Alumna Rachel Sprague on Managing a 140-Square-Mile Hawaiian Island

Rachel Sprague monitoring some of the Hawaiian petrel colony

University of Montana Wildlife Biology alumna Dr. Rachel Sprague is the director of conservation for Pūlama Lānaʻi, a private land management company on the island of Lāna’i in the Hawaiian archipelago. We caught up with Dr. Sprague last week and learned about some of the fascinating aspects of her job as a conservation biologist working on this 140-square-mile island.

UM Wildlife Biology: What is your current professional position?

Rachel Sprague: I co-manage the conservation programs for the major landowner on the island of Lānaʻi in Hawaii. Larry Ellison owns 98% of the island, and Pūlama Lānaʻi is his management company. I co-direct the Conservation Department with my husband, Jon Sprague (who graduated with his M.S. from UM’s Organismal Biology, Ecology and Evolution program in 2014). Our department works on everything from endangered and native species monitoring and protection to invasive species control, public hunting management, and biosecurity.

Rachel Sprague holds an endangered Hawaiian petrel
Rachel Sprague holds an endangered Hawaiian petrel before releasing it. The petrel got distracted by lighting while trying to fledge the night before. Sprague’s department has permits to rescue, assess, provide stabilization care, and then release or send wildlife to a rehab hospital on another island. In the header photo, Sprague is out monitoring some of the Hawaiian petrel colony. She uses infrared game cameras to monitor these seabird nests – very hard-to-find burrows under the ferns on the steep sides of the ridges in the interior forest of the island.


UM Wildlife Biology: How did your experience at UM prepare you for your career?

Rachel Sprague: While I was studying endocrinology and behavior in seabirds at the time, I learned about spatial ecology, large mammals, plant community ecology, etc. My job on Lānaʻi includes all of that as we are managing rare and endangered seabirds, endemic terrestrial snails and some of the last plants remaining of several species, but also public hunting and control of non-native axis deer, invasive mammalian predator control, invasive plant control and native habitat restoration from the top of the mountain to the coast. The breadth of topics, as well as the connections I made in grad school, have given me the foundation for how to approach conservation on a diverse and challenging island.

UM Wildlife Biology: What advice would you give today’s graduate students?

Rachel Sprague: There is sometimes the weird competition of who spent more time in the lab or office. Get beyond the idea that time at work or school equals productivity and results. I learned that whether you’re in grad school or a career, you need to be proactive with boundaries and create a balance between your work and your life. Conservation is a life passion for me but can also be a challenging and sometimes depressing field. We are trying to protect 25+ listed endangered species (some island endemics) on a 140-square-mile island, with dozens of other species already extinct or extirpated. Jon and I like to say that we have the best job on Lānaʻi – where we get to go out every day and try to make the island just a little bit better. But at the same time, struggling against 200+ years of mismanaged land and invasive species introductions is overwhelming. The work is always there, and there will always be the internal and external pressure to work all the time, so burnout is real. But the land and the animals (and the partnerships with communities and other conservation groups) deserve you being there for the long run, so go home at a reasonable time, hang out with your dog, your partner, your friends, cook, go for walks. Make what you’re doing sustainable for you.

UM Wildlife Biology: What was your most valuable wildlife biology class?

Rachel Sprague: TEA with Tom Martin was probably the class/experience that I took the most from across the rest of my career so far. The skills of how to give a well-structured talk (and a 2-min elevator speech) is something I pass on to all of my staff as they prepare conference and public presentations.

UM Wildlife Biology: What did you do in Missoula and what you do now for fun?

Rachel Sprague: I probably most enjoyed walking with our dog Stella all around Missoula. (She was found as a puppy by Tom Martinʻs grad students in Venezuela and brought back to Montana.) - e.g., Blue Mountain, [Lubrecht] experimental forest, in town. Stella is still around and I still love hiking up on the ridges or down at the beach with her and our Hawaii-born rescue, Hoku.