Betsy Howell works full-time as a wildlife biologist for the Forest Service. But in her spare time she also juggles a full-time passion as a Civil War reenactor and author. Howell has worked for the agency for 19 years and currently works on the Olympic National Forest in Washington State.
While still in college, Howell started her career in 1986 as a spotted owl surveyor on the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon. After graduation, she moved to the Siskiyou National Forestin Southwest Oregon and became a permanent employee. During her early career, Howell took a leave of absence to work for the Peace Corps. Howell is one of those people who know how to stay productive and busy.
What made you leave the Forest Service for the Peace Corps?
I had always wanted to work overseas and the Peace Corps offered me a great way to get that experience. The Forest Service allowed me to take a leave of absence and the timing was right. I was young, mobile, spoke Spanish well, and the Corps had an opportunity to place me in South America. They were starting a new program in Argentina and wanted to place people in programs performing wildlife research or developing environmental education programs. Normally, Peace Corps is more oriented towards field work, but these positions involved working for universities, the government, and several non-governmental organizations.
They had three wildlife positions including one working on a mountain lion research project. My experience with carnivores included writing my senior paper in college on a population of mountain lions in central Idaho and some remote camera work I had done on the Siskiyou.
My Argentine counterpart and I studied livestock damage from mountain lions and the resulting economic impact on herding operations for small families. We followed goat herds from four families and documented the mortality of their animals, as well as gathered information from track and scat surveys on the cats. We learned the accurate reasons for what killed their goats such as vehicular accidents, disease or other reasons. We were also able to determine more information on the cats’ diets from the scats we collected. I felt very fortunate to work on a project in my field and advance my field of expertise.
How long was your tour with the Peace Corps?
I lived and worked in Argentina for two years. For something as complex as a mountain lion research project, two years wasn’t nearly enough time to accomplish the full spectrum of work, which also involved trapping and collaring the cats.
Do you know if they are still using your work in Argentina today?
When I left the country in 1994, two Argentine biologists continued the work with my counterpart. The next year, they wrote to tell me the government had not continued funding for the project. Besides my counterpart, there were others in the country very interested in conserving the large and small wildcats of Argentina, so hopefully good work is still going on.
Do you use some of the work methods from that experience to help you in your current job?
As a district biologist, I survey for different wildlife species including bald eagles, amphibians, fishers and martens. I’m also involved in habitat enhancement projects and participate on restoration planning teams. I’m fortunate that a fair bit of my job involves field work and I continue to be involved in remote camera survey work, though the technology has changed tremendously since 1991.
One of my most important current projects is participating on the Olympic Peninsula Fisher Reintroduction Project. Five years ago, these small members of the mustelid (weasel) family were reintroduced to the Peninsula from British Columbia. The work began after researchers had determined that fishers had become extirpated, that is, locally extinct on the Peninsula, due to over trapping and habitat removal. Through the use of remote cameras, we are now monitoring to see if they have become a self-sustaining population. We’re also partnering with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a non-profit organization out of Bozeman, Mont., to determine if the Pacific marten, another mustelid, has also become extirpated from the Peninsula.
Do you have any hobbies, interests or accomplishments?
I’m a writer in my spare time. I spend my mornings before work and on the weekends with pen in hand or at the computer writing essays on travel and natural history. Several years ago, I also published a memoir about my father and great-great-grandfather and their lives as soldiers. My great-great-grandfather, James Heath, served as a private in the Union Army and kept journals during that time from 1862-1865. My father, born in 1920, actually knew this man when he was a little boy and when he grew older was given James’ journals. Now they’re mine. Many years ago, I took two trips to the Midwest and to the South to retrace our ancestor’s travels. At the same time, I began to research my father’s experiences as a paratrooper during World War II. How the combat experiences of these two men in my family affected my own life is the premise of the memoir.
When I finished, I found I didn’t want to leave the Civil War behind, so I started my first novel.
How long did it take you to complete the novel?
It has taken six years. Again, it’s hard to leave behind characters I’ve become so fond of, so now I’m working on a second novel, told from the point of view of a minor character from the first novel.
Part of my research has involved Civil War reenacting. There were a number of 19th century women who passed as men and served in both armies during the war. It’s very interesting how they were able to do this – and it’s not a well-told story. Back then, men and women looked very different. If you were a woman, you had long hair and you wore a dress and bonnet and you could only do certain things. On the other hand, if someone appeared who had short hair and wore a blouse and trousers, he was a man - no questions asked. When these women went to the recruiting office they had only to show they had good teeth, which they needed to tear open the paper cartridges containing bullets and powder, and a trigger finger to fire the gun.
If you could have dinner with a few famous people from history who would they be?
My top person would, of course, be Abraham Lincoln. There are so many reasons to admire the man, but one trait in particular is his incredible ability to not take things personally. And to keep his eye always focused on the big picture and the long term. Plus, he was such a wonderful storyteller, so who wouldn’t want to spend an evening listening to him talk?
I would also like to sit down with any of the women soldiers I’ve read about over the years. There is often very little written about those who served successfully and were never discovered. Only they know their stories and it would be fascinating to hear them!
What do you like about working for the Forest Service?
I think having a specific area of land to work on, in this case the Olympic National Forest, and being able to experience that land and watch it change over time is a great thing. I know of wildlife biologists in other agencies that don’t have that so I feel very fortunate. Being out in the woods reminds me about why I got into this work in the first place and it also infuses me with the enthusiasm I felt that first summer calling owls so many years ago. It’s quite a responsibility, too.
I think the Forest Service has a huge challenge because we serve and try to please so many disparate groups of people. There are many different ideas about what people want from their national forests, and sometimes those desires align and sometimes they conflict. This leads to the second reason I love the agency – the extraordinarily dedicated people I work with now and have worked with over the years. The task of managing the nation’s forests calls for strong, focused, passionate individuals. It’s a pleasure for me to work beside them. It’s hard to imagine being anywhere else, actually.