Sonya Oetterich

Junior Biologist at Kerr Wood Leidal Associates Ltd.
MSc in Ecological Restoration, 2018 

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but when we are developing it’s important to keep opportunities for more green infrastructure in mind…If we were to have lower impacts from the get go, it would be easier down the line.”

Sonya completed her undergraduate degree in the University of Waterloo’s Environment and Resource Studies program, where she first took an interest in restoration through some coursework and an inspiring professor. She also completed an undergraduate thesis on managing invasive Phragmites australis, the European common reed, in the Great Lakes area. She wanted to pursue a master’s degree in restoration with a mix of research and coursework, and the MSc in Ecological Restoration program proved a great fit. After moving to BC, she quickly fell in love with the unique landscapes and ecology of the Pacific Northwest.

A summer amongst the butterflies, and an autumn learning wetland restoration

Sonya partnered with Parks Canada for her applied research project, which assessed critical habitat for the endangered half-moon hairstreak butterfly (Satyrium semiluna) in Waterton Lakes National Park. Expanding a previous dataset, Sonya conducted systematic plant surveys and then created maps to see how vegetation in key areas had changed. She focused primarily on the butterfly’s two main host plants and spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe), an invasive forb which competes with them. She also designed an experiment to evaluate knapweed control options, with treatments for hand-pulling, glyphosate, and a do-nothing control. Finally, she conducted surveys for the butterfly, and ultimately created a set of management recommendations for the park.

In addition to spending a summer at Waterton Lakes, Sonya’s most memorable part of the program was the course on wetland restoration the following semester, particularly the field trip to Logan Lake. There, in addition to working with Tom Biebighauser, a known and respected expert in wetland restoration, she enjoyed late nights under the stars bonding with the cohort. Sonya says she appreciated the tight-knit cohort dynamic, and has since crossed paths with several program alumni, both professionally and socially.

Work in the consultancy sector

After graduation, Sonya spent a year and a half working for Marlim Ecological, a small ecological consultancy based in Surrey. Its small size led to Sonya taking on numerous responsibilities, which was great experience starting out. She worked primarily in the Lower Mainland and Prince George areas, doing streamside development applications for municipalities, ensuring compliance with Riparian Areas Protection Regulation, and doing stream classification surveys for proposed timber cutblocks up north. Summers typically involved long days out hiking, and winters were reserved for writing up all the reports.

Sonya is currently a junior biologist at Kerr Wood Leidal, primarily a water engineering firm. A lot of her work concerns compliance with the Water Sustainability Act and Fisheries Act, such as developing streambank erosion protection plans or surveying fish and wildlife for an infrastructure upgrade. She works closely with engineers, and has enjoyed being part of the design process from start to finish, providing valuable input to minimize damage to wildlife habitat. 

The trouble with a development perspective, and exciting changes in the Fraser River

One of the major challenges in restoration is posed by rampant human development. In many places, we desperately lack the funding to conserve land at a meaningful scale, and development goes ahead unimpeded. Sonya thinks we’re in dire need of a shift in perspectives and values. “A lot of the time in consulting, a client comes in from a regulatory perspective rather than a restoration perspective. ‘We’re only doing XYZ so we can implement our project,’” she recalls of some clients. “Instead of just doing the standard things, it’s important to keep in mind the context of the site, the watershed, and the influence of the project,” she proposes, “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but when we are developing it’s important to keep opportunities to develop more green infrastructure in mind…If we were to have lower impacts from the get go, it would be easier down the line.”

Sonya is excited by some of the developments in the field, such as fish-friendly pump stations and other infrastructure. She is proud the company she works for is involved in the Resilient Waters campaign, a multi-agency project aiming to upgrade flood infrastructure in the Lower Fraser River while enhancing salmonid habitat and access. “With these charismatic fish, more salmon coming in means more interest from the public, and more funding,” she explains excitedly, “There’s a lot of opportunity.”

Advice for new students: start building your connections, and think of the big picture

Sonya’s advice for new students is to start thinking about research interests as soon as possible, and consider all your connections. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people from an interesting webinar or conference for a project or even job opportunities. “Opportunities can come from places you wouldn’t expect. Lots of people are keen to have master’s students helping out,” she says. She also suggests thinking of restoration as a group effort, and keeping the big picture in mind. “You’re not always going to be doing restoration on its own, that’s actually quite rare, so understanding project context is really important. As much as it’s about the environment, it’s also about the public and stakeholders. It’s a group effort,” she reminds us.