Alumni Feature: Dr. Scott Butterfield, Senior Scientist with The Nature Conservancy

Ph.D., Plant Biology and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology & Behavior Program, Michigan State University. B.A., Biology, Boston University.

Can you give us an overview of the work you do with The Nature Conservancy (TNC)?

Scott: I just completed 15 years at TNC, so I have worn a lot of hats and done a lot of things. My two main focuses right now are acting as the Lead Scientist for the Strategic Restoration Strategy in the San Joaquin Valley and the Land Protection Strategy in California. I have also been the Lead Scientist at Carrizo Plain for 15 years, which is where I spend a lot of time and where my research has primarily been focused.

Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes came out on April 8, 2021 and is available from Island Press.

We are excited about your new book, Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes. How do you describe it and what motivated you to develop it?

Scott: This book is a culmination of the last 15 years I have spent working and doing research in places like Carrizo Plain. The opportunity to think about strategic restoration and to write this book came about as a result of passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). California is growing but our water supply is not. The ways we have used water in the past are not sustainable for the future. SGMA is an attempt to balance the water needs for people and nature, in an effort to provide a more sustainable future for all of California. Our estimates suggest that SGMA will lead to 200,000+ acres of agricultural land being permanently retired. Rather than having that retirement occur in a checkerboard fashion – as it did during the last extended drought – we are trying to develop ways to strategically retire and restore those agricultural lands that are no longer sustainable in ways that benefit both people and nature. 

The large agricultural footprint in the San Joaquin Valley of California came at the expense of habitat for a suite of plant and animal species. As a result, the San Joaquin Valley has one of the highest concentrations of threatened and endangered species in the continental United States. If done right, our Strategic Restoration strategy could help recover over 25 threatened and endangered species, while also contributing to groundwater sustainability, cleaner water and air, and greater access to open space for San Joaquin Valley communities. The book brings together 30+ authors, some of whom have been working in the San Joaquin Valley for more than 30 years. The book is an exciting visionary document, but also an important opportunity to capture lessons learned from past restoration efforts.

What parts of this work do you find the most exciting or rewarding?

Scott: From a science perspective, the most exciting piece for me is learning from the past to inform the future – to bring together all of these lessons learned and to launch new and exciting science that will guide current and future restoration efforts. Bringing together so many people to write chapters was one of the most exciting and challenging parts. This is a unique time in California and a unique opportunity to contribute to a more sustainable future for nature and people in the San Joaquin Valley. The authors of the book have focused their work on San Joaquin Valley species in small remnants of what was once a vast San Joaquin Valley ecosystem. To think about putting habitat back for these species at the level of hundreds of thousands of acres is exciting and inspiring. 

Any advice for others who are interested in building careers in conservation?

Scott: Number one, and everybody says this, but try to find something that you are truly excited and passionate about so that going to work doesn’t feel so much like work. One of the biggest pieces of advice I give grad students is that you cannot do conservation on your own. As I transitioned from academia to a job with a non-profit, I realized I needed to build a network of collaborators, inside and outside of TNC. I have been very lucky to work with amazing people over the past 15 years. This book would not have been possible without their inspiration and hard work. Conservation science is all about collaboration!

I also tell those interested in jobs in conservation science to embrace new topics. I came out of grad school as a rangeland and remote sensing “expert”, but now some of my greatest expertise is with San Joaquin Valley species like the giant kangaroo rat and blunt-nosed leopard lizard. Do not be afraid to take on and learn new things, and be a scientist that is always growing and evolving. Lastly, work hard to become a good communicator. Press yourself to do things that might not seem comfortable, like doing an interview or writing a newspaper editorial or magazine article. An important part of my job is taking pretty complicated scientific results and communicating it in a way that the general public will understand it. That is where you can have a real impact!

Any memorable moments in your career or education that you would like to share?

Scott: When I saw this question, I immediately thought of three distinct field experiences. In graduate school, I worked across a series of ranches in northern California. One day, I was out with a big piece of equipment taking measurements on a sheep ranch, and all of a sudden two sheep dogs came running full speed at me. I threw the equipment over a barbed wire fence, and tried to get under it as quickly as possible before the dogs got to me. I made it to the other side of the fence away from the dogs, but my shirt did not. The dogs left with my shirt that day!

A few months after starting my job at TNC, I was down at Carrizo Plain doing a donor trip. One of the important species at Carrizo Plain is the giant kangaroo rat, which is a burrowing species that lives underground. We were out talking to the donors about our new research of tracking giant kangaroo rats from space, when all of a sudden one comes running out of its burrow, runs up my colleagues pants, and pops out at the top of his shirt on his shoulder. This was one of those cool experiences out in nature that really makes you fall in love with a place.

A few years ago, I was out at the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve in Santa Barbara to spend a week writing. There was really no one else there, and I was out taking a long walk without my phone. About 150 yards away from me on the beach, I saw a pretty large animal. I thought it might be a sea lion with a coyote on it, but as I got closer I saw a giant tail. It ended up being a mountain lion on the beach scavenging a dead sea lion. The mountain lion eventually walked off, but the only way back to the house was up the same wash that the mountain lion left on. Let’s just say it was a terrifying walk back to the house!

For more information, see Scott’s profile on The Nature Conservancy’s website (
Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes: A California Study in Rebalancing the Needs of People and Nature is available from Island Press (

Article by Ally Brown, lightly edited