From mapping where rare species live in Georgia to arranging the strategies, funding and staff to restore them, Matt Elliott is well-versed in conserving the state’s wildlife and ecosystems. Ditto for DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section, the agency he was recently chosen to lead.

Elliott, an ecologist and Athens resident, began work with Wildlife Conservation as manager of the Georgia Natural Heritage Program in 2004. Twelve years later he became assistant chief of the section, helping manage statewide operations, serving as federal aid coordinator and overseeing budget decisions. On April 1, he was promoted to chief following the retirement of Dr. Jon Ambrose.

Wildlife Conservation Section Chief Matt Elliott

Before DNR, Elliott worked as a University of Georgia GIS specialist mapping the distribution of species and ecosystems in the Georgia Geographic Analysis Program, or GAP. Elliott graduated from the University of the South (Sewanee), completed a master’s in forestry and environmental studies at Yale University, and did post-graduate work in geography at UGA.

His outdoors experience is not all academic: Elliott, a father of two, is an avid hiker and kayak angler.

As head of the DNR section charged with conserving and protecting Georgia wildlife not hunted or fished for, native plants and the habitats these species need, here are some of his thoughts on the new job and what’s ahead for conservation. (This Q&A has been edited for conciseness and clarity.)

What are some of the challenges the agency is facing?

One big thing is getting the State Wildlife Action Plan done. (The statewide conservation strategy led by DNR but involving scores of partners and stakeholders is revised every 10 years.) I’m confident we’re going to do that well. We have the last two times, in 2005 and 2015. I think we’re on the right track again.

We’re also implementing more of the plan goals. And we’re to the point we’re looking not just at conservation needs as standalone issues, but we are looking at the states around us. For example, we’ve set regional species of greatest conservation need – to provide more effective conservation approaches across state lines.

We are ahead of a lot of other states because our plan already incorporates native plants. But there’s also a growing interest in terrestrial invertebrates, from bumblebees to fireflies. We’ve switched one of our biologists to terrestrial invertebrates. That’s the first person we’ve had working on that full-time.

And we’re working our way through needs raised by the petitioning of species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. A lot of the petitions left involve plants and terrestrial invertebrates. For many it’s more of a question of data deficiencies: We need more data to know how they’re doing.

Big picture, what role does the Wildlife Action Plan play?

It sets our overall  goals so we can periodically look at the plan and it automatically takes us to a higher level view. Are we getting too dialed in on a few specific issues and not really doing what we thought about in our goals for the next 10 years?

We put a lot of effort into thinking about these things when we reviewed the State Wildlife Action Plan and I think looking at it periodically gives us a reality check on how well we’re doing. Hopefully, we’re not just putting out fires, we’re actually moving forward in a way we’ve considered carefully.

Any other issues, continuing or coming soon?

From a land management standpoint, we’ve been making progress. We have added more state lands. But almost all require active management. We’ve been doing a lot of things like prescribed burning to restore and maintain habitats. But there may be other site-specific priorities, such as invasive species we need to address.

Of course, funding is always an issue. (The Wildlife Conservation Section depends primarily on fundraisers – such as the eagle, monarch and hummingbird license plates – plus grants and donations.) A lot of our sources are sort of on a long, slow decline.

We also have significant challenges with the state of some species, such as the endangered North Atlantic right whale. These whales, which calve off the Southeast, are associated with a lot of hot-button issues, whether it’s boating speed limits coming into harbors or fishing gear in the Northeast. (Entanglement in commercial fishing gear and vessel strikes are two leading causes of right whale deaths and injuries.) When you get down to only having 350 or so of these whales left, and they have a huge migration path that’s really well traveled by boats, there’s going to be conflict.

The monarch will be another big challenge if it is federally listed. It’s going to be considered very differently than almost any other listed species. They have declined, but it’s still found in a lot of places. You have them go through your yard. How are you going to encourage people who manage a lot of land to create more habitats for them and at the same time not involve somebody weed whacking their backyard? What can be positive management for monarchs on a really broad scale, where you can get a really big bang for your buck? Most of the management we do – or really all of it – would be good for pollinators. If we’re promoting native herbaceous understory species, that’s going to be great for native pollinators, whether it’s bumblebees or monarchs.

Let’s switch to conservation successes: What would you highlight?

All of the land conservation we’ve done on the coast has been a huge success. Ceylon, Sansavilla and Altama Plantation wildlife management areas are some key examples.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also about downlist the red-cockaded woodpecker from endangered to threatened. That’s something we will keep working on, getting more red-cockaded woodpeckers on state lands and continuing our conservation efforts with private landowners, particularly in the Red Hills Region (a stronghold for the rare birds in southwest Georgia and north Florida).

Recovery of the loggerhead sea turtle is another species of note. We’re getting close to achieving our conservation goals with that species, too.

There’s also hairy rattleweed (Baptisia arachnifera, found worldwide only in two Georgia counties). We had no conserved sites for that endangered plan when I started – I remember writing the first Recovery Land Acquisition grant for a conservation easement on the Lewis Tract – and we have multiple sites now where we’re managing the species.

There are a lot of stories like that. And most don’t involve just single-species management: They’re part of an ecosystem. With red-cockaded woodpeckers, for example, there are so many different things found in that longleaf pine ecosystem. We’re getting a whole slew of species every time we work on something like that. Even with hairy rattleweed, we’re talking about a longleaf pine/flatwoods ecosystem, which we had very little in the way of conserved lands in Georgia. Yet there’s a lot of things that depend on it.

How does relevancy fit into the outlook?

I think a challenge for all in DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division is remaining relevant to the people living in our state. The demographics of Georgia change constantly. The types of things people are interested in change. There’s certainly not any less interest in outdoor activities. When I go out I see more and more people. So keeping in touch with what they’re thinking about as they’re getting outdoors and what types of experiences they want, provided they’re compatible with what we do.

What do you want people to know most about Wildlife Conservation?

I think we’ve got a really good reputation around the country. I think wanting people to know that we’re continuing that work and trying to build on it. I’m certainly not planning on shaking up things a lot. If we make changes, they’re gonna be smart ones.

Learn more about the Wildlife Conservation Section, its mission and work.

Top: DNR’s Matt Elliott and former UGA researcher Miranda Gulsby release a head-started gopher tortoise at Sansavilla WMA. (Justin Eckelberry/Zoo Atlanta)