Dr. Mamie Parker Leads the Way for Women in Conservation

Dr. Mamie Parker credits women for her rise through the ranks of male-dominated wildlife agencies—starting with her mother. Growing up as one of 11 children in the segregated south, Parker discovered the outdoors through her mother’s love of fishing and gardening. She also inspired Parker’s commitment to justice throughout her groundbreaking career as a fisheries biologist.

Parker was the first Black woman regional director in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, overseeing 13 Northeastern states and key conservation successes, including pivotal work to remove dams and restore fish passage for Atlantic salmon. She went on to serve as Head of Fisheries nationally—breaking yet another glass ceiling.

“When I think about how I progressed in my profession, it’s all the women who hired me,” she said. “Women are there for each other.” Parker cited a favorite quote from Mary Church Terrell, a twentieth-century champion of racial and gender equality, “Lifting as we climb.”

Juvenile Atlantic salmon in Scatter Creek, Washington.
Dr. Mamie Parker worked to restore passageways for the Atlantic salmon. Credit: Roger Tabor/USFWS

Inspiring a New Generation

After a 30-year agency career, Parker is far from retired. She engages Black and Brown communities in the outdoors, mentors women, coaches conservation and government leaders, and serves on national nonprofit boards, including at National Wildlife Federation. She is the WildSTEM program lead for The Links, Inc., encouraging thousands of Black women and youth to build gardens for wildlife throughout the country.

In 2019, Parker was elected as chair of Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources Board, another first for a Black woman nationwide. Under her leadership, the board passed a diversity resolution that’s become a model for other states and protected migratory birds threatened by major bridge construction. “When I visit a protected wildlife area and know that’s because of our work or our predecessors, it’s exciting,” she said. “I’m able to be here because someone thought this was precious enough to hold onto in this world, where everything is developing around us.”

Diversity and Equity in Conservation

That joy in making a difference helped fortify Parker’s resolve in an often challenging work environment. As a Black woman, one of the obstacles she faced in her career was racism. She was once called a racial slur by a person she supervised. Speaking of the incident, she said, “It felt like a weapon that hurts, bringing back bad memories of growing up in the Jim Crow south. It’s time for a major shift to both recruit and retain women in conservation agencies and to invite a more diverse public to participate.”

That’s one reason why Parker is giving her full support to pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, legislation that would provide state fish and wildlife agencies and tribes with $1.39 billion annually to conserve nature’s diversity. With funding to address the wildlife crisis, the agencies also will be able to hire and promote a more diverse workforce, including more women.

“Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would allow us to look at butterflies, bees, and dragonflies and other species that will then allow people who are not always engaged in hunting and fishing activities to join the club and become great advocates for fish and wildlife,” Parker said. “I think about my cousins or people of color. They may not relate to an endangered species they will never see, but they will appreciate a butterfly.”

Dr. Mamie Parker enjoying the outdoors.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and people sheltering at home, she’s become more aware than ever of the importance of wildlife in people’s lives. “We’re renewing our relationship with the environment,” she said.

As more people find healing in nature, it opens the door to increased advocacy, but not automatically, Parker cautions. This is especially true among Black and Brown communities. She hopes to see more funded programs offering outdoors skills training to get these communities involved. The stakes could not be higher.

“We’re going to need all hands on deck for climate change,” she said. “The state agencies and local partners are the ones working with frontline communities…It’s so important we have the resources to do that.”

In this Women’s History Month, Parker is a shining role model for all she has accomplished and her ongoing positivity, energy, and belief in changing the world for the better. Who in turn motivates Parker? “Harriet Tubman is my superhero,” she said. “She was a naturalist who knew the stars, the vegetation, and the wildlife. She was an outdoorswoman. She had courage.”

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For more about Dr. Mamie Parker, please visit her website at www.mamieparker.com.