INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Amanda Wuestefeld wanted more than to be Indiana's first female Fish & Wildlife director — she wanted to change the division.

That's what the two-decade veteran of the agency remembers when discussing the job with superiors last year. She told them the division needs to do more to connect with the public about its conservation role with all of the state's animals and habitats, not just those associated with hunting and fishing.

Wuestefeld said this communication could help the agency, which for years had been chipping away at a gender gap among decision makers, cultivate a more diverse and effective workforce.

Luckily, her bosses agreed.

“When I started in Fish & Wildlife ... we (division staff) all looked the same. We enjoyed the same things, we were all motivated in the same ways," Wuestefeld said. "Fish and wildlife agencies as a whole are at a point in time where we have to change. We have to become a different beast than what we’ve been.”

But before assuming the role in August, Wuestefeld developed a passion for the outdoors — hunting, camping and fishing — with family in the southern Indiana town of Commiskey.

Her parents always told her to find a job she loved, she said, but at first she didn't how to turn her passion for the outdoors into a career. After asking around, Wuestefeld was guided to a wildlife science program at Purdue University.

Around the same time, as an 18-year-old, she began her first job at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife's parent agency. She started as a seasonal naturalist, and continued working at the DNR during the summers before moving into full-time work at the agency.

In 1997, when Wuestefeld first joined the Fish & Wildlife, she was one of four women among roughly 150 division professionals.

Now 47, Wuestefeld has over the years worked in multiple roles related to reservoirs, forestry — and of course, fish and wildlife.

"I grew up at DNR," Wuestefeld said. “I've always called this home.”

Angie Haywood, assistant director of planning and public engagement at the DNR, worked alongside her for 15 of those years. Haywood cites Wuestefeld, one of a handful of women who lead a statewide fish and wildlife agency, as a "pioneer" of female leadership in the department.

“We dreamed back then about conservation and how we can make a bigger impact and what kinds of programs we could do to get people to connect to the outdoors," Haywood said. “For me, it's an incredible opportunity to see this role model and mentor sitting in that director position.”

In all of her roles, Wuestefeld sought to lead projects, whether it was overseeing the implementation of the State Fair Fishin' Pond or spearheading a new state wildlife action plan.

The 300-page plan analyzes species of greatest need and assesses habitats in the state, acting as a guide for recovering or managing at-risk species. Wuestefeld said the plan was a "career-changing" project and is one of her proudest accomplishments.

"I don't know what made me decide to be brave enough or bold enough to say, 'I want to lead that,' " Wuestefeld said. "But the fact that they let me was a great opportunity."

John Davis, a deputy director at DNR who was involved in Wuestefeld's hiring, said Wuestefeld's qualifications and mission should by no means be downplayed by the fact she is the first woman in the position.

"She has a vision for managing the fish and wildlife resource of Indiana for all Hoosiers, not just those people who hunt and fish," Davis said. "The 'woman' part is, I think, secondary, but it is important and it is different for the constituency groups we sometimes serve. They haven’t seen too many women in leadership positions."

One of the challenges facing the Division of Fish & Wildlife, Wuestefeld said, is that most people don't understand all the agency does.

"They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re those hunting and fishing people,'" Wuestefeld said. "Yeah, we do set the regulations for the hunting and fishing laws in the state of Indiana, but we do so much more than that.”

The department also manages properties that function as habitats for the state's wildlife, researches at-risk species and oversees a slew of permitting processes.

Addressing the gap between public perception of the division and what the division actually does is a crucial challenge facing the department, Wuestefeld said. Improving this communication could help recruit more diverse groups of job candidates, she said.

"I think everybody’s aware of that," Wuestefeld said, "and we’re trying to work on it as a conservation community.”

Wuestefeld may have been one of just a few professional women in the division when she started, but today she guesses currently that number is closer to 45.

"It’s not 50% or anywhere close to 50%, but its significantly better than 25 years ago," Wuestefeld said. “So that makes you feel good. It's that whole idea of a broader net, right? I think we struggle being relevant to a broader society because we hire people that are so like us.”

Wuestefeld cites Ginger Murphy, deputy director for stewardship for Indiana State Parks, as an early DNR role model for her. Murphy said she's known Wuestefeld for roughly 30 years.

"When I first started ... we didn't see any women in leadership roles," Murphy said. "I really think Amanda is in the right spot at the right time, and I'm excited to see her show the skills that she has both as a professional and as a woman in leadership."

Although she's been called a "pioneer," Wuestefeld is uncomfortable with describing herself as such. In her experience, being a woman has not been an obstacle.

"I know as a female in a very male-dominated field, you have to maybe fight harder. But I don’t know ... I’m not afraid to fight," Wuestefeld said. "I’ve never felt like I wasn’t afforded any opportunity that I was interested in.”

Historically, the division has been seen as a place largely for conservation around hunting and fishing, an impression that can be seen in its workforce and outside partnerships.

Wuestefeld, whose background is in education and outreach, sees value in promoting the division's broader conservation role, one she hopes in turn could attract a more diverse workforce.

Since starting the job, she has reassigned staff in a way she said she hopes will improve communication within the division.

Wuestefeld said she's also interested in exploring other ideas, such as partnering with community organizations or schools on projects that convey the division's broader conservation message.

A lot of Wuestefeld's passion centers on preserving for others the kind of childhood she had. Spending her falls in the woods, she said, are some of her fondest memories — and she now tries to re-create them for her children.

Mostly, she said, she hopes to instill in others a sense of respect and stewardship for the land.

"I hope that results in healthy wildlife, healthy habitats, which makes for all of us a healthy environment to work and to have our kids and family in," Wuestefeld said. "That’s the reason you come to work, is to make that kind of change happen.”

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Source: The Indianapolis Star