Endangered Species Biologist
U.S. Federal Agency
Meet Calusa Horn – the 5th female scientist featured in our Women Doing Science blog series.
Bachelor of Science in Environmental Policy with a minor in Biology
NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office, Protected Resources Division
Calusa is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe Natives in Minnesota. Named after an extinct Indian tribe, she was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida. The central emphasis of her Native American heritage and upbringing on the value of the Earth, its creatures, and all its natural resources inform every aspect of her educational and career pursuits. Her biggest piece of advice to young women is that they believe in themselves and move forward in their education and career confident in their abilities, knowledge, and skills. The key to achieving your aspirations is to “get internships and don’t ever underestimate yourself”!
Additional resource information:
Note: Calusa wanted to update that her dad is Wampanoag, and more information about him, his work, and his books can be found here.
Animal photos in the video are from the NOAA Photo Library.
INTERVIEWEEE: Calusa Horn
INTERVIEWER: Sarah Garvin
GARVIN: Alright, I’m recording now.
So, just before we jump in, I want to do some quick introductions. I’m Sarah Garvin. I’m an independent contractor working with Amy Whitt and Azura Consulting on various projects, but mostly reviewing coastal construction projects and their potential impacts on species listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which we call the ESA. So, the ESA is exactly why I know today’s blog guest, Calusa Horn. We’re former colleagues from when I worked at NOAA Fisheries, Southeast Regional Office a decade ago…
GARVIN: And she currently works there now. And she’s just a fantastic human being that I’m excited to talk to again. She has a heart full of compassion for all of Earth’s creatures and critters including sad, lost little squirrels.
HORN: Oh! [Laughs.]
GARVIN: That she brings into the office sometimes to rehab.
HORN: You remembered!
GARVIN: And, as an Indigenous woman—which is, you know a big piece of who Calusa is—she has a deep commitment for advocating for the environment and Indigenous rights. So, without further ado, let’s learn a little bit more about you, Calusa, and where you’re working and what you’re doing.
HORN: OK! So, again, my name is Calusa Horn. I work at NOAA Fisheries Southeast Regional Office, but I work in the Protected Resources Division that primarily works to implement the ESA and the Environmental Protection Act as well to review and protect threatened and endangered species and essentially the end job is to prevent extinction and promote recovery. So, that is generally the big overview of Protected Resources.
HORN: But me specifically…. Go ahead.
GARVIN: No! So, you’ve kind of got your fingers in a lot of different pots it sounds like.
HORN: Right. So, I wear several different hats.
Currently I’m a Recovery Coordinator for oceanic whitetip sharks and giant manta rays. So, we’re working… those are species that are both been listed recently under the Endangered Species Act as threatened. We’ve been working on developing recovery plans and actions and implementing research efforts to improve further understanding of those two species and promote their recovery. And, hopefully, you know, get them off the list one day so they’ll be recovered and no longer declining.
GARVIN: So, most of our audience is, you know, middle aged girls and young women looking to
jump into science a little bit more deeply.
HORN: Mmm hmm.
GARVIN: But, when you talk about recovery, can you explain a little bit more about what that means for endangered and threatened species?
HORN: Mmm hmm.
So, when a species is listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Act actually requires us to develop plans… actions, tangible things that we can do as scientists and managers to increase the number of that particular animal or species in their environment. So, we mitigate threats, we work on better understanding research and the animal’s life history, we work in protecting habitats. In the end, all of that stuff is written up in a recovery plan, so the end game is to get the species on an upward trajectory as far as their abundance and their habitats and all of those type of things. So, when we say ‘recovery,’ the ultimate goal of the Endangered Species Act is to remove those species from the list because they have been recovered.
Does that help?
GARVIN: No! That’s awesome! That kind of means you’re like this hub for… and you can correct me if I’m wrong, but, you’re kind of like this hub for talking to scientists and talking to the non-profits who are down on the ground working with the species… you’re working with government organizations that are managing the species, or permitting work that’s done in the species’ habitat…
HORN: Right. There’s a host of things, and you know you do this, you have done this before, you know, with Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act and looking at, you know, construction and other large activities that happen in the marine environment that may hurt species and we’re constantly trying to mitigate that risk and remove that risk.
