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Wild Women
5 Top Women In Conservation
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Leah Thomas
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Women in Conservation

There have been many women through the years who have paved the way for the conservation movement in the United States and the world. While we know that the contributions of women in history have been overshadowed by those contributions of equal or less successful men, it is important to honor and recognize those who may not have been properly honored and recognized in the past. From National Wildlife Federation leaders to pilots and researchers, we highlight five of the most prominent women in conservation history.

History of Women in Conservation

Although women are still underrepresented in international decisions made regarding climate change, there are a number of notable women involved in conservation careers today and through history — as scientists, researchers, writers, journalists, activists and more. 

Women have worked to launch the Clean Power Plan, the EPA’s plan to limit the carbon pollution produced by power plants, as well as a conservation movement to protect the world’s wildlife. There are now programs like the National Wildlife Federation’s Great American Campout program, which works to get young girls and women to spend time outdoors. 

Women, Environment, Development was launched in the 1970s to discover alternative ways to integrate environmental protection with modernization and industrialization. And WED was based around the idea of ecofeminism — a belief that women have a biological connection to nature. 

While some argue that these programs placed the world’s problems on women’s shoulders only, it gave women a platform into environmental advocacy. 

Top Women in Conservation

1. Martha Darling

Martha Darling is a member of the National Wildlife Federation President’s Leadership Council. She has been a member for over 20 years, in which she helped launch the Wolfpack. The Wolfpack is an organization of Michigan men and women fighting for water, air and land policies. With the Wolfpack, Darling has also worked to raise millions of dollars for the NWF and its environmental fight. 

Darling also helped to re-launch the NWF Action Fund. Martha has led the Action Fund, fighting for wildlife support in Washington D.C. In April of 2016, Darling was awarded the National Conservation Achievement Award for her work at the National Wildlife Federation. 

2. Margaret Murie

The late Margaret Murie has been referred to as the “grandmother of the conservation movement.” Murie worked diligently with her husband, Olaus, who was president of the Wilderness Society from 1950 to 1957. The two studied caribou in Alaska’s Brooks Range, studied elk in the Teton Mountains of Wyoming, gave speeches and advocated for the protection of America’s wilderness and its animal populations. The couple traveled with zoologist George Schaller in 1956 back to Alaska — a trip which inspired legislation that led to the 1960 Arctic National Wildlife Range.

Murie campaigned for the Wilderness Act, the Alaska National interest Lands Conservation Act and more. In 1980, Murie was awarded the Audubon Medal. And in 1998, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-president Bill Clinton. 

3. Jane Goodall

Goodall is recognized mainly for her research with chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. 

After completing school at age 18, Goodall relocated to Africa to work with Louis Leakey, a paleontologist and anthropologist. With Leakey, she began observing the behavior of chimpanzees at Gombe in 1960. Goodall’s findings corrected various false beliefs previously held about chimpanzees. She found that they are not vegetarian, but rather, omnivorous. Chimpanzees can make and use tools, and more. Goodall has written books and articles about her research and observation of chimpanzees, including The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior and In the Shadow Man

Goodall has been recognized for her conservation work. The University of Cambridge awarded her a Ph.D. in ethology in 1965. She became a UN Messenger of Peace in 2002 and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2003. And in 1977, she worked to launch the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation. A documentary, titled Jane, premiered in 2017 and showcased her life’s work. 

4. Mollie H. Beattie

Mollie Beattie has a long list of notable conservation positions. She was the Program Director and Lands Manager for the Windham Foundation from 1983 to 1985 where she worked to advance the social and cultural activities of Vermont’s rural communities and life. She then managed wildlife habitats and headed 48 state parks as Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. Beattie went on to become the Deputy Secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, as well as the Project Director for a habitat program dedicated to game birds. 

Most notably, Beattie was appointed as the first female director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993, where she was in charge of 7,000 employees and a $501 million yearly budget. Beattie created an additional 15 national wildlife refuges, created 140 plans for habitat conservation and initiated the creation of almost 300 more. Beattie fought for the Endangered Species Act when it was up against congressional Republicans, and she established the first ever National Wildlife Refuge Week in order to raise awareness. 

Beattie died to brain cancer in 1996. A 1,000-acre habitat community was named after her in Mustang Island, Texas. And President Bill Clinton named an eight million acre area in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after Beattie when he signed the Mollie Beattie Wilderness Area Act. 

5. Sandra Lanham

Sandra Lanham is the founder of Environmental Flying Services, a nonprofit which works to aid the United States, Mexico and Central America in the countries’ environmental protection efforts. Lanham is a pilot and an environmentalist. She was contacted by the Nature Conservancy to pilot a wildlife recon mission in Mexico where they searched for endangered pronghorn antelope. The mission sparked Lanham’s interest in the Baja peninsula and the Sea of Cortez, which is when she launched the Environmental Flying Services and began campaigning for funding. 

Lanham has flown over 10,000 hours, which have led to many scientific discoveries. She found a new prairie dog colony in Mexico, discovered a blue whale nursing ground in the Sea of Cortez, and she worked to launch a recovery plan for an endangered antelope species, among other initiatives.

In 2001, Lanham was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Grant for her data collection on animal life in the gulf. 

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