Newsroom Midwest Region

Thinking smart for aviation and for wildlife

February 16, 2017

Wildlife Biologist Mary Mitchell with Regional Director Tom Melius. Photo by USFWS.
Wildlife Biologist Mary Mitchell with Regional Director Tom Melius. Photo by USFWS.

Today, Wildlife Biologist Mary Mitchell was honored by the regional aviation program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Aviation Safety Award of Excellence for her 15 year contribution to the safe, efficient, and effective use of aircraft to advance our mission throughout North America.

Regional Director Tom Melius and Deputy Regional Director Charlie Wooley were pleased to make the presentation to Mitchell at the regional office and recognize her essential efforts to our aviation program.

“Mary’s ability to think outside of the box on these missions has really helped the team find safer alternatives and raised the bar for all of the aviation work that we do,” said Regional Director Tom Melius.

From 2001 through 2016, Mitchell served as a member of the Midwest Region’s airborne remote sensing team. In that capacity, Mitchell guided integration, development and the use of airborne remote sensing technologies. This included the difficult, and extremely successful, process of transitioning our regional airborne remote sensing program from analog to digital technologies from 2007 through 2009 and most recently, in 2016, with the addition of new sensors.

As impressive of a contribution as this is, Mitchell’s nomination for the award was prompted by her contribution to the significant increase in aviation safety, efficiency and effectiveness through her support of the pilot and biologist in designing and planning airborne remote sensing missions. This contribution led to the spatial and temporal orientation of the pilot during flight and often led to improved safety of the mission and occasionally the replacement of low level, higher risk aviation missions.

One notable example of this is the successful use of a high altitude airborne remote sensing mission of heron rookeries along the Upper Mississippi River, where traditional approaches involved low level flights within the wire environment.

Not only were these high altitude, lower risk airborne remote sensing missions much safer, they also often resulted in significantly improved results! One example of this is the colony nesting bird survey Mitchell helped design. This work reduced the hazard exposure of our employees, improved the quality and quantity of important conservation data and decreased disturbance to island nesting birds in Lake Michigan.

From feeding critical information into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service crew resource management process, to outright replacement of higher risk aviation missions with lower risk alternatives, Mitchell’s contributions have increased our conservation footprint and will continue to set the standard for future conservation work.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit

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