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Biologist Sheila Conant wins national conservation award

The Ralph W. Schreiber award honors extraordinary scientific contributions to the conservation, restoration, and preservation of birds and their habitats

Sheila Conant

Dr. Sheila Conant, winner of the American Ornithologists’ Union’s Ralph W. Schreiber Award.

Dr. Sheila Conant, a former chair of the UH Mānoa Zoology Department who has studied Hawai‘i’s native and endangered species for nearly 50 years, has won the American Ornithologists’ Union’s Ralph W. Schreiber Award.

Conant is an O‘ahu native and graduate of MaryknollHigh School and the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.  She earned her Masters in Botany and her PhD. in Zoology at the University of Oklahoma.

“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.

“I also knew that I was more of a forest person than an aquatic person. So, the natural thing if you live in Hawai‘i and you want to study native organisms is to study birds or insects – and I was for the birds!” she quipped.

For her undergraduate honors thesis, Conant researched the life history and breeding biology of the O‘ahu ‘elepaio, a bird that was still common when she graduated from UH Mānoa in 1966.  Today, the ‘elepaio is listed as endangered, its numbers now having plummeted to about 1,000 birds found only in a limited range in the Ko’olau and Wai’anae mountains.

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 Hawai‘i’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. “Conservation can be an exhausting subject – it’s more like a calling – but Sheila has always inspired students to get out and do the work,” Gagné said.

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 releasing a Nihoa Millerbirds on Nihoa Island

Sheila Conant releasing a translocated Nihoa Millerbird on Laysan Island in 2012 (photo by Ryan Hagerty, USFWS).

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.

But it remains an uphill battle.  Hawai‘i 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 Alaka’i Swamp on Kaua‘i.  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 Kaua‘i O‘o, Kama‘o, or the island population of ‘O‘u 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 Hawai‘i’s native organisms, Conant believes that the largest threat is clear.

“The single greatest threat to Hawai‘i’s agriculture, watershed and native species is predation or competition by non-native weeds and animal pests,” Conant told a packed audience for her keynote speech at the Hawai‘i Conservation Alliance 20th Annual Conservation Conference in 2012.  “Research, management, and monitoring without political action will not change the downward spiral of watershed and native ecosystem loss.”

Rarely speechless, and never one to shy away from controversy, Conant 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, a professor in the UH Mānoa Botany Department.  “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.”

Conant joined the faculty at UH Mānoa as an assistant professor in 1975, following a two-and-a-half year postdoc in the Zoology and Botany Departments.  She became a full professor in 1992.  Conant served as chair of the Department of Zoology from 2001 to 2007.  She is now a professor emeritus, actively serving as a committee member for several Masters and Ph.D. candidates in Zoology and Biology.

Conant received the Ralph W. Schreiber award at the American Ornithologists’ Union’s 131st Annual Meeting.  She was previously been recognized for excellence in Teaching, Research and Community Service at University of Hawai‘i, and received awards from the Hawaii Audubon Society and the Hawai‘i Conservation Alliance (formerly Secretariat for Conservation Biology) for Lifetime Achievement. Conant won the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Champion Award in 2012.

About the American Ornithologists’ Union:  http://www.aou.org/

The mission of the American Ornithologists’ Union (founded in 1883)  is to advance the scientific understanding of birds, to enrich ornithology as a profession, and to promote a rigorous scientific basis for the conservation of birds.  AOU’s Ralph W. Schreiber award honors extraordinary scientific contributions to the conservation, restoration, and preservation of birds and their habitats.  Schreiber was a prominent figure in the AOU, known for his enthusiasm, energy and dedication to research and conservation, particularly of seabirds.

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