One of the beauties of a Lethbridge College education is that it can take you to some unexpected places. For Erinn Shirley, it has taken her from Lethbridge to the plains of Montana, the wilds of Alaska and all the way to the corridors of power in Washington D.C. It’s all heady stuff for someone born and raised here in Lethbridge who got her start dreaming of becoming a park ranger.
“I wanted to be outside, in the mountains, hiking all day,” Erinn recalls. “It seemed like the kind of career where you do that and not feel like you are working.” Following a tip from a park ranger who spoke at her high school, Erinn joined the Renewable Resource Management program at the college. “I learned so much about our natural resources and about life at Lethbridge College,” she says. “It was there that I learned that I wanted to focus on wildlife biology.”
After graduation, Erinn went on to attend the University of Montana, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Biology degree in 2002 and took a full-time job with the B ureau of Land Management in Fairbanks, Alaska. “That was the most adventurous work I’ve done by far,” says Erinn. “I was involved in cleaning up old mine sites, removing contaminants from soil and water, and ensuring archeological and biological aspects at these sites were considered in the remediation plans, all while getting around Alaska on planes, helicopters, ATVs, and snowmobiles.”
Erinn followed that experience up with stints in Montana and New Mexico, landing with the bureau headquarters in the U.S. capital in 2008. In January 2020, Erinn took on the mantle of National Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR) Coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where she is responsible for helping lead efforts to restore habitat and protect wildlife for the whole U.S.A. That’s a big change from the fieldwork she had spent much of her career on, but Erinn says it makes a difference in a different way.
“Working at headquarters involves a bit of liaising, lots of administrative work, informing leadership of the on-theground efforts and needs, managing budgets, and working with the field NRDAR coordinators to guide or get them the answers they need,” she says. “In D.C., I’m close to the government and can influence change and provide the field with the policy and budgets to restore habitat and wildlife populations. That’s its own kind of satisfaction.”
While she may be in an office job now, Erinn’s heart still belongs to the great outdoors. “When I was working in the field – driving down the Dalton Highway in the middle of winter to snowmachine out to a site that was being cleaned up or bouncing in the seat of the truck crossing through ponderosa pines and fields of wildflowers, I would often pinch myself like ‘You’re getting paid for this!’ Working at headquarters is exciting and fast-paced, but I suppose at my core I would love to be working outside.”