A Typical Day Isn’t Typical For Alberta Government Wildlife Biologist

By Jeannine Goehing, AEP Office of the Chief Scientist

To mark International Women’s Day on March 8, senior wildlife biologist Dr. Anne Hubbs shares her experience working with Fish and Wildlife at Alberta Environment and Parks for over 20 years.

Dr. Anne Hubbs was surrounded by three humpback whales, each one the size of a standard school bus. The professional wildlife biologist was in her sea kayak exploring Antarctica with her husband during a three-week trip that turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of her life.

“I’ll never forget the moment when I saw one of the whales’ heads go underwater right beside my kayak,” she recalls, adding she has been fascinated with whales since childhood. 

Anne has had special wildlife encounters throughout her career, including one with a black wolf in the Yukon and a face to face encounter with a moose suffering from Chronic Wasting Disease. In Alberta, she has worked with harlequin ducks, goshawks, caribou and bighorn sheep among many other species, and it’s where her passion lies.

“I believe that most Albertans are interested in wildlife, and see their intrinsic value and that of natural ecosystems,” she explains. For instance, when talking to the general public or hunting community about their motivations, she often finds a common appreciation. “They like to be out in nature and they appreciate that pristine, isolated environment.”

As a wildlife biologist, a lot of her work touches on those environments and species that so many Albertans value.

“We’re working to protect ecosystems and maintain healthy wildlife populations for Albertans, whether they want to view wildlife on public land, in provincial or national parks, or whether they are hunters or general recreationists,” Anne explains. “What we do on provincial lands may affect populations in adjacent national parks or bordering provinces and states, and we’re trying to minimize any potential negative impacts from human or industrial development on wildlife.”

Dr. Anne Hubbs kayaking in search of western grebes.
Photo credit: Brendan McGlynn

Anne’s passion for the world around her and her dedication to conservation and species recovery started at a very young age.

Ants in the kitchen

Anne has been interested in science as long as she can remember, and she grew up exploring nature and wildlife whenever possible.

“My dad and I used to go out looking for crayfish or collecting ant farms that invariably escaped in the house – much to my mom’s shock,” she recalls with a smile. “My dad instilled a love of nature in me.”

That interest in the world around her also led to an admiration with some of the biggest names in the conservation world: “I was hooked on French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and English primatologist Jane Goodall from a very young age.”

Growing up in Toronto, Anne followed her passion and enrolled in an undergraduate degree studying biology at the University of Toronto and taking field courses on monkeys in Hong Kong and tundra wildlife in the Canadian Arctic. She also worked as a zookeeper at the Toronto Zoo, marine biologist off the coast of Ireland, and a primatologist in Germany.

“I really enjoyed studying a variety of species and seeing different environments. It broadened my perspective and got me hooked,” she explains.

She followed up with a Master of Science in Zoology at the University of Toronto where her interest in ecology only deepened during fieldwork in Kluane National Park in the Yukon, which led to her PhD in Ecology at the University of Western Ontario. It was her PhD fieldwork that led her to Alberta, and ultimately to her position with the Government of Alberta.

When she arrived at Alberta Fish and Wildlife, things looked very different than they do today.

“When I started out there were less than half a dozen female colleagues across the province, but the dynamics have shifted so much that it’s about fifty-fifty now,” she says. “Women can bring a different vision or perspective to the position – part of this is potentially more of an emphasis on relationship building and also a feeling that they need to work harder than their male colleagues to be the best candidate.” 

For Anne, the key was always learning and innovation.

Quest for learning

Anne has most valued and enjoyed learning, engagement and collaboration throughout her career. As a biologist working in the department, she has had unique opportunities to tap into a province-wide network of biologists, scientists from universities, and experts from other jurisdictions.

“Everybody has different skillsets that they bring to the table and when I work with somebody, I try to learn from them,” she explains. For one of her current projects on bighorn sheep management, she learned a new tool that has also proved helpful for personal life decisions.

“A colleague, Wendy Aupers, introduced me to Structured Decision Making, which is a step-by-step process that combines values from stakeholders or agencies with scientific information. We’re using it to develop a bighorn sheep management plan in collaboration with Cornell University,” she explains. “It can be useful for personal life decisions as well – whether it’s deciding where to go for dinner or how to choose our next holiday destination.”

Anne’s openness to learning also led to her current role as co-chair of the Alberta steering committee for a large collaborative project called WildCam – Wildlife Cameras for Adaptive Management.

“Remote cameras are non-invasive and can collect information on multiple species at the same time, such as lynx, moose and deer,” she says. “It’s a very innovative method and we’re trying to develop guidelines and tools to support its use across Alberta and British Columbia.”

Developing new approaches like these have helped her throughout her career, and keep her engaged with her work.

“I really enjoy the opportunity to collaborate and partner, particularly on large-scale projects – whether it’s with researchers, stakeholders or other jurisdictions across North America. It’s very rewarding.”

Unique opportunities

Anne’s career with Alberta Environment and Parks has spanned over 20 years and four locations including Hinton, Athabasca, Rocky Mountain House and a secondment with the Wildlife Policy Branch in Edmonton as the province’s big game specialist. Each of those posts provided her with unique opportunities –– the sort of opportunities she recommends every aspiring biologist to seek out.

Dr. Anne Hubbs collaring elk with researchers at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, Alberta.
Photo credit: Julia Wachowski

“Think of things that make you stand out at the end of the day,” she advises. “Take on unique opportunities, either through volunteering or international travel, and develop special skillsets that showcase your passion.”

But she believes there’s more to those opportunities than just developing technical skills like Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or modeling.

“As biologists, we need those technical skills, but we also need the soft skills such as effective communication,” she asserts. “We’re lucky to have unique experiences with nature in our work. Knowing how to effectively tell those stories and engage with people in a meaningful way is key.”

When it comes to developing these abilities, Anne advises young scientists to seek out mentors familiar with the unique challenges and complexities of working in the public service.

“When you’re fresh out of graduate school, the speed at which government works can be surprising,” she explains with a laugh. “For somebody from outside government, it may seem like a long time to move a policy forward, and it absolutely does. But I don’t think some people understand the complexities and number of different divisions, outside agencies and stakeholders who are often involved in the process. It’s not all fieldwork, but also partnerships, and working with stakeholders and industry.”

The diversity and complexity of the work is one of the things Anne most appreciates about her role as a biologist in the department. It also informs the advice she shares with aspiring scientists considering a career path like her own.

“If an opportunity for new learning or leadership role comes up, it’s well worth doing,” she says, before sharing one of her favorite quotes from Albert Einstein “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”

It’s this philosophy that led Anne into a kayak beside humpback whales off Antarctica. “Challenge yourself, and don’t be afraid to push the limits.”

Interested in resources and networks supporting women in environmental sciences, technology, and conservation? Please find more information below:

  • WiSER (Women in Science, Engineering & Research): Founded in 2008 as a sub-community of University of Alberta’s WISEST aiming at serving the needs of graduate students and early-career professionals. The community is comprised of individuals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from the academia, government, and industry.
  • Women in Nature Network: Founded in 2013 to promote women’s leadership and participation in the sustainable management of natural resources and their conservation; an Associate Group of Global Wildlife Conservation.

  • Women Entrepreneurs-in-STEM (WESTEM) Program: Program for women entrepreneurs offering training, networking, mentorship and access to current and emerging technologies created by Economic Development Lethbridge and Tecconnect with funding from the Government of Canada’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy.
  • Cybermentor: Encouraging young people interested in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) to pursue post-secondary education through online mentorship and outreach programs.