New Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge leader brings river-deep expertise

  • Article by: BEENA RAGHAVENDRAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2014 - 6:58 PM

Sabrina Chandler will move to Winona as the new Upper Mississippi River Wildlife Refuge complex manager.


Sabrina Chandler, a veteran in ecosystem conservation along rivers, will help oversee wildlife refuges as a manager for Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in August.

When Sabrina Chandler is on the job, life can be unpredictable — she could slip into water, dodge barges or fall into beaver holes.

Those risks are routine for Chandler, who has worked in wildlife refuges along rivers for more than a decade.

“You always have the adventures of being in the backwater and getting up in the bushes and knocking snakes out of the trees or hornet nests,” Chandler said.

In August, Chandler is returning to the rivers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C., to start her new position as complex manager for the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. She’ll help oversee the 16 wildlife and habitat conservation refuges in the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers.

“Taking this position helps me get back to that resource and that conservation on the ground that I’ve been hoping to implement on the national level,” Chandler said.

The move to Winona will be a change for Chandler, who’s mostly worked in the Southeast and at the other end of the Mississippi.

A constant love of rivers

Problems facing the Mississippi River include urbanization and habitat degradation. A river needs to be able to naturally flood to stay a functioning river — otherwise, its potential for nonnatural flooding increases, Chandler said. Controlling flooding with levees and building communities along the river doesn’t help that, she said.

Chandler fell in love with big rivers while growing up in southern Mississippi along the Pascagoula River. In college, she visited the Mississippi River on a field trip.

She was a natural leader early on, said Bruce Leopold, a professor at Mississippi State University who worked with Chandler.

“She certainly had an affinity toward aquatic resources but her skills and her drive did not just limit her to that,” Leopold said.

Sea turtles to Hurricane Katrina

She kicked off her career in Savannah, Ga., as a wildlife refuge specialist. She has worked to conserve sea turtles and red wolves in South Carolina and in hardwood forests in Arkansas; she also helped with the cleanup in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

Chandler said she’d sometimes find full bookshelves and clothing floating in the river after the hurricane. “The storm surge there pushed anything and everything into all the backwaters and up the river systems,” she said.

For the past couple years, she worked in D.C. as the chief of staff to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. She brings many skills to the new position, including an understanding of the situation in the rivers and exposure to national issues, said Tom Melius, regional director for the Midwest region of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This experience dealing with big river ecosystems and coordinating with flood and oil spill response is very important to have in this type of a position,” Melius said.

Chandler has other aspirations beyond her career, including taking advantage of the outdoors to keep her 3-year-old son active.

“We dealt a lot with alligators on the Lower Miss,” she said. “That’s one thing that will be different on the upper end, not having to watch out for the alligators.”

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