On July 20, as part of the 58th Annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards, North Carolina Wildlife Federation announced Safe Passage’s Jeff Hunter as the 2022 Wildlife Conservationist of the Year.
Hunter, senior program manager for National Parks Conservation Association, was nominated for this award by his Safe Passage colleagues, who cited his instrumental leadership in driving the organization’s mission forward.
“Jeff’s humanity, talent, and commitment brought diverse interests together in common purpose when nothing less would have succeeded,” said Don Barger, who initially brought Hunter in to the project that later became Safe Passage. “The project serves as a lesson and a template for all of those interested in preserving the integrity and connectivity of our living landscape.”
Hunter will be honored at a banquet, held Sept. 10 in Cary, N.C., alongside 18 other award recipients — including agency professionals, elected officials, volunteers and organizations committed to conserving the state’s wildlife, habitat and natural resources.
The annual awards are an opportunity for N.C. Wildlife Federation to honor and highlight positive wildlife conservation efforts around the state, while also serving as an inspiration for others to become more active in protecting natural resources for future generations.
“For nearly 60 years, the awards program has been bringing together conservationists from across the state working to protect wildlife, air, water and land,” said T. Edward Nickens, chair of the NCWF Awards Committee. “This year’s conservation heroes are land stewardship champions, water advocates and leaders in preserving unique ecosystems.”
Excerpt from N.C. Wildlife Foundation:
Wildlife Conservationist of the Year, Jeff Hunter
Jeff Hunter spent 20 years in telecommunications before an Appalachian Trail thru-hike inspired him to follow a new career path in wildlife conservation.
As a senior program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association, Hunter uses road ecology projects and wildlife mortality research to create wildlife passages and corridors that preserve the integrity and connectivity of Western North Carolina’s natural landscapes.
Hunter’s leadership is instrumental to Safe Passage, a public-private collaboration between local, state, tribal and federal agencies, land managers, conservation organizations and community members. The initiative helps increase wildlife corridors, reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions, improve driving conditions, and build climate resiliency through restored wildlife connections.
The group recommends ways the North Carolina Department of Transportation and other agencies can support free wildlife movement and improve habitat connectivity without compromising conventional highway project funds. Ecological highway solutions include wildlife-only structures and overpasses, modified bridge replacements, and acquiring land near highways to stabilize wildlife areas.
“Jeff strives to raise — and succeeds in raising — all voices and genuinely making space for others to lead or contribute in meaningful ways,” said Safe Passage Co-research Lead Steve Goodman. “He is not just a delegator of duties for our collaborative but is also willing to roll up his shirt sleeves and utilize his diverse arsenal of professional skills to fill any voids or respond to any new opportunity or challenge. He is willing to shoulder the heaviest of burdens that arise in any multi-party, diverse endeavor.”
Goodman went on to say that the dream of most researchers is “to have adequate resources of equipment, time, trust, and autonomy to design, implement, analyze data, and report findings in a rigorous and meaningful way. At no time in my 25-year wildlife biology career has this level of support been on such display as it has under Jeff’s visionary leadership. Even during the darkest days of the pandemic when NPCA’s nationwide staff were sequestered at home, he secured exclusive permission from our president for me to continue our fieldwork without stoppage.”
Read more about N.C. Wildlife Federation’s 58th Annual Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards here.