Leslie Schreiber’s path to becoming Wyoming’s top expert on sage grouse began curiously, with venomous snakes in southern Indiana.
About a decade ago, while studying the spacial ecology of timber rattlers in Indiana’s Yellowwood State Forest, Schreiber happened upon Zack Walker, then the Hoosier state’s herpetology program manager. Walker knew Schreiber as a tough intern for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
There, among black locust and red and white pines, Walker explained he was leaving for Wyoming — and he encouraged Schreiber to apply for a job in his new department at the Wyoming Game and Fish.
“She’s well-grounded, has a lot of common sensibilities — a good team player and a hard worker,” said Walker, who’s now the Game and Fish’s non-game program supervisor.
Schreiber did apply with the Game and Fish, and Walker hired the young scientist as a seasonal technician in Wyoming’s herpetology program. Schreiber, a Purdue University grad, stayed on for two years before heading to the University of Missouri to earn her master’s degree. After graduation, she returned for two more years of seasonal work.
Then, when Greybull wildlife biologist Tom Easterly passed suddenly at the age of 50, Schreiber stepped into his role in 2014.
“They were big shoes to fill,” Schreiber said.
The job was filled with adventure. Last year, Schreiber got a call late in her shift. A mountain lion was caught in a trap — the big cat was not the intended species — and the trapper needed help. The job began at night on snow-packed roads, crossing the Big Horn Basin to the Game and Fish’s Cody office for a tranquilizer gun, then heading back home to get a snowmobile and grab a couple hours of sleep.
Growing up in Indiana, Schreiber never guessed she would one day be taking a pre-dawn snowmobile into the Bighorn Mountains. Or working hands-on with Wyoming’s long list of iconic critters. Every day brought a new adventure.
This past summer, Schreiber led a team from the Game and Fish to collar Bighorn Mountain Range moose for the first study of the state’s largest species of deer.
Showing no fear, Schreiber worked her way within 30 yards of a cow moose with a dart gun in hand — despite an agitated bull determined to stay between the biologist and her target. Schreiber was intent on making the best of every moment afield with the team in order to use all the collars available for the study. She eventually called off the attempt — not because of pressure from the bull, but out of concern for the moose.
From bears to lions, bighorn sheep to wolves, Schreiber was sent from one mountain range to the next into harm’s way. And she loved it. But none of those large mammals were her specialty. Nor were the reptiles — from the endangered Wyoming toad to extremely venomous midget faded rattlesnakes — while working as a seasonal tech. Schreiber’s master’s thesis was on sage grouse.
Shortly after the final collars were fashioned on cow moose, Tom Christiansen announced his retirement as the Game and Fish’s sage grouse program manager. A nationally respected expert on the imperiled species, Christiansen had spent decades leading the state’s program. He was a trusted voice through the 15-year debate that led to a historic multi-state collaboration aimed at saving the grouse, both from further declines and the endangered species list.
Schreiber immediately applied for Christiansen’s job. It was an easy choice for the department to hire her, said Brian Nesvik, Game and Fish chief game warden and chief of the wildlife division.
“Leslie was selected because she has the skills and a tremendous work ethic,” Nesvik said.
Schreiber finally gets a chance to work with sage grouse, but she’ll also inherit the lead in a national tug-of-war that can pit habitat conservation against mineral extraction and development.
“Sage grouse are definitely a sensitive species and she’ll get thrown right in the middle of the debate,” Nesvik said.
In 2015, 10 western states joined in a collaboration with the federal government and President Barack Obama’s administration in an attempt to save the species. It was the largest conservation effort in U.S. history. But some felt the new regulations missed their mark. Conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, thought the regulations didn’t go far enough to protect habitat — more than 25 percent of which is within Wyoming. Meanwhile, the Western Energy Alliance was among several energy extraction groups to protest the plan, claiming it went too far in restricting exploration.
Despite the objections, sage grouse seemed to be on steady footing in the West. The collaboration was heralded by state and federal leaders, including Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead. But in 2017, under President Donald Trump, new Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that the Obama-era sage grouse regulations would face a review. Many — including Mead — warned that changing course could result in more habitat loss and lawsuits seeking to list the sage grouse, but Zinke announced changes to the plan six months later. He used much of the language proposed by the energy alliance.
Recently, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have been working to open core sage grouse habitat — more than 8,000 square miles in five states — to energy extraction and grazing leases. Once again, sagebrush steppe became a political football. Schreiber’s new job puts her smack in the middle of the fight.
In starting the position last month, Schreiber said she’s too new to the post to comment on the politics of the imperiled species, opting to take time to celebrate the promotion and get comfortable in the position.
“I’m honored and humbled that Game and Fish picked me to carry on the tradition of conserving and collaborating to protect sage grouse,” she said. “I’m focusing more on the science and the daily activities that all of our biologists take part in, like coordinating lek efforts and reviewing research proposals.”
Unlike Christiansen, who was based in Green River, Schreiber has chosen to remain in Greybull. And with the change, the state has decided to move the sage grouse program under the non-game animal umbrella, although the state is still hosting sage grouse hunting seasons. The precarious nature of the species fits better under the non-game species umbrella, Nesvik said.
Coincidentally, Schreiber’s new boss is a familiar face — the same scientist who encouraged her studies and recruited her to Wyoming.
“On Nov. 1, Zack Walker became my immediate supervisor,” she said.
(Editor's note: This version corrects where Christiansen was based.)