While volunteering with the Falcon Research Group in the San Juan Islands a number of years ago, Wendy Gibble remembers repelling down a cliff to reach a peregrine falcon nest. She’d been taking part in a raptor study for several years, and her job was to put bands on the young birds. With each subsequent season visiting a nest, Gibble says the adult falcons grew less tolerant of the intruders—and also far less timid. At first, they would swoop nervously yet stay about 10 feet above the researchers’ heads. After a few years, though, some of them would actually make contact. “You’re hanging on a rope, banding a young falcon, and all the sudden you get this “thwack” on your helmet,” she says.
Before returning to graduate school after 13 years in environmental consulting, Gibble volunteered on a wide range of conservation projects, including several raptor studies.
Armored with that helmet and a sturdy jacket, Gibble didn’t feel in danger, and in fact she loved the excitement of working hands-on with wildlife research and conservation. So much that she regularly sought out similar volunteer projects with several organizations, including Hawkwatch International, and ended up participating in raptor studies at far-flung sites around the world, from Cape May, N.J., to Chile and the Falkland Islands.
She managed all of that, incredibly, on top of her full-time career as an engineer. But her side passions were increasingly elbowing for more room and attention.
Gibble had grown up in Chatham Township, N.J., about 30 miles west of Manhattan, and later studied civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University in New York. She briefly returned to New Jersey after graduation before heeding the call of the Pacific Northwest and its many natural offerings.
“I came for the mountains,” she says, and ended up working in environmental consulting for 13 years, splitting time between a couple firms, including Herrera Environmental Consultants. Some of her work involved construction management for water resource projects, such as drinking water supplies, fish rearing and passage projects. Gibble did some flood modeling and work on landfills, as well as projects on the Columbia and Snake river systems designing hatcheries and fish screens (to prevent fish from getting sucked out with irrigation withdrawal). She also spent time designing water treatment plants, pipeline transmissions, pump stations and other infrastructure related to our drinking water system.
Through she generally enjoyed all of those projects, Gibble felt a growing desire to spend her days working more directly with habitat management and conservation. She’d experienced that world firsthand through her volunteering, but only for a few weeks a year. The tease was too much to keep ignoring.
Getting to do field research across the state, including recently in the Wenatchee Mountains (above), is one of Gibble’s favorite parts of her job with Rare Care.
“I had that moment of, ‘What am I doing?’” she says. “I was running into people all over South America who were doing really cool research projects and wildlife studies, and I just thought it was time for a career change.”
Since she didn’t want to leave the West Coast, Gibble started researching potential graduate programs in California and Washington. She says she had a really good feeling about coming to the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) and ended up pursuing a master’s with Professor Kristiina Vogt as her advisor. Within her overall emphasis on plant ecology, Gibble studied plant invasion in the Puget Sound prairies for her thesis (her other committee members included Professors Charles Halpern and Peter Dunwiddie). She got to be in the field. She got to organize her own research program. She’d found a shared outlet for her personal and professional aptitudes.
As it happened, a few months before Gibble had even earned her M.S. in March 2006, the program manager position opened up with the Washington Rare Plant Care and Conservation Program, or Rare Care, with the UW Botanic Gardens. Gibble had taken a seminar with Professor Sarah Reichard, the director of UWBG, and knew a little bit about the Rare Care program. The timing was hard to beat, and Gibble knew positions like this one didn’t pop up every day in this field, so she jumped at the opportunity and started working while she wrapped up her thesis.
The Rare Care program, housed at the Center for Urban Horticulture, is dedicated to conserving Washington’s rare native plants. It has four main areas of emphasis: researching rare native plants and engaging graduate students in those studies; organizing statewide citizen science monitoring of rare plants (including more than 200 volunteers who do around 5,000 hours of work each year); managing the Miller Seed Vault, a seed banking effort that preserves the seeds of rare plant species; and conducting other outreach projects.
Gibble, center, at the 2014 SEFS Alumni Spring Gathering, held April 27 at the Center for Urban Horticulture.
A big part of what Gibble loves about her role as program manager is that she gets to have a hand in all of these activities, and a couple years ago she took on the additional responsibility of managing the education programs and a seven-person staff. She especially enjoys working closely with students, and getting to spend a lot of time traveling to field sites around the state. “I really like going new places,” she says, “and that’s one of the things I really love about my job. I’ve gone to places I probably never would have seen.”
Some of those excursions include gathering collections for the seed vault, or leading a range of research and monitoring projects. Gibble recently spent a week in the Lake Quinault area working with the Forest Service to map populations of the rare Quinault fawn lily. She’s also been collecting seeds with the Bureau of Land Management out in Washington’s shrub steppe regions, and monitoring Whited milk-vetch south of Wenatchee. “It’s all very cool,” she says.
Of course, even the most satisfying work week still leaves plenty of spare hours, and Gibble isn’t one to wear out a couch. “If I’m in the wilderness, I’m a happy person,” she says, and that means hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, bird watching, gardening, skiing, canoeing, kayaking, you name it—including rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
Gibble on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.
Two summers ago, she added salmon fishing. Gibble and some friends chartered a boat on the west side of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, where she hooked her first Chinook salmon. She doesn’t remember how long she fought the 28-pounder—it was a bit of blur—but she definitely recalls the thrill of the catch, and then the four or so months it took to work her way through all the meat. “It was a ton of fun,” she says.
Not to limit herself to terrestrial and marine adventures, Gibble used to have a pilot’s license, as well. “It was a bucket list kind of thing,” she says, and she flew herself to a number of local destinations, including to Portland, Ore., and out to the San Juan Islands. Yet since flying requires a lot of time and money to stay current and safe, Gibble didn’t keep her license up to date. Plus, as fun as it was to cruise through the sky, she says most of her outdoor passions involve closer contact to nature. “In the end,” she says, “I just want to be on the ground.”
For all the ground she’s covered so far—New Jersey to Washington, Cape May to Chile, engineering to ecology, and countless trips along the way—Gibble knows there’s plenty yet for her to do and explore in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. Best of all, she no longer has to wait for vacations and volunteer projects to get there. With Rare Care and the broader SEFS community, she gets to travel regularly and work at the leading edge of environmental research and education every day.
And that, says Gibble, is a rare find indeed.
Photos © Wendy Gibble.