And we also do funding—like, another hat that I wear. I work as the Species Recovery Grant Coordinator for the Southeast Region. And this is a huge grant program that we… where we provide resources to states to further, you know, research and study these listed species. So, several different things. Lots of different hats. But, yes.
GARVIN: Yeah, so your current…
HORN: I hope that answered the question!
GARVIN: Yeah. Your current job title doesn’t really encapsulate everything that you do, because we’ve kind of smooshed the first two questions that I have together.
HORN: Yeah, I smooshed them. And, you know, another thing is that I do… I review species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. So, this is actually a pretty significant portion of my job right now. So, if we get petitioned by an NGO (non-profit organization) or anybody really to look at and review a species for whether it needs protection under the ESA, I typically will review those species and do the assessments to determine whether those species warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act. And then subsequently we’ll publish findings and rules if the action is warranted to protect those species. So, right now for instance, I’m working on the Queen conch review for under the ESA.
GARVIN: Did you get to do any site visits for that one?
HORN: Not yet! I mean, it really just depends on which way it goes. You know if we end up listing the species, you know, I could definitely foresee some fieldwork in my future. If not, you know, we’ll just continue to, you know, work on conservation efforts with our national partners and resource… fisheries resource managers.
GARVIN: Yeah. So, kind of… you’re more in the policy arena in terms of taking the fieldwork that folks are doing and turning that into not only language that mangers can understand…
HORN: Mmm hmm.
GARVIN: But the general public can understand, too.
HORN: Right. I do a lot of writing and analysis and assessments in plain language and translating, you know, some pretty dense scientific documents sometimes into rules and regulations that the public can understand as well.
GARVIN: Yeah! I imagine it’s a real creative process sometimes.
HORN: And it can be challenging!
GARVIN: Yeah! Yeah. OK, so, let’s see. Where are we here in my list of questions?
So, when did you know that this is what you wanted to do? I don’t know that any of us went into this work with the Endangered Species Act knowing we wanted to go into it… it kind of—I feel like a lot of it for many of us grew out of just our interests and then also trying to carve out a paying gig somehow.
GARVIN: So, maybe just describe your path a little bit of how you ended up here.
HORN: OK. So, ever since I was younger… really as long as I can remember… part of it is being an Indigenous woman and, you know, having been raised with the philosophy that, you know, we are stewards of the Earth, the water, all the critters that live in it, so I always knew from early in my life that I wanted to work towards conservation and protection. I think that it’s really important that we provide a voice to, you know, our resources. You know, our species, all the animals. So, for me, I always knew that I wanted to work in the conservation arena. And, when I started going and getting more focused in my degree, I did pick up policy pretty quickly because it’s a way to really use writing to create rules that work… that protect our environment. And I thought that that would be the best way for me to move forward and make a difference.
So, I mean, it really started when I was very young and it definitely got more focused, you know, throughout my career, or, throughout school. But really, I knew I wanted to work in conservation at a very young age. You know, marine biology just came naturally, you know, being raised in Florida and being very close to the beach and spending so much time on the water, you know, I just always knew that I wanted to work in the Gulf of Mexico on the critters that I see on a regular basis and, you know, protect those resources.
GARVIN: Yeah. Yeah. And, for me, I think, too, just the combination of getting all the science but not having to do all the necessary, maybe, lab experiments or data crunching kind of… but actually applying that science and seeing, you know, achievable results. Or seeing information get transferred to people was a draw for me for what we do with the ESA.
GARVIN: I don’t know if that was the same for you? Just, you know…?
HORN: Yeah. Taking the science or even like steering scientists and academia and our partners to answer important, you know, management questions so we can, you know, develop laws and rules and regulations to, you know, protect is…[SOUND]. Whoa. I don’t’ know what that was.
