For decades, Michelle Blake (Information and Communication Studies, ’88) has advocated on behalf of shelter animals, farm animals, and other large mammals. And yet, her career keeps creeping closer to the top of the food chain. As her career and legislative advocacy progressed over the years, on Earth Day 2020, Blake found herself filling the role of western region coordinator for the Mountain Lion Foundation. The Sacramento-based nonprofit works to preserve and protect mountain lions and the environments they inhabit in 15 states, including her home of Oregon. With a lifelong passion for the outdoors, she says her latest advocacy work is some of the most personally and professionally meaningful of her career.
What sparked your passion for environmental and wildlife advocacy?
I grew up hiking and camping. And when I was at Chico State, I loved all the outdoor options available. I hiked Mount Lassen and climbed Mount Shasta, and I loved riding my bike as far as I could go into Bidwell Park—way out to the far swimming holes on a hot day. But even with that, I hadn’t thought much about wildlife issues. Then, when I was working at a large animal shelter in the mid-1990s, I volunteered for a campaign to ban the use of dogs and baiting in hunting cougars and bears. It was such hard work, but we got on the ballot and then we won—we banned hounding and baiting in Oregon. But after that election is when my education in wildlife issues truly began! Within days, opponents introduced legislative bills to weaken or overturn the ballot measure, and those efforts haven’t slowed down in all the years since. I’ve been back to the legislature every session since then, testifying and advocating and working to uphold the will of the voters. It became a personal passion, which then became my full-time job when I joined the Mountain Lion Foundation in April. I know how lucky I am, because it’s everyone’s dream to turn their passion into their full-time job.
Why is it important to advocate on behalf of wildlife?
These are native species; each one has a distinct and irreplaceable role in balancing our ecosystem. But too many species face a perfect storm of human-caused threats. We humans need to clean up our act. Mountain lions are such a clear example of our unintended negative impacts on wildlife. Of course, bounty hunts nearly wiped mountain lions off the planet in the last century, but since then human assaults on them have been a more insidious kind. Their perfect storm is a combination of shrinking habitat, fragments of habitat cut off from each other by highways and development, secondary poisonings by rodenticides, collisions with cars, or getting shot for coming too close to livestock. And in all the states, except California, they’re also a prized trophy animal and game commissions are approving annual hunting quotas that biologists know are unsustainable. For so many reasons, people are becoming more aware of the fact that we’re running out of time to improve the way we relate to our natural environment. In some ways, mountain lions are the metaphorical canary in the coal mine.
What are some things most people don’t know about mountain lions?
Let’s start with the things I didn’t know! There are a lot, but I’ll name a few. They can purr but they cannot roar. People often imagine the iconic African lion roar, but you’ll never hear that from a mountain lion. They have long childhoods by wildlife standards: they hang out with mom for about 18 months before venturing out on their own. And they’re highly adaptable, meaning they have the largest range of today’s surviving species of wild cats. They do equally well in deserts and mountains, as they once roamed most of the states until bounty hunting nearly wiped them out. Today they exist in only 15 western states and a little pocket of Florida.
How did your time at Chico State prepare you for your current position?
Fully owning my obvious bias here but, I’m telling you, communications is the most flexible, useful degree ever! After graduation, I worked at three different news stations, but after I left to work in animal protection, those skills continued to serve me really well. And I’m so appreciative of those four years in Chico. It was a great transition into the world. I went to high school in a tiny rural town. When I started my freshman year at Chico State, I had just turned 17 and my first big lecture class in Tehama Hall had more students than my entire high school. Wow, I was young and green! I was equal parts terrified and exhilarated. I had a great time there and met some friends I’m still in touch with today. I’m always proud to say I’m a Chico State alum.
What can people do in their own communities to participate and advocate in wildlife protection?
I think there’s a very, very slow culture shift happening that involves moving away from the idea that wildlife is something to be managed and manipulated for human convenience. Instead, we need to understand and fully appreciate nature in its own right. We need to understand that all native species have a right to be here and to thrive. I’d tell everyone first that they can start right in their own house. Don’t use rodenticides (rat poisons and such) because those poisons spread on up the food chain and kill far more than the intended victim. And if you live on the urban edge or raise any animals, be sure to safeguard your property against native carnivores. That means providing secure fencing, putting animals into secure enclosures from dusk to dawn, and not feeding deer or other wildlife that could attract predators to your property. If you’d like to get involved on a larger scale, get online and see what your state’s game commissions and legislatures are doing. The most challenging part of my job is I think the same as everyone’s work: there’s never enough time in the day! And when you work on behalf of a cause like this, it all feels urgent. We might never accomplish everything we hope to do, but it’s so important to keep working at it.