Jen Hunter, new director of Hastings Natural History Reservation

Jen Hunter, new director of Hastings Natural History Reservation 1
Jen Hunter is the new resident director of Hastings Natural History Reservation. Image credit: Jen Hunter

The NRS’s oldest reserve is now under the leadership of its newest director. Jennifer (Jen) Hunter took the reins of Hastings Natural History Reservation in December, after former resident director Vincent Voegeli relocated to Kauai.

Hunter, who holds a PhD in carnivore community ecology from UC Davis, learned about the NRS as a graduate student. She conducted some of her dissertation research on skunks at Quail Ridge Reserve, McLaughlin Natural Reserve, Sagehen Creek Field Station, Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve, and the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory.

Skunk spotting 

Hunter examined the role of warning coloration in skunk recognition for her field project. First, she stuffed a number of skunks and gray foxes. “Taxidermy is not a skill I thought I would learn in grad school,” she noted wryly. Then she dyed half the skunks gray, and gave half the foxes black and white skunk stripes. Her goal was to discover whether skunk predators used shape, color, or both to identify these stinky prey.

She spent her first field season at the NRS’s McLaughlin Natural and Quail Ridge reserves. “The managers had the flexibility and interest to help me make it work. They knew the landscape, and had a better sense of what was feasible and what wasn’t,” Hunter said.

Hunter recounted one incident when a mountain lion made away with one of her mounts. Shane Waddell, director of Quail Ridge Reserve, accompanied her, shovel in hand, to find the lion’s cache and recover the mount.

After surveying the skunk population at each reserve, Hunter found that skunk abundance greatly influenced predator reactions to her mounts. “In places skunks were really common, both the skunk shaped and the skunk colored mounts were avoided. But in places skunks were rare, they got hammered,” she said. “Without that experiential learning, predators were not as familiar with them and more likely to attack them.”

Reserve management as a career

The opportunity to collaborate with reserve personnel opened Hunter’s eyes to the possibility of an NRS or field station career.

“I thought, this is the life! You’re working and living in these beautiful places, facilitating research and working with landowners—all things I really enjoy doing. I’d be in a place to do what Paul and Cathy [directors of McLaughlin Natural Reserve] and Shane [director of Quail Ridge] did for me, to help work through some of the kinks in the development of my research.”

Hunter certainly has the right resume for a reserve manager. In addition to her field research, for the past four years Hunter has worked at UC Berkeley supporting large research projects, including the Eel River Critical Zone Observatory at Angelo Coast Range Reserve, soil microbial research, and a lab focusing on animal movements, behavioral ecology, and human-wildlife conflicts. The exposure to such a wide range of subject areas will stand her in good stead as she interacts with researchers from different disciplines at Hastings.

Jen Hunter, new director of Hastings Natural History Reservation 2
Hunter has brought family to Hastings, including her children Nico and Mia, and her husband Mike (not shown). Image credit: courtesy Jen Hunter.

A new life in rural Carmel Valley

Hunter moved to the Carmel Valley reserve with her husband Mike and their two children. Most recently they have lived on the outskirts of Livermore, in a house heated with a wood stove and supplied by a well, then suburban Hayward. Son Nico and daughter Mia are thrilled about their new, more rural environs. “Dark nights and looking at stars is something they miss,” Hunter said. Mike, who works at Google, will be able to work remotely much of the time.

A self-described serial home remodeler, Hunter is looking forward to keeping Hastings’ infrastructure running smoothly. “When we bought our first house, it needed work. We realized we really liked all the construction and troubleshooting, knocking holes in the walls and replumbing this and rewiring that,” she said. “It’s always been a fun thing that I liked doing. I’m looking forward to using work time do this type of construction. And I am super excited about the workshop space at Hastings.”

Diversifying the Hastings community

Thanks to previous director Voegeli, who left Hastings’ facilities in good shape, Hunter hopes she can devote a good portion of her time to public outreach and fundraising.

As part of this effort, Hunter want to draw a broader spectrum of people—diverse in age, ethnicity, and discipline—to the reserve. “Issues of access and representation are so important for me. I didn’t come from a background where we went camping and hiking and fishing and hunting,” said the native Seattleite.

Because Hastings offers both an array of natural habitats and comfortable housing, Hunter feels it’s an ideal place to introduce city folks to nature. “You don’t have to have the camping gear or be able to build a fire. You can just show up and enjoy it. That’s one of the real strengths of a place like Hastings; it can be that bridge.”

She plans to spread the word about Hastings to K-12 schools, community and state colleges, and nonprofit groups that might want to hold meetings or ecology lessons at the reserve. On the reserve, she hopes young people will be exposed to career options they might never have considered before—just the way it happened for her.

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