GARVIN: I think that was my text message, sorry! They’re integrated and it’s really annoying right now. Sorry!
HORN: Oh! Yeah, but that is exactly it. And I think that, you know, a lot of people think of marine biology and environmental studies as being out in the field and doing all of the work and pulling nets and doing all of that fun stuff and getting dirty, but for us, for me, a majority of my time is spent in the office, you know, reading and writing. And implementing case law and reading different policy decisions and that type of thing. So, it’s a lot of work and a lot of brain power but, you know, it means a lot in the end.
HORN: It has a lot of significant impact. I think.
GARVIN: I agree. And it’s never boring! I feel like there’s always something new to learn…
HORN: Mmm hmm.
GARVIN: …in applying the ESA to different species, so…
HORN: And that’s one of the cool things about my job, you know, is like… I do predominantly oceanic whitetip and giant manta rays… I’m very focused on them. But through doing species reviews under the ESA for listing and stuff, you know I’ve done everything from, you know, a seahorse to a whale to a conch. So, I’m getting… I’m learning. I’m constantly learning about species and different habitats, and I think that keeps it really alive and active.
GARVIN: And getting that new science in your hands, too…
HORN: Mmm hmm.
GARVIN: …keeps it fresh. So, one question that’s not on our list but is very specific to you is just describe a little bit your Indigenous heritage and how you grew up.
HORN: So, I’m an enrolled member of the… [CUTS OUT]… in Minnesota.
GARVIN: Can you say that one more time? At least on my… it froze on my screen.
HORN: So I’m an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe Natives in Minnesota. That’s where my people are from. My mom is from Minnesota and my dad is…oh dang, I’m not going to remember—we’ll talk about my dad some other time. My mom is an Ojibwe and my dad is Ottawa, I believe. I have to look it up. Oh god. I’m going to be in trouble!
HORN: [Laughs]. We have a matriarchal society, so that’s fair. That makes sense. [Laughs].
But, yeah, that’s where my people come from. My family is mostly in Minnesota right now; they’re very active in the Native community up there. My dad has written multiple books on Native American culture and philosophy and really it is like the bedrock. It’s my grounding force of who I am and why I think, for the most part, why I’ve ended up where I’ve ended up. And why I keep on doing it.
GARVIN: And your name has a particular meaning, too, in terms of Indigenous culture as well, right?
HORN: Right. So, my parents named us three children—I have two siblings—named after… we’re named after extinct Indian tribes. At least Ihasha and Calusa is. I named my daughter after an extinct Indian tribe. I think that not only are the names beautiful and different, but I’ve never met another Calusa so that’s always fun. But, you know, it reminds us of where we come from and kind of struggles that Native and First Nation people have had to endure.
GARVIN: Yeah, yeah. Struggle—it’s no singular thing and no small thing. And we’ll kind of circle back to that in a minute, but… so, we talked about what you do and how you got there. You have a spouse and you have a daughter. So how do you maintain that work/life balance? How do you make sure that you’re out in the environments that you love?
HORN: Right. So, it’s—definitely the last year has been a challenge. As you can see, I’ve been home since March of 2020. I’m working from home and trying to juggle my young daughter and work life and two dogs and… but it’s working. It’s definitely not standard. But we are balancing. Really, I think the most important thing for us is to get outside and to enjoy some of the natural wonders of Florida, like our springs and beaches. We have some beautiful places here, and I… we’re really fortunate to have access to them—especially now during this time when we’re all kind of cooped up.
GARVIN: Yeah. Yeah.
HORN: Yeah, that’s pretty much what I do! I hang out with my daughter and she makes me happy. Watching her learn and, you know, engage with the world; it’s just amazing.
GARVIN: Yeah! Oh, so cool. Yeah, this year I think a lot of people have relearned the importance of the outdoors. And I really hope people take those lessons to heart and maybe do a little more in their personal time to help protect those places.
HORN: For sure. You can always participate in a coastal cleanup. You just go out and pick up garbage.
