despite various success stories, Conant’s conservation efforts remain an uphill battle. Hawaiʻi has suffered more extinctions than any other geographic area its size. And in a career that has spanned more than four decades, Conant has lost a number of species she counted as friends.

UH Mānoa professor David Duffy recalled a story about Conant’s 1975 research trip to the remote Alakaʻi Swamp on Kauaʻi. She wrote about the expedition only after Hurricane Iniki ripped through the islands in 1992. Scientists revisiting the same areas they had surveyed in the seventies found no trace of the native Kauaʻi Ōʻō, Kāmaʻo, or the island population of ʻŌʻū birds. “Sheila wrote a very moving paper about the experience,” Duffy said. “She never thought she would be among the last to see them alive.”

But of all the hazards facing Hawaiʻi’s native organisms Conant identifies predation or competition by non-native weeds and animal pests as the largest threat to Hawaiʻi’s agriculture, watershed and native species. She believes political action must go hand in hand with research, management and monitoring and has carefully and consistently asserted the importance of strong science and engagement to support conservation activities.

“Sheila has an amazing way of bringing complex topics down to a personal level,” says colleague Cliff Morden, an associate professor in the UH Mānoa Department of Botany. “It doesn’t matter if she is talking with other faculty, administrators, students, or people she meets in the field. She has a way to relate to them and to make everybody feel like a friend she’s known for ages.”

Read the full Kaunānā story for more on Conant.

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