“I think being outdoors for most of my childhood instilled a connection and appreciation of nature that is core to my being,” says Michelle Clark, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who works with partners to recover endangered species and protect and restore native ecosystems on Kauaʻi and Oʻahu.
Michelle grew up in rural Ohio, playing in the woods, pastures, and corn fields that surrounded her house. She spent her summers in India visiting her mother’s family, where water buffalo, wild dogs, camels, and the occasional elephant would pass by her family’s home in
Agra. “When in India, I loved seeing exotic animals, but was deeply affected by the pollution and poverty all around. I knew that I wanted to do something to help the environment,” she says.
When Michelle moved to Hawaiʻi in 1995, even with her natural magnetism toward the nature world, it took her some time to realize that she was living in the endangered species capital of the planet.
“Like most people, upon arriving and seeing the lush greenery and abundance of the islands, I was unaware that Hawaiʻi’s native ecosystems were under siege by invasive species.”
She was working as a waitress in Hanalei when a ranger from the Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge began frequently coming in for lunch. Michelle’s conversations with him galvanized her to begin volunteering at the refuge. After a few years of volunteering, she enrolled in the Conservation Biology, Evolution, and Ecology Program at the University of Hawaiʻi, Hilo. She remembers, “It was in my first few weeks at UH that I realized how spectacular and threatened Hawaiʻi’s native ecosystems are.”
Michelle believes that conserving native species in Hawaiʻi is vital. Healthy watersheds provide freshwater for residents and promote sustainability of our island communities. Hawaiʻi’s native species are integral components of Hawaiian culture, and some can be used as effective medicines. Further, she says, “I believe we should allow other life forms to live on the planet with us. Each species has its own intrinsic value. As we are approaching 8 billion people on the planet, our reach is felt literally everywhere on Earth through climate change, pollution and the spread of invasive species. As such, it is important to be better stewards of our finite natural resources, not only for ourselves but for other species.
“Many Hawaiian species have gone extinct as a direct result of invasive species which humans have brought to the islands. What remains of our native ecosystems are windows into the past, offering a hint of what the islands were like before the onslaught of invasive species. Our remaining endemic species are marvels of evolution; they evolved under uniquely Hawaiian conditions, truly shaped by the land and climate of these islands over millennia, they deserve protection.”
As a child, Michelle had no idea that she could do what she does now for a living. In addition to working as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she serves on the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources in the Natural Area Reserves System Commission as the Kauaʻi representative, and she is a board member of the West Kauaʻi non-profit, Hale Puna.
One of what she considers to be her greatest accomplishments is her work with the Kauaʻi Native Plant Society to create an exhibit at the United States Botanic Garden Conservatory (USBGC) in Washington D.C. Approximately 60 rare and endangered native Hawaiian plant species were included in the exhibit, titled “Our Nation’s Crown Jewels: Rare and Endangered Plants of Hawaii.” It received over 190,000 visitors and resulted in a permanent exhibition room of native Hawaiian plants at the USBGC. “The Hawaiian flora is one of the most threatened floras in the world and having a permanent exhibition in our nation’s capital at the USBGC offers opportunities to educate the public about Hawai’i’s endemism, biodiversity and need for conservation,” says Michelle.
She has also worked to conserve the montane wet forests of Kauaʻi with the Kauaʻi Watershed Alliance (KWA), Hawaiʻi Division of Forestry and Wildlife, and The Nature Conservancy. Since 2009, the groups have worked together to protect Kauaʻi’s primary source of freshwater along with dozens of endangered plants, birds, and invertebrates, from feral ungulates (pigs, goats and deer) and invasive weeds on lands within the Alakaʻi Wilderness Preserve.
Feral ungulates and invasive weeds degrade native forests and threaten endangered species. To date, around 5,600 acres of Kauaʻi’s highest elevation forests are managed for invasive weeds and have been fenced to exclude ungulates. Healthy native Hawaiian forests are much better at capturing and containing rainwater than degraded forests. It would be hard to grow food without freshwater–in order to achieve stronger food sovereignty, Hawaiʻi must emphasize healthy native Hawaiian forests.