Meg Harrington is excited to schedule a follow-up appointment with her dentist.
At least, she’s excited for what it represents: a permanent job, in one place, for the foreseeable future. She’s built her career as a biologist weaving from New Hampshire’s Monadnock Region to California’s Central Coast, up to its high desert, and back to the forests of Massachusetts. She's held field positions and biological technician jobs — mostly seasonal or short-term — doing things like tracking loon productivity and monitoring snowy plovers.
“I was ready for a change, though I wouldn’t have traded those years for anything in the world,” Harrington said.
"You're always moving, and it’s really hard to, say, RSVP to a wedding because I have no idea what I'm doing in three months, you know?”
Now in her first year as a fish and wildlife biologist with the Endangered Species program in the New England Field Office, Harrington’s responsibilities in the months ahead are clear.
Her role centers on coordinating compliance with the section of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that requires federal agencies to consult with the Service about how a new project might impact threatened or endangered species. Harrington focuses on the piping plover, puritan tiger beetle, two bat species and a plant called Jesup’s milk vetch. She works with partners — individuals and groups spanning from fellow federal agencies like the National Park Service and Army Corps of Engineers and state agencies like MassWildlife to NGOs and academic institutions — across the region to learn about her focus species, their habitats, and how to best protect them.
Though she does still get into the field, her days are mostly filled with emails and video calls — a far cry from her time as a field biologist caving through Lava Beds National Monument or tallying plover chicks for California State Parks.
It’s a trade-off Harrington is willing to make. After years collecting data that informs high-level decisions, she relishes this position that brings her closer to “influencing how things actually happen.” Most of the biggest decisions are made above her, but she sees how crucial her coordination, collecting a full scope of data with partners in the Northeast Region, can be in informing national actions.
“They might not have necessarily gotten all that information if there wasn't someone on the ground doing that partnership coordination,” Harrington said.
She appreciates the subtle ways of shaping conservation within the Endangered Species Act.
Of course, the ESA and roles like Harrington’s have strict legal constraints, but it doesn’t mean that the power it holds as a strong foundation for meaningful conservation is confined; Harrington finds the ability to use her expertise to apply the act one of the most interesting — and impactful — parts of the job.
Niches of impact
Harrington’s outlook on her position’s influence reveals the kind of deep, critical thinker she is. She contemplates how the ESA can have the greatest impact on species conservation, instead of taking the law’s imperative as rote marching orders.
Much of the position is working with federal agencies as they permit, fund, and implement construction projects to make sure the projects comply with the ESA.
Times when a project's goals conflict with endangered species conservation are among the most challenging parts of the job, in Harrington’s eyes, but she takes pride in her role finding ways to work together so that those goals can coexist.
“If we weren't here, what would our landscape look like and what would happen?”
Harrington looks for ways to widen compliance conversations into broader considerations of proactive conservation, like holistic habitat protection.
“A lot of the time, someone comes to the table with a question about ESA compliance and it starts this larger conversation. That’s pretty fulfilling.”
She sees avenues to recovery in other aspects of her role: finding funding for studies, writing species recovery plans, and conducting research to determine the harms and balms to endangered species conservation.
“Some of the bright spots with this job are finding those opportunities and finding that niche where you can be really helpful in moving a project forward or moving a study forward.”
One such bright spot concerns the puritan tiger beetle, an insect small and black, with its own personal Rorschach test patterned onto its back. One of the endangered species’ last strongholds is along the Connecticut River in Massachusetts.
Usually, a team of researchers run an annual survey along the Connecticut to track the beetle’s numbers. This time around, no one was able to lead it.
“I realized, ‘you know what, I can do it. I can find a way to get folks there to do the surveys,’” Harrington said. After learning the basics of the past surveys, it was hardly more complex than sending out a few Doodle polls to coordinate when surveyors could hit the ground.
“I just don't know if that would have happened if I wasn't available. It’s so cool that there is sometimes this gap FWS can fill,” she said.
As she has settled into year one, Harrington has become more familiar with those gaps and with the requirements of the ESA. She’s proud of how she’s grown more acquainted with the ins and outs of the legislation and more comfortable answering questions that partners have when she consults with them on the act.
Yet, part of the fun for an inquiring and curious mind like Harrington’s is that, “Once you’ve mastered the ESA, things keep changing so much because our biological understanding shifts, [and new science about species and the effects ofon their habitats is constantly emerging.]”
"There's always something new to learn,” she said.
The next new thing: bat acoustics. Harrington gushed about an upcoming training, where she will learn how to use sound analysis to decipher the ways bats are using habitat. It’s a small detail but one that reveals just how small Harrington goes to think about the broad questions.