GARVIN: Exactly. Exactly. Yup, just bring your bag with you.
HORN: Bring your bag! I do it every single time I go to the beach!
GARVIN: There’s always a cigarette butt to find or a little piece of plastic, yeah.
GARVIN: What is the one thing you wish you had known before you started pursuing your career?
HORN: Oh. I… this is a hard one. I made a joke earlier that I wouldn’t have taken all those algebra and stats classes if I knew I was going to end up writing so much.
GARVIN: [Laughs.] Right?
HORN: But, you know. I don’t… it’s hard to say. I don’t really know. I guess… you’ll see a theme in this. But I think it’s going back to being confident in yourself and wishing that I would have had more confidence in myself going in. And, you know, being more assertive and demanding in what my career and my choices… the choices that are available to me.
GARVIN: Right, right. It’s hard to know until you’re in it, though. Right?
HORN: Right. I know. It is. And, yeah, you don’t really know what you’re going to need until you’re in it. And, so I mean…I had a hard one… I had a hard time answering this question.
GARVIN: Would you say that you had a good support system around you to help navigate, you know, moving through your career, or did you have mentors?
HORN: You know, I… I think about my background and how I ended up here and it’s hard. I worked three jobs while I went to school. I had to take out student loan debt. I pretty much was self-made and was fortunate enough to get an internship when I started when, you know, in all of this, and I ended up scoring this pretty awesome job. But, I didn’t, no… there were no mentors or things like that for me. I didn’t have the resources… I know!
GARVIN: You were just kind of following your interests, and it kind of worked out in a way.
HORN: For sure. It did work out for me. And, it just kind of goes back to you just have to be persistent and keep on trying.
GARVIN: Yeah, and knowing what you are truly interested in and following those interests without…
HORN: For sure.
GARVIN: …is key, I think. Let’s see. One challenge—can you describe—that you’ve overcome in your work or your personal life?
GARVIN: Just one! [Laughs.]
HORN: Just one.
GARVIN: Like anyone has just one!
HORN: So, you know, and I think mine personally… my biggest challenge that’s personal and, you know, has to do with my work life is, you know, it took me a really long time to find my voice and to be confident in myself and my decision making. And, so, unfortunately, I think that the more I’ve been ingrained in my career and the longer I’ve been there the more confident I’ve got, but I think that the… there’s definitely a confidence gap when it comes to women and some of the challenges we face, unfortunately. So, mine it was definitely overcoming my…insecurity.
GARVIN: Your self-doubt.
HORN: Yeah. And finding my voice and, you know, becoming an assertive, confident decision maker and implementer of the ESA.
GARVIN: Yeah, sure! What is one of your greatest memories from your career so far? And gosh you’ve been doing this now for twenty years, right??
HORN: Oh! Don’t. It’s been about fifteen years.
HORN: It’s been about fifteen years, yeah.
So, I have a couple. Not all are great, but they’ve definitely changed my life. I think one of my most recent best memories is, you know, going on a first research trip for giant manta rays. And, you know, just being in the water with them and being able to engage with them and see them in, you know, their environment. They’re just beautiful animals and they are really cool and I… I consider myself blessed to be able to have those moments.
And then, policy-wise I think the biggest thing for me was the first time I published a rule listing a species under the Endangered Species Act. That was huge. You know, I don’t think a lot of people get to do that, and so for me that was a huge deal, and it was a milestone to be able to extend those protections to a species that was in such drastic need of them and hopefully in the endgame they’ll be able to, you know, not go extinct.
HORN: One of the big things… sorry, I have three… one of the biggest things… Yeah. The most life-changing thing that I have done since I’ve been with NOAA Fisheries was definitely Deepwater Horizon oil spill. When I was stationed at the Mobile incident command center in Alabama, pretty much a whole summer, and that changed my life. That changed just… it was… it was hard and it was sad and, you know, it was… definitely changed my view of the world and, you know, really validated why I took this job. Took up this job and this career. And it definitely changed and it was for good and bad. But, yeah, that was definitely a life-changing experience being at the Mobile incident command center.
