An ecologist-turned-wildlands advocate who built his career from Lander and Jackson is now second-in-command at the federal agency that oversees the United States’ wildlife.
The Biden Administration’s Interior Department late in 2022 named Siva Sundaresan the deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where he’s outranked only by department head Martha Williams. Sundaresan, a self-described animal lover who holds a PhD in ecology, lacks experience in government work, but friends and colleagues say they’re not surprised by his hire.
“For as long as I’ve known Siva, he’s been a pretty extraordinary guy,” said Scott Christensen, Sundaresan’s former boss at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the group’s executive director. “He’s incredibly sharp, really driven and he has this rare ability to bridge science and politics.”
Sundaresan segued quickly from working for regional environmental non-profits to a high appointment in the federal government. In spring 2022 he came on as the Yellowstone-to-Yukon program officer for the Seattle-based Wilburforce Foundation, only to depart six months later for the Fish and Wildlife Service post.
“We were sad to lose him, but happy to see him land in this new role,” Paul Beaudet, the foundation’s executive director, said in a statement.
The India-raised ecologist’s start in North American wildlife advocacy came at the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance in 2014. Prior to that he worked as the Kenya Program director for the Denver Zoological Foundation. As an academic scientist earlier in his career, he authored over 20 studies published in peer-reviewed ecological and conservation journals.
Sundaresan made connections in his time working in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that help to explain his fast ascension. He served on the board of directors at the National Wildlife Federation, where he got acquainted with Tracy Stone-Manning, who was the organization’s senior advisor for conservation policy before being appointed director of the Bureau of Land Management.
“The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is pretty small at the end of the day,” Christensen said. “And getting to know Tracy Stone-Manning and Martha Williams just came with his job [at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition].”
Another former Greater Yellowstone Coalition colleague, Eastern Shoshone tribal member Wes Martel, described Sundaresan as “very conservation-minded.” He attributed that mentality in part to Sundaresan’s upbringing in India.
“They have some of the same Indigenous values and beliefs that we do here as Native Americans,” Martel said. “When he and I used to talk about conservation and Indigenous values and beliefs, he just really got it.”
Chris Colligan, now a project manager for Teton County, befriended and worked closely with Sundaresan during his Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance days. Later they were colleagues at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
“I think that Siva in this position is good for Wyoming,” Colligan said.
At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sundaresan will help guide the management of 560 National Wildlife Refuges and 70 national fish hatcheries. The 8,400 employee agency, which runs on a $3.7 billion budget, also enforces the Endangered Species Act and other federal wildlife laws. In the new role Sundaresan will be working with states like Wyoming, which is currently petitioning the agency for authority over its grizzly bears.
WyoFile was recently granted 15 minutes to speak with Sundaresan about his position, though he was not authorized to discuss specific Fish and Wildlife Service policies. The interview has been edited and organized for clarity.
WyoFile: Many people find your professional rise pretty remarkable. Just nine years ago I sat down with you in your office when you were first dipping your toe into U.S. conservation policy work. How did you get here?
Siva Sundaresan: Since starting work in Jackson, I’ve been working on several regional issues some might say are of national significance. I hope that my work was well received by various partners. That led me to get recruited to go work for a philanthropic foundation, where I was working on Western conservation issues — all the way from Yellowstone, up into Canada and the spine of the Canadian Rockies. I guess my approach to conservation and how I think about these issues caught the attention of people at the Department of Interior and I was asked to consider this position.
WF: For most of the last decade, your work was focused on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. How does your time in the region influence how you do your job as the second in command at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?
SS: In most places, we are facing a crisis of the loss of biodiversity. Regionally threats may vary, but for the most part [biodiversity loss] is associated with habitat loss or fragmentation or climate change. Throughout my career, internationally in India and Kenya, there’s been a running theme of how I approach conservation that I also employed when I was in the Yellowstone ecosystem. The approach that animated my entire career is one of working with all partners. Looking to find common ground is something I feel we can do, whether it’s through advocacy, working at a foundation or right now in my role at a government agency. There’s a robust and thoughtful group of people that care deeply about conservation, even if our specific position on a particular issue might vary. In many parts of the West, we share a deep and abiding love for biodiversity, for nature, for the outdoors, for protected lands.
WF: I think a lot of us are naive about what the deputy director of a federal agency does. Enlighten me. What is the core of your day-to-day job?
SS: At the director’s office, we have Director Williams, Steve Guertin, who is our director of policy programs, and Wendi Weber, who’s the deputy director of operations. I’m a political appointee, which means I’m slightly different from the other two [deputy directors]. I have a portfolio of issues — on birds, fish, wildlife — that I represent the director’s office on. I try to help understand where and how we can be effective and further the cause of conservation. There’s rulemaking, there’s conversations with stakeholders and meetings about issues with other federal agencies that we are trying to move the agenda on.
WF: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Is there any refuge in particular that you hold dear? What’s a favorite memory of yours from Fish and Wildlife Service-administered property?
SS: Most recently I was visiting the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge and I really enjoyed my time there. It spoke to how important refuges are and how that word means so much to so many places. It’s right across the street from the mall, and next to the airport along the river. Who would have thought that in this urban, dense landscape that is Minneapolis there can be a little refuge? And it was beautiful. We bumped into a suite of woodpeckers. I got to see some of the phenomenal outreach work the refuge staff were doing to bring the community — underserved kids and adults who would never otherwise be able to experience nature — into that refuge. To me, that spoke to why I do this job. The experience of being outside and the experience of seeing wildlife is special and almost everybody relates to it, but some people are luckier than others. I feel like I was privileged to live in places where there was abundant wildlife, whether in southern India, the savannas of East Africa or the Greater Yellowstone.
WF: Looking back on your time in the Greater Yellowstone region, what are some of the best undertold stories?
SS: There’s a ton of good conservation happening in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and in the Northern Rockies states, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Unusual bedfellows are coming together: Ranchers and tribes and conservation groups that, even in the last 10, 15 years didn’t always see eye-to-eye.
To me, that’s very gratifying and inspiring, whether it’s about ungulate migrations or carnivores. People are trying hard to cut through fighting and lobbing paper at each other and they are actually trying to figure out how they can make things better on the ground.