A Career in Collaboration and Conservation
by Nikki McCoy
“It’s a great honor to be entrusted with this responsibility and to be doing work to tackle one of the defining challenges of our time,” Helbrecht said.
“I get to partner with people on the leading edge of their field,” she continued. “I appreciate that this kind of work allows me to keep learning. For instance, how to integrate science from the university level out into the field—that’s exciting and I love being part of it.”
She credits Evergreen for her foundation in collaboration and for her ability to analyze and comprehend complex issues.
“Looking back I can see that my Evergreen years planted the seed that we could face these big-picture issues, these very challenging, future-defining issues,” she said. “My whole career emerged from my time at Evergreen. It was a very foundational learning experience, with its interdisciplinary thinking and focus on key environmental challenges.”
Big Picture, Millions of Organisms
Before joining WDFW, she spent five years coordinating a private/public partnership with the Washington Biodiversity Council housed within state government. She recalled, “The idea was to foster a more collaborative approach to conservation, to think about the full breadth of life on Earth when we think about conservation—not only iconic species and landscape, but also the millions of tiny organisms that drive the food chain.
“It was a great example of how people representing very different political interests (ranchers, conservationists, foresters, agencies) could come together around a common goal.” Helbrecht’s work on that project culminated in a 30-year biodiversity conservation strategy for the state.
Prior to the Biodiversity Council position, Helbrecht worked for two years as the Sustainability Coordinator for Governor Locke.
“It was important to look at ways to bring sustainability into state government and how we approach public policy and procedure,” she noted. “It was an extraordinary opportunity to consider sustainability from that perspective—at the highest levels of state government.”
Her combined experiences with challenges—and the levers for change—brought her to her current leadership and facilitation role. Helbrecht applies for grants, leads teams to conduct projects, develops tools, creates educational materials, and hosts workshops—all aimed at helping the agency to understand and respond to the risks of climate change. For example, she held a recent workshop to provide usability training for a brand new tool that enables biologists to learn about climate vulnerability for 268 species, identify the greatest conservation needs, then craft species and ecosystem recovery plans that take into account the added stress of climate change.
“Because so much climate science is new, we are still exploring how to apply it to our work,” she said of the new tool.
A Tangible Threat
Climate change is an increasingly tangible threat to Washington species and habitats, with rising temperatures in rivers, shifting conditions for ecosystems, flooding, and changes in stream flow as just a few of the complexities. And animals are already migrating due to these changes.
Helbrecht and her team are able to identify new corridors for wildlife movement, implement properly sized culverts for fish migration, and prioritize protection strategies. They are also committed to reviewing strategic goals around fish and wildlife needs as Washington moves toward low-carbon and no-carbon energy infrastructure, such as the impacts of wind turbines on shrubsteppe habitat.
“That’s a big area of focus for us, we’re very engaged in mitigation actions,” she said. “As we look at utility and energy development, we want to engage proactively with utilities to figure out where those suitable locations are—where there is interest in development and potential for reduced impacts on the resources we care about.”
WDFW is also looking at internal policies to support these common goals, she said. “We’re developing a policy to consider climate change in the planning and design of what we’re calling climate-sensitive investments,” she explained, “to identify areas of our agency that are at highest risk, to ensure staff and managers are thinking ahead to how the future climate will impact the performance of new hatcheries and roads, and to consider the longterm success of our investments as we develop wildlife recovery plans and secure new lands for habitat.”
Collaboration is Critical
She also noted that climate change work can’t be done alone. WDFW collaborates extensively with the Washington family of state agencies and federal partners, sits on the steering committee for Northwest Climate Science Center, and works across geographical borders, into Canada and Idaho.
“There are a lot of opportunities to work hand-in-hand with other organizations to understand and respond to the effects of climate change,” she said. “One of the ways I’ve been successful in my work is through that collaborative approach. It’s definitely been very important to me. It’s something I’ve tried to enrich in myself and bring to my colleagues and the work that I do.”