GARVIN: For sure. And hopefully it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For all of us. Because that was rough.
HORN: Yeah. We hope!
GARVIN: And I know… I was in the Houma command center just a couple rotations and I know that the Mobile command center was just a rodeo of…
GARVIN: I just had this image in my head of like a busy newsroom of just running from one part of the command center to another. Just trying to fight for your species—for the sea turtles, for the dolphins, for the whales.
HORN: Mmm hmm.
GARVIN: Hoping to ensure that we could minimize the damage.
HORN: Right. Yeah. I mean, it was hard. You remember. You know, turtles and birds, marine mammals, sharks, rays, you know, even the crabs, the water. It was all just very devastating for the ecosystem and those that were there to try to minimize the recovery… or minimize the impacts.
GARVIN: Right. And having to work with all those different people, too. And not always the same people because people were rotating in and out. So, you know, that’s another piece I think of your job that isn’t immediately thought of, but that interpersonal and communication and collaboration skills that you have…
HORN: For sure.
GARVIN: …to work with all these different agencies and scientists and managers and law makers.
HORN: [Sighs.] Ah, yes. It’s definitely skills—a skillset. Not one that probably gets a lot of focus because you do it everyday, but there is definitely a skillset that goes along with communicating all this stuff to different audiences.
GARVIN: Right. And kind of having to negotiate for a species. Because you’re the face of the species on the table.
HORN: Negotiation and advocation. Yup.
GARVIN: Yep, yep, yeah. So this is a bit of a two-parter—we’re getting towards the end of our questions here, but: One, have you ever faced gender-related challenges in your career? And, two, if you have, how did you deal with those challenges?
HORN: Gender-related challenges. I think yes. You know, I do think that I have had to deal with a feeling of boys-club at different points in my career. I work with a majority of men and have always worked with men. I… how do you address… how do you go through those challenges? You know, I think that it’s… handling it with the person depending on the offense.
HORN: Being vocal and voicing your discomfort about a comment or something like that if it’s ever made. Making sure that it’s known that that type of attitude is not acceptable. And then, you know, worst case scenario, you’ve gotta go up the chain.
HORN: That’s typically, you know, how I handle those situations.
GARVIN: Have you had to go up the chain?
HORN: Yes. Mmm hmm.
GARVIN: Yeah? Ugh. That sucks.
GARVIN: Because it’s scary! And I feel like it’s a scenario where you’re on the defensive from the beginning. So have the ones that you have had to put up the chain, have they resolved well for you or not so much?
GARVIN: Was there a resolution?
HORN: There was a resolution. Yeah. And I am currently happily employed. So, yes.
GARVIN: Yeah. That’s all we needed to know. The system worked for you.
HORN: The system does work. The system does. You just have to make sure that you… you know, you articulate your concerns about any type of behavior like that that is unacceptable. And that you make it known at the point in time and in the future that that’s unacceptable. That’s how I went.
HORN: My being older now and having more experience with these types of situations now, like, for sure that would be the… document. Be vocal about your discontent. And then report it.
GARVIN: Yeah. And just for context in terms of working at NOAA Fisheries… it grew out of a culture of, you know, fishing.
GARVIN: Which is male dominated. And it’s a profession out in the field and if… you know, it’s going fishing with your guys. So that kind of…
GARVIN: I’m just saying in terms of the culture of where, you know, the fisheries started and who was in those rules and where we are now in 2021. You know…
GARVIN: I still think there’s some residual stuff from those beginnings with just being crude and crass and…
GARVIN: …just fishers out on the boat. But that has changed over time. And, you know…
HORN: For sure. For sure.
GARVIN: So, coming from your perspective…
HORN: There’s been instruments, or tools, I guess, for lack of a better word, in place to prevent this type of thing from happening in NOAA Fisheries, for sure.
GARVIN: Yeah. And the culture, like the overarching culture is not supportive of that as much any longer.
