Meet Stuart Wells, Bird Alliance of Oregon’s New Executive Director

Bird Alliance of Oregon is thrilled to welcome our new executive director, Stuart Wells, to the Bird Alliance of Oregon flock. We wanted to start off his tenure by helping our community get to know Stuart, his background, and why he’s so passionate about protecting habitat and wildlife and connecting people with nature.

a photo of Stuart Wells standing in the sanctuary

What inspired you to dedicate your career to conservation?

Growing up in Indiana, I loved nature and wildlife. But in the early 1970s, I was not aware of wildlife conservation. I have always been mindful of the impact we humans have on the natural world. My small town of Logansport would often be shrouded in a gray cloud of coal dust created by the coal processing plant located in town. I wondered what the long-term impact on my health that breathing in the air would cause. I read Rachel Carson’s work Silent Spring, which ignited an environmental movement, led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and paved the way for other important pieces of environmental protection legislation such as the Clean Air Act of 1970, Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. These important ecological actions impacted me, and I developed a respect for the natural environment. However, it was not until I discovered Arizona’s diverse ecology that I began to appreciate the incredible beauty of the natural world and the importance of maintaining habitats and species biodiversity.

I embrace Aldo Leopold’s idea of a land ethic where relationships between people and the earth we live on are intertwined. As I began my career working in wildlife organizations, I focused on how to maintain and improve the habitats where species live. Throughout my career, wildlife and habitat conservation has been a guiding principle directly influencing my research and advocacy for maintaining species biodiversity. The more people know what is required for a species to survive, the less inclined they will be to condone actions that lead to their demise, which is why I am also a fierce advocate of developing community-based species education programs.

You have a deep history in recovering endangered species. Can you tell us about that work?

I have worked with many endangered species during positions I have held, beginning as an animal keeper and in subsequent roles as a biologist, supervisory biologist, director of animal husbandry, and director of conservation and science. A common denominator throughout these roles is my desire to seek ways to understand what these species need to survive in the wild. An underlying factor for most species threatened with extinction is human-caused impacts on their environment, overexploitation, or habitat destruction. Present-day humans are slow at adopting a land ethic. This allows for increased human impacts on species, their habitats, and the environment. For this reason, I am dedicated to finding ways to mitigate species losses, especially human-caused species declines, and to seek ways to inform people of the importance of understanding how we impact the world.

Stuart Wells surveys for springsnail, a Federally listed species on the endangered species list.

Early on, while working as an animal keeper, I had an opportunity to see impactful wildlife conservation occurring with the program to save the Arabian Oryx—dubbed Operation Oryx. These antelope were near extinction in the early 1960s, and the Phoenix Zoo led the way in saving this species by developing a successful ex situ [living outside of its natural habitat] breeding program. What was unique about Operation Oryx is that from the inception of the program, they determined that offspring born in zoos would be returned to the wild. A collaborative effort between many wildlife organizations would be necessary for the program’s success. I was fortunate to work at the Phoenix Zoo caring for the Arabian Oryx when some of our animals were loaded up for transport back into the wild in Oman after being declared extinct. The Arabian Oryx is living in the wild and is upgraded from extinct in the wild to “vulnerable.” 

This experience left a lasting impression on me. I realized that conservation organizations and zoos could play a critical role in wildlife species’ survival. Also, while at the Phoenix Zoo, I was honored to bring the first breeding group of Black-footed Ferrets to the zoo and become one of only six facilities to help establish their breeding program. 

One of the challenges that endangered zoo-managed animals have is that often very little is known about their nutritional, behavioral, and reproductive management needs. I found this common issue stimulated my need to understand more, which led me to develop research to help to answer questions about zoo-managed animal needs, especially reproductive and behavioral needs. One animal in my charge as an animal keeper was the African Cheetah. In early 1980, only 10 percent of the ex situ population of cheetahs had ever reproduced. This fact, coupled with their critically endangered status in the wild, made it untenable to continue to obtain wild animals for zoos. I was determined to develop an effective breeding program for cheetahs and established a behavioral study to examine the effects of varied management strategies on their ability to reproduce.  

How did that interest in endangered species lead to you helping to establish the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation’s Conservation and Science Center, a facility dedicated for holding species destined for reintroduction into the wild?

After many years of working to facilitate wildlife conservation in zoos, I had the opportunity to develop a department at the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation/Phoenix Zoo. This department—Native Species Conservation Center—was created entirely for holding threatened or endangered species for release into the wild. We worked closely with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Arizona Game and Fish to identify species needing population augmentation. Holding the species often required the development of breeding strategies through behavioral and non-invasive physiology research. We worked with many taxa and species, including Black-footed Ferrets, Chiricahua Leopard Frogs, Narrow-headed Garter Snakes, Desert Pupfish, and Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls. We were responsible for rearing and releasing thousands of animals into the southwestern habitats. More recently, I’ve studied the behavior and physiological needs of the endangered Mt. Graham Red Squirrel for my Ph.D. to develop a reproductive strategy for this endangered species. Having this opportunity to establish local endangered species reintroduction programs fulfilled a career-long quest to be directly involved in field conservation to reduce the likelihood of a species becoming extinct.

How have you worked to engage the public in conservation?

I have talked about informing communities about the importance of maintaining species and their habitats. I have accomplished this by developing informal public education programs, creating outdoor opportunities for young people, especially those with limited opportunities to learn and explore nature, and offering paid conservation internships collaborating with BIPOC community members. I have also worked with volunteers to develop in-depth and informative education programs designed to increase public awareness about the importance of species biodiversity and about our role in helping to conserve species and species habitats.  

I am excited that Bird Alliance of Oregon has an extraordinary history of engaging the community about the importance of protecting bird species, with Bird Alliance of Oregon’s numerous adult education, youth education, and community science programs providing endless opportunities for learning about bird species conservation and insight into the wonders of the natural world.   

What made you want to become the next executive director of Bird Alliance of Oregon?

Bird Alliance of Oregon’s “Together with Nature” tagline perfectly aligns with my land ethic belief that our ultimate survival depends on respecting and maintaining the natural world’s rich biodiversity. The other overarching desire to join Bird Alliance of Oregon is the incredible dedication of the team members and volunteers. They are critical to Bird Alliance of Oregon’s success. One of my goals as executive director is to help celebrate the many positive impacts on species and habitat conservation that this organization has accomplished throughout its 120-year history. I am excited to learn and share in detail the extent of our work and engage the Oregon community in celebrating our incredible conservation legacy. I will continue to build on this rich and successful history of bird and wildlife species conservation, advocacy, and community engagement in wildlife conservation. Along with my passion for engaging the community in wildlife conservation and the incredible diversity of bird species, I apply my knowledge of wildlife biology, scientific research, wildlife rehabilitation, animal behavior knowledge, and my 20+ years of leadership roles to the organization. I look forward to celebrating Bird Alliance of Oregon’s legacy of successful species conservation, habitat preservation, and community involvement in embracing a dynamic land ethic philosophy.