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USFWS welcomes Bridget Olson to the helm

Bridget Olson takes over for Tom Kerr as the new Project Leader for the St. Croix Wetlands Management District / Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

Just in time to be serenaded by the calls of returning Canada geese and sandhill cranes, Bridget Olson takes over as the new project leader of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) St. Croix Wetlands Management District (SCWMD).

Olson steps into a position grown under the guidance of her predecessor, Tom Kerr, who left to take on the responsibilities of a regional refuge supervisor last fall.

“Tom was exceptional at the partnership end of it. I think it was a personal interest and goal of his. Not every refuge or wetland management district (WMD) to this day has a friends group. If people don’t know the opportunity is out there, you have to start and foster those relationships, open their eyes to opportunities and that’s what Tom did,” said Olson.

Olson promises to bring her own vision to her new position. Her love of the outdoors was fostered from an early age growing up on a farm in rural Omaha, Neb.

“My earliest memories were of digging in the dirt, digging in the creek, and dissecting bugs. I was always outside. I didn’t really know all the career choices at that time, so of course I was leaning toward veterinary science,” Olson recalled.

That all changed when she read a book about a wildlife biologist and the idea of a different path was planted. When it came time to begin pursuing that path, she chose Northland College in Ashland where she earned her BA and also met her husband. Northland was also where she got her first opportunity to work with the USFWS.

“I started out as an intern and got a job looking at stomach contents of Lake Superior salmon, which was kind of fun. Basically you’re dissecting fish guts. One of the most interesting things I pulled out was a bird’s leg out of a lake trout. It gave me a lot more perspective on birds and the challenge they face crossing Lake Superior,” said Olson.

Following Northland, Olson hired on with the US Forest Service as part of a timber marking crew, eventually leading to an opportunity to work for USFWS out of a new office in Ashland where she provided assistance to Native American tribes and the National Park Service as a fisheries technician. Even though working on Lake Superior had its attraction, wildlife remained Olson’s first love.

“My heart was always in wildlife. Once my foot was in the door with the FWS, I found out there were other major divisions and refuges was one of them. So I started applying for wildlife biologist positions and got my first gig at Swan Lake Refuge in Missouri. By then I had a husband and two children in tow,” said Olson.

Following Swan Lake, Olson worked at the Big Stone Refuge in western Minnesota, and from there she moved out west to work at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. One of the attractive aspects of working for the USFWS are the ongoing opportunities to match your interests with the needs of the service. You are encouraged to bite off as much as you can chew. The tradition of growing up through the ranks helped Olson understand and appreciate the mission and the method to how the service works. After specializing for 20 years as a wildlife biologist, Olson was looking for a change.

“The FWS has been a fantastic fit for me. It never gets stale; there’s always an opportunity to keep learning at a different level. Because I had the schooling and because I was willing to move, I was able to make the transition from a technician into management. Through all those different experiences, I learned that my real love is managing for waterfowl, for shorebirds,” said Olson.

In the field, Olson was focused on answering specific questions pertaining to management. Eventually she realized she wanted a bigger picture. It became about reaching out and working with different partners, state partners, universities and community activists, the conservation quilt.

“It’s really about letting the American public know this is who we are, these are the services we provide and the education component that comes with that. People need to know how their tax dollars are being used. If people don’t understand what value we provide, then we’re in danger of becoming irrelevant. In light of younger people’s obsession with smartphones and video games, given that challenge, how are we going to remain relevant as an agency? To convince young people to care about the value of recreation and wildlife, clean air and clean water, we have to do something different. That’s what attracted me to the big picture,” said Olson.

One of the answers has been to create urban refuges. Refuges and WMD located outside major urban populations bring the resources and opportunities closer to a broader audience. The focus then becomes connecting with constituents by promoting opportunities to volunteer, become a member or provide financial support.  

Olson got her first opportunity to try her hand at management at her last stop as deputy project leader at Litchfield Wetlands Management District spanning 12 counties, 140 WPAs and 30,000 acres just west of Minneapolis. After four years on the fringe of the Twin Cities, Olson and her husband were looking for an opportunity to move closer to home and family.

New Richmond fit the bill.

“I love this size community. Working in the metro, I didn’t feel a part of the community. I really missed that, saying ‘hi’ to people I know at the grocery store. I wanted to get back to that,” said Olson.

Olson’s looking forward to acclimating to her new community and getting to know her staff.

“We have some of the best staff and dedicated staff. It’s easy because we have a mission that is very focused and that makes it an easy cause to get behind. Everyone’s passion shines through,” said Olson.

Olson understands her role as project leader is to enable and empower her team to do their jobs to the best of their abilities and by doing so, restoring habitat along the way. After getting reconnected, Olson plans to meet individually with the members of her staff to learn about what they are working on, what their priorities are and how she can help put them in positions to succeed.

“The beauty of being a project leader in the FWS National Refuge System is that we have policies in place and an overarching mission that’s not going to change, but there is also a lot of freedom as to how to implement that conservation on the ground. That’s my responsibility as the project leader. I am assured coming in that I have experts in the field. That enables me to focus on creating and sustaining partnerships, education and community outreach. I want to do the visioning and I want to work with the community, so this is a new opportunity for me. What does it take? How do we keep people engaged? I would couch that idea as creating a connected conservation community,” said Olson.

Olson appreciates that there might be some apprehension out there when it comes to the new administration and potential changes coming down the road, but she’s confident in the mission of the USFWS and the people dedicated to carrying out that mission.

“I have seen the ups and downs that come with different administrations. But I have so much faith in our mission. We have great policy in place and as long as we have our constituents that support us, I am always optimistic that we will have the tools to continue our mission and continue to be here for wildlife and the people that enjoy it.”

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

The Mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.