HORN: Absoultely. That’s… there is a zero tolerance.
GARVIN: So, that’s really been good to see even since my time there. But to know that the system is working for you.
GARVIN: And that you feel comfortable dealing with it.
HORN: This is all throughout the breadth of my career, too, and not just… whatever.
GARVIN: Yeah. It’s sad that it takes more experience to get better at handling it.
HORN: Well, you know, when you first start off as like an intern, you don’t know the ropes. You don’t want to make waves. You just want to do your job and do a good job.
GARVIN: Right, right.
HORN: And, you know, there are situations where, you know, things have happened that were inappropriate.
HORN: Whether it’s a conversation or a touch on the shoulder or whatever. It’s just, I think that unfortunately… now there is a lot more understanding, but ten years ago, maybe not so much.
GARVIN: So, that’s really good for our girls to know that are listening to this, or reading this—that maybe head into your career with a very strong sense of yourself.
HORN: Mmm hmm.
GARVIN: Or at least, your interests. And, advocating for yourself but also knowing that NOAA Fisheries as a potential path supports women facing these challenges. It is just a good thing to know for girls entering.
HORN: Right. NOAA Fisheries is very supportive of women… getting women in science, minorities in science, and protecting against these type of situations. They are pretty good about that.
GARVIN: That’s awesome. That’s really good to hear. So, yeah, that kind of brings us into our last question which is: What kind of advice would you offer to girls and young women wishing to pursue a similar career in policy or advocacy?
HORN: Right! It’s so funny, I had so many things like: Don’t ever give up, keep on trying, you know, never stop learning… all those type of things. But really, I think the most basic thing that I can give guidance or suggest is get internships.
HORN: Internships and networking to get into… to understand better within the biology field or science that you want to go into. Making those connections with colleagues or people that could become your colleagues and those type of things are essential. Especially in this type of really competitive field. And then, you know, don’t underestimate yourself.
GARVIN: Right. Yeah.
HORN: Just be confident. Don’t underestimate your ability to succeed and to do things, you know, the best. And so, that’s pretty much it, I mean, really. Get internships and don’t ever underestimate yourself.
GARVIN: So, kind of position yourself to take advantage of opportunities or people that you meet and just being curious and voicing that curiosity…
HORN: For sure!
GARVIN: …really leads to opening up opportunities.
HORN: Absolutely. You know. And, you’ve gotta get your foot in the door. Getting your foot in the door, having the… developing those connections and relationships with other biologists and, you know, figuring out what you want to do.. asking questions. You know, that type of thing. You have to engage. And you have to try. You have to do it. Nobody’s going to do it for you.
GARVIN: And, no one’s going to help you unless they know you’re interested, so…
GARVIN: Voicing it firs…
HORN: For sure.
GARVIN: …asking those questions, seeking out the things that intrigue you or pique your curiosity will help flow your career or interests in a more positive direction.
GARVIN: Oh, well this has been so fun because we haven’t been able to catch up in so long. And I feel like I never even left the office!
HORN: I know! Isn’t it crazy? Time flies!
GARVIN: So, this has been great. Are there any parting things that you’d like to share for folks that want to learn more about the ESA or…
HORN: I always say feel free to go to NOAA’s website. There’s a bunch of… a wealth of information there about, you know, Endangered Species Act. What we do, what species we have, what we’re doing to recover them, and, other than that, you know, I just want to thank you for the opportunity. It was fun!
GARVIN: Yeah! Thanks so much for agreeing to be on here. And I’ll post some of the links that you sent me so folks can click on that in the transcript. So, this has been super great. And, I hope you have a fantastic day.
GARVIN: I kind of wish it was a Friday!
HORN: I know! I gotta get on a conch call right after this, so…
GARVIN: OK! Well, I will let you skedaddle and prepare for that. But thank you again, and we’ll have to chat again soon!
HORN: Alright, thank you so much, I’ll talk to you later!
GARVIN: Alright, bye Calusa.