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Recipient of the 2021 Excellence in Leadership Award

In recognition of their outstanding acts, services, and achievements that exemplify and support the USGS leadership goals throughout the Bureau. The citation for the selectee is listed below.

Early Career Excellence in Leadership Award

Dr. Heather Johnson

Dr. Heather Johnson joined the USGS Alaska Science Center as a research biologist in 2017 and has consistently demonstrated exceptional early career excellence in leadership since that time. She was hired to lead a research program on large mammal ecology, specifically on the effects of changing climate conditions and expanding energy development on caribou herds in northern Alaska, a topic of considerable interest by scientific, conservation, tribal and media entities for decades but poorly quantified.  Alaska’s caribou herds roam widely across lands considered homeland by Alaska Native Peoples and lands managed by Department of Interior bureaus.  These are some of the most remote areas of Alaska and aspects of basic caribou ecology and drivers of migratory behavior and population booms and crashes have remained largely unknown and hotly debated.  Additionally, much of the land used in summer by these herds is either occupied by industry infrastructure or is under consideration for future development.  Within this complex research environment, in a short timeframe, and interrupted by a global pandemic that significantly increased challenges for a parent, Heather carefully built and managed trust and accountability among a diverse group of stakeholders.  This is remarkable because Heather came to USGS from outside of Alaska to a research topic that has consumed the careers of many before her.  In just a few years, Heather united groups that have often failed to work together, focused on the critical but unanswered questions, and quickly demonstrated her ability to produce highly relevant research products of exceptional quality.  Heather’s innovative use of existing and new technologies and quantitative skills gained her quick recognition.  For example, her early research at USGS determined that a long-standing remote network of weather stations was not needed, which led to kudos from Alaska’s Inupiat-led North Slope Borough for reducing unnecessary equipment and aircraft traffic on their tribal homelands.  Heather’s novel quantitative skills were able to summarize a long-standing caribou radio collar data set maintained by the State of Alaska into a product in 2020 that suddenly and succinctly addressed the decades long question of whether caribou have habituated to industry infrastructure on Alaska’s North Slope.  This project required significant problem solving and Heather went further than many biologists before her by regularly spending hours on video calls to walk stakeholders through the nuts and bolts of research design, analytical steps, and the origins of various results.  Her leadership skills were clear from that publication effort and from her careful attention to detail through numerous presentations to stakeholders, before and after the final paper.  Those extensive and thoughtful communications led to quick acceptance of her focused and collaborative approach.  As a result, industry accepted her proposal to measure traffic volume on roads within North Slope oilfields – data that industry had never before collected – to further assess caribou response to roads.  There was also wide acceptance of her approach to lead a 2021 publication with U.S. and Canadian partners on the importance of spring weather and future climate change as drivers of major shifts in summer distributions of the Porcupine Caribou Herd in relation to the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which has key implications for possible oil production in that region.  This has stimulated new collaborations with Canada, such as a “Caribou App” that Heather developed for partners and citizen scientists to score videos and learn about northern caribou and service as a co-PI on a ‘knowledge hub’ of western and Indigenous expertise focused on caribou.  Behind all of this work on caribou, Heather continues to remain involved with some work from her former Colorado research on human-bear conflicts that has directly led to changes in how that state manages black bears.  Heather’s work motivated numerous cities in Colorado to require bear-resistant containers, inspired a feature length documentary film that has reached >30 million households in the summer of 2021 on PBS, and has driven a continued call for Heather’s expert advice on human-bear conflict topics.  Lastly, but very importantly, in the past year Heather has mentored high school and university students at USGS and is coordinating discussions across agencies to improve hiring, cultural diversity, and scientific vision on these topics through the Alaska Chapter of The Wildlife Society.