Tom French truly is a cool guy. He’s collared black bears in the woods, inspected peregrine falcon nests from high above the Boston city skyline and has shooed away wild turkeys. He’s been up close to a bald eagle next and is able to tell the difference between a snapping turtle and an alligator from a distance (people commonly confuse the two).
But it’s not just Tom’s stories or his enthusiasm that amazes me; it’s also his passion for his work.
Tom serves as the Assistant Director for the Department of Fish and Game’s (DFG) Natural Heritage Program. The program was created in 1983 with the goal of protecting and conserving the hundreds of rare and threatened species found in Massachusetts. Tom conducts regulatory reviews of construction and transportation projects to make sure animal habitats aren’t disrupted. But Tom’s favorite part of the job extends beyond regulation and law.
Every day he works with multiple species that inhabit the state and helps identify what species are rare and need to be protected. The programs biggest success so far is bald eagles. When the program started in 1983, the state didn’t have any bald eagle nests, but there are now 40 protected pairs across the Commonwealth. And there were a record number of 107 birds spotted last year!
But some of the issues Tom deals with are troubling. Recently, a mysterious non-native disease called white nose syndrome has started to cause brown bats to fly and hunt outside their usual hibernation patterns, usually in extremely cold weather. Most bats that leave the cave never make it back. Tom said one example of the disease’s devastation is at a mining site in Chester.
“There were 8 to10, 000 bats in the cave during winter in previous years. In February 2011, there were only 14 bats left,” he said. “The whole scenario is pathetically remarkable. The brown bat was so popular 10-15 years ago and now the species is almost 98 percent gone and there’s not a thing we can do about it. We can catch them, feed them, and hydrate them, but they are just as susceptible again next year. This has been unprecedented for biologists of this generation.”
When he isn’t working, Tom serves as chair of the Northeast Right Whale Recovery Team and spends his weekends searching beaches for whale skeletons that can be preserved and put on display. These skeletons teach scientists about what is killing whales and provide them with a good platform for research. Currently, a skeleton Tom helped excavate is on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
“I’ve got the best job around from my perspective,” he says. The publication A Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century agrees. Tom was featured in the book in 1989, and was one of three people carried over to the new edition in 1999. “I get to work with an incredible variety of neat species, do good things for them, and do good things for the environment in general.”