It all started with an undergraduate science class.
Conservation biology, to be specific. At the time, Karen Waldrop was working toward her associate degree at Florida State University when her professor said something to the class that would change the course of her education and her career.
“It was at the end of the semester, and the professor said, ‘By the way, there are universities near here where you can major in this,” said Waldrop, who entered college thinking she might pursue a career in veterinary medicine. Wildlife conservation was a game-changer. “I remember vividly—I said, ‘Where are these?’ He said the University of Georgia. And I went back to my apartment and told my roommates, ‘I’m going to Georgia.’”
Since then, Waldrop has been following her passions for wildlife conservation into key roles for stewardship and policy. In November 2019 she joined Ducks Unlimited as its new chief conservation officer. She came to the role after years working for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, most recently as its deputy commissioner.
As a student at Warnell, her projects focused more on big game, such as deer and elk. But working for the state wildlife agency, she realized her education from Warnell provided a foundation for much of her work. Classes in waterfowl management, green-tree reservoirs, moist soil management and, yes, policy. Last fall Waldrop had the opportunity to testify before Congress on behalf of Ducks Unlimited and it was a key opportunity to connect good policies with wetlands conservation.
“When I got to Kentucky, my job was chief of wildlife. We were responsible for managing all our waterfowl-based management areas, so everything I learned at Warnell, I put to work there,” said Waldrop, who also holds a Ph.D. from Clemson University. “I remember taking some of the policy classes and thinking, ‘I’ll never use this!’ Nope. I used it for years. The policy side is extremely important to understand.”
While her first year with Ducks Unlimited coincided with a global pandemic, she focuses on the positive outcomes of the experience. For example, the organization has proven nimble and forward-thinking, using the past year to strengthen relationships with landowners, agencies, volunteers and other conservation-minded nonprofits.
Plus, Waldrop knows they can all agree on the beauty of a quiet morning with a mallard or a wood duck diving through the trees. “Just being out there on a cold, crisp morning and, just as the sun is coming up, seeing the ducks come in,” she said, recalling one of her favorite aspects of duck hunting. “Just seeing the ducks diving through the timber. I just love it.”