The Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (SEAFWA) named Lori Williams the 2021 Wildlife Biologist of the Year at their 75th annual meeting, held Oct. 17-20 in Roanoke, Virginia. Williams has served as the lead amphibian biologist for the western region of North Carolina for the last 17 years.
“Williams’ passion for some of our most overlooked wildlife is matched only by her expertise,” SEAFWA President Paul Johansen said. “She has been instrumental in the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s effort to conserve the state’s and region’s native salamanders and educate citizens on the importance of maintaining these species. She stays on the cutting edge of conservation research and technology, using innovative methods to improve conservation outcomes and narrow multiple knowledge gaps about amphibians and their habitats across North Carolina and the Southeast.”
Williams’ work with hellbenders, the largest salamander in North America, has been of particular importance. Her early use of environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling methods to detect hellbenders in rivers and streams not previously known to be occupied resulted in a significantly improved understanding of hellbender distribution. She led a collaborative effort to identify the most urgent research needs for the giant salamanders and collaborated with researchers from Clemson and Wingate universities to study larvae, the most poorly understood life stage of hellbenders.
Williams has provided critical technical guidance regarding stream restoration in hellbender-occupied streams to improve population survival and growth. Realizing the overlapping habitat requirements for hellbenders and cold-water fisheries, Williams led a collaborative effort to educate trout anglers about hellbenders.
“Lori’s linkage of the poorly understood hellbender with the iconic and popular trout has had tremendous results for both resources,” said NCWRC Executive Director Cameron Ingram. "She has an unparalleled drive to educate people on the importance of animals most would never even notice. Lori is a biologist’s biologist, and North Carolina’s native salamanders are lucky to have her looking out for them.”
Williams’ efforts to educate trout anglers and other groups have significantly increased hellbender-sighting reports, including identification of previously unknown populations. By highlighting the commonalities of these two species, her work has fostered a greater understanding of aquatic conservation among diverse users and served as a prime example of the ability of inter-discipline collaboration to achieve shared conservation goals.
Williams has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Appalachian State University, Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Sciences from Virginia Tech, and Master of Science in Fisheries and Wildlife from Virginia Tech. While she has participated in wildlife research, management, and conservation for over 20 years, Williams has been with NCWRC’s Wildlife Diversity Program for 17 years and a Certified Wildlife Biologist® with The Wildlife Society since 2006.
The Association’s Biologist of the Year Awards are presented to two career biologists of state wildlife agencies, one each in the categories of wildlife and fisheries, who, in the opinion of the SEAFWA Awards Committee, have made outstanding contributions toward wildlife/fisheries conservation.