Hometown Hero: From birds to blooms, Susi Von Oettingen finds joy in spotting endangered species

By SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN

Monitor staff

Published: 09-12-2023 7:27 PM

Susi von Oettingen is always on the lookout for endangered species.

Take her to a river, and she’ll look for mussels. Bring her to a wetland at dusk, and she’ll watch for bats in the sky. On a sandy beach, her focus shifts to scanning for plovers along the shoreline.

“Every time I spot endangered species, it puts me in a happy place,” said Von Oettingen, a retired endangered species biologist who formerly worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s just such a great feeling to know they’re out there still, and that people are protecting them. I just get this warm and fuzzy feeling.”

Von Oettingen, a Warner resident, began her career in biology nearly four decades ago, sparked by her fascination with frog development during her high school years.

At the age of 27, she began her professional career as a botanist before transitioning into the role of an endangered species biologist. She focused on protecting and recovering species like the piping plovers and roseate terns, a bird recognizable by its white body and black head.

She has earned recognition as a 2021 Recovery Champion for her leadership in the recovery efforts for the roseate tern population in Northeastern North America.

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“I love roseate turns because they are just beautiful and delicate and tough to try to recover,” said Von Oettingen.

Over the years, she has contributed her expertise across five different states, collaborating with various wildlife agencies. Her illustrious career culminated in her retirement in February, having served as the Northeast regional point person based in the Concord office for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

One of Von Oettingen’s notable achievements was her pioneering work alongside her supervisor from New Hampshire Fish and Game. They were the first to discover piping plovers nesting and successfully initiated protective measures at Seabrook Beach and Hampton Beach State Park, employing the use of fencing.

However, these efforts were not without their challenges. Von Oettingen often found herself in tense situations and even faced threats from individuals who opposed the installation of fences in economically important and frequently visited areas.

“I think my biggest challenge was just facing people and it’s just not one incident but it was year after year, month after month,” said Von Oettingen. “We didn’t have the training that we do now for negotiation.”

Reflecting on her early days in the field in 1985, Von Oettingen remembers that there weren’t many women who were endangered species biologists. It was a male-dominated field, she said.

“It was challenging to be a woman and accepted as an equal and that was before we knew about inappropriate behavior in the office,” explained Von Oettingen.

“But I am so grateful that things have changed in that because so many women have entered the field.”

As she enters the next chapter of her life, Von Oettingen remains dedicated to her cause. She will continue to volunteer in monitoring plants, bats, and roseate terns because that’s where her heart truly lies.

“It’s a tough field but if you’re passionate about it, it’s not a tough field,” said Von Oettingen. “I’m still learning to listen and not be polarized. You have to work within the law, but look for common ground.”

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