A Look Back: Mollie Beattie

Refuge Update January-February 2011

Mollie Beattie (1947-1996): “What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself.”
Credit: USFWS

The first woman to head the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mollie Beattie, was appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. Then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt wrote that Beattie was determined to make the Service “the strongest protector of America’s wild creatures and the finest steward over America’s National Wildlife Refuges.”

Three years later, Babbitt mourned Beattie’s death of brain cancer when she was only 49 years old. He wrote that Beattie “fought fiercely against the forces that sought to weaken the mission of our wildlife refuges, to gut the Endangered Species Act, or to turn the lights off on good science through funding cuts.” Ted Gup wrote in The Washington Post that Beattie’s “brief and quiet sojourn in Washington left a lasting mark on both the physical landscape of the nation and the political terrain of conservation ethics.” To recognize her extraordinary work in the field of conservation, Congress named a wilderness area in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in her honor.

A forester by training, Beattie worked for state agencies and conservation organizations in Vermont before coming to Washington. She sought to conserve endangered species by managing landscapes and ecosystems. During her brief tenure with the Service, 15 national wildlife refuges were added, more than 100 habitat conservation plans were signed with private landowners, and the gray wolf was reintroduced into the northern Rocky Mountains. One acquaintance recalled seeing her “rub cold water on the belly of a wild wolf to cool it, so the animal could be moved to another site for release.”

Beattie’s concerns went beyond individual species. In 1995, her prescient comments to a group of environmental journalists foretold the problems the National Wildlife Refuge System wrestles with today as it crafts a vision for the future: “When Americans are asked what the most pressing environmental issues are, they cite pollution issues such as toxic wastes and clean water. Problems like loss of biodiversity, rapid depletion of natural resources and the international problems of population explosion are way down the list. And yet these are the issues that are of greatest importance to the long-term health of our world.”