A legacy lives on through the Kendra Chan Conservation Fellowship

Daniel standing on a sandy ledge next to a tree
Daniel Cisneros, first-ever Kendra Chan Conservation Fellow, stands beneath an island oak (Quercus tomentella) in a cloud forest on Santa Rosa Island, one of the northern Channel Islands off the California coast. Photo courtesy Daniel Cisneros

Daniel Cisneros stood atop one of the highest peaks on Santa Rosa Island off the California coast, admiring the island oak and bishop pine trees, an ancient forest among the clouds brought back to life after years of human disturbance.

Cisneros, an ecology student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Santa Barbara Botanic Garden to conduct a germination study for five rare plant species on the Channel Islands. The work will shed light on the role seed banking can play to help struggling plant populations.

Cisneros’ research is made possible by the Kendra Chan Conservation Fellowship, a first-of-its kind annual program that honors the late wildlife biologist Kendra Chan by giving budding scientists an opportunity to learn about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission and help endangered species.

“I feel honored to be part of Kendra’s long-lasting legacy,” he says.

Chan, a wildlife biologist with the Service in Ventura, was passionate about endangered species and connecting people from all walks of life to science and the natural world.

A Southern California native, Cisneros says he feels a personal connection to the Channel Islands. “I see them every day from campus in Santa Barbara. I want to save plants in my own backyard.” Through the fellowship, he is collecting data on the federally endangered soft-leaved paintbrush which dwells in only two cliffside locations on Santa Rosa Island.

Chan also championed the importance of diversity in conservation, and Cisneros aims to carry on that legacy by engaging communities in collaborative conservation and environmental stewardship. “Our world has a variety of plants, animals, and fungi, all of which have their own differences, but are interconnected in so many ways,” says Cisneros. “We too, [as humans], occupy different niches in our society, and we all contribute to a healthier environment in general. We don’t have time to limit conservation to a select few anymore.”

Chris Diel is an assistant field supervisor with Service in Ventura. “Kendra was passionate and curious and ready to take on new challenges,” he says. “She was able to bring everyone together to achieve conservation goals — from academia to agencies to private landowners. She brought positivity and inspiration that those common outcomes were possible.”

Diel helped form a team from across the country to design a unique fellowship that combines the long-standing Service’s Directorate Fellowship Program with the Ecological Society of America’s leadership develop program.

“After losing Kendra as a member of our team and our agency, we asked the question, how can we carry on and embody that potential that we saw, and the traits we observed in her, into the future?”

The fellowship is a two-year commitment and is available to students with a demonstrated interest, education, and/or experience in conservation, and who are enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a rising senior or senior in an undergraduate program. Successful fellows may be eligible for a permanent position with the Service after successfully completing their fellowship and degree requirements.

“This program has solidified my desire to go to graduate school to study botany more,” Cisneros says. “I would still like to be a biologist with USFWS — everyone is so passionate about what they do, and I want to contribute to that.” Cisneros will present his findings at the 2022 Ecological Society of America annual conference.

Kendra Chan joined the Service through the Directorate Fellowship Program in 2016 after graduating from the University of California, Davis. She served as a biologist with the Service in Ventura until 2019.

“Kendra was a remarkable human being. Her positive energy enriched the lives of those she touched through her love of nature, wildlife and the outdoors. She was a force for good and led a life that made the world around her a better place. She loved the ocean, from surfing and diving to tide pooling. Her passion, curiosity and enthusiasm for all living things — from tiny skeleton shrimp to the tidewater goby — were infectious. Not only was she a colleague, but a friend to us all. We miss her dearly and carry her energy with us in all the days ahead.”— Staff of the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office

Author: Ashley McConnell, public affairs officer, Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office

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