Tina Jackson can’t help chasing after animals. It’s distracting, in a good way. I’m supposed to be attentively listening to a talk about prairie habitat preservation in rural Weld County, but Tina steals my attention with a squeal of delight.
“Oh look! Does anyone know what this is?”
I turn to see her standing near an ant hill with a small, unidentified reptile in her hand. I think it looks like something from the Australian Outback.
“This is a horned lizard,” Tina declares before launching into a lengthy explanation. It doesn’t take long to gain an appreciation for the prehistoric-looking lizard, all thanks to Tina’s quick hands and infectious enthusiasm.
My group was previously learning about habitat preservation, but now we’re crouching next to the ant hill as Tina releases the horned lizard back onto the plains. She tells us this is an ideal release location as they feast on ants. We watch the horned lizard scurry away, and I keep an eye out for fast-moving reptiles near my feet for the rest of the day.
If it seems like Tina has been catching reptiles forever, it’s because she has. The lifelong habit started with her chasing frogs and snakes as a young girl and blossomed into a 26-year career with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, most spent as the Species Conservation Coordinator.
Tina could tell stories about her work all day long, and I’m tempted to let her. Any conversation is full of a bubbling laugh, hand movements to emphasize key points, and countless anecdotes of self-described “goofy” adventures.
There’s the tale of realizing she’s claustrophobic during a two-mile ATV ride through a pitch black water tunnel under a Western Slope mountain. The one thing settling her nerves was the destination: a boreal toad mating ground only found in high altitude locations. “I forgot we had to come back through the tunnel afterwards. I kept asking the Denver Water guy with me on the ATV, ‘are you sure they turned the water off?’” Tina recounts. I try to picture driving through a dark tunnel for any reason, but boreal toads seem like a good one.
There’s the one about a black-footed ferret released into the Colorado landscape, the first release after the species was brought back from near-extinction. Tina spied a disgruntled prairie dog, the ferret’s favorite food, shortly after the ferret left its cage, “He squinted at the ferret, trying to figure out what it was. Once it dawned on him, his eyes got huge and he bolted in the other direction! He must have thought ferrets were only a story from grandma.”
TIna’s story with the agency closed its final chapter at the end of August with her retirement.
Her wildlife journey started on a familiar path. She was assigned to be the district wildlife manager for Boulder South in 1997. This role led to another of Tina’s favorite stories about a family of raccoons that came down the chimney to land in the CU Boulder President’s office. She was called to respond and chuckled at the crime scene the party crashers made in the stately, prestigious space: “They left little ash footprints everywhere, all over the office.”
After a few years, new challenges and new opportunities lured her into the species conservation umbrella of CPW. It’s there Tina found her wildlife home among the boreal toads, black-footed ferrets, and various bat species, and where she worked to grow and protect these populations for future Colorado generations.
“It has been a privilege to have Tina as a colleague and friend,” said David Klute, CPW Species Conservation Unit Supervisor and Tina’s coworker for more than 20 years. “She has a unique breadth of knowledge and has worked with many species over the years: bats, jumping mice, ferrets, prairie dogs, reptiles, amphibians and many more. She understands the important science and wildlife management details necessary for the conservation of these sensitive species. But she is also able to speak with the general public, school groups, and others to explain complex information in understandable ways and to inspire conservation.”
One of the ways Tina intentionally inspires is by slipping in fun facts about her beloved species into any conversation, a trait she attributes to her love of teaching.
“Did you know bat poop sparkles?” Tina asks me. It’s one of her favorite questions to surprise a room full of wide-eyed kids or one wide-eyed public information officer. Her theory is if you tell an 8-year-old obsessed with unicorns about sparkly poop, then she might be willing to learn more about bats and, who knows, go into species conservation one day.
“I want people to remember that I have fun facts about all of my species. Think of the fun thing about those animals. Find the joy, so we can share that with others.”
Tina then offers me the fun fact that boreal toads smell like peanut butter. I am too baffled to ask a follow-up question.
She’s always had her eye on the future with the ultimate goal to leave things better than how she started. One area where Tina’s impact is felt the strongest is the conservation and expansion of black-footed ferrets. Her eyes still light up retelling the incredible tale of a species, once thought to be extinct, rediscovered near a Wyoming farm in the late 1980s. It’s a near-fairy tale for science: taking only seven viable fertile ferrets and turning those into the entire population today. Colorado houses the sole black-footed ferret research and conditioning center in the world where they are bred to survive in the wild and released onto land to, hopefully, expand the natural population of ferrets.
“When I started with ferrets in 2010 or 2011, Colorado didn’t have any active release sites. We’ve now released ferrets at eight sites statewide, with a ninth coming this fall. We’ve released over 600 black-footed ferrets.”
“Tina has supported black-footed ferret recovery efforts in Colorado better than any other person, from securing funding for dusting sites, innovative recovery research and landowner incentives to dealing with a wide range of partners to reintroduce and keep the ferrets on the landscape. She made a difference in the state and for her efforts, we are grateful,” said Kimberly Fraser, National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center Outreach Specialist.
Release days are some of Tina’s favorite CPW memories, watching the ferret leave its carrier and slip into a burrow in the wild for the first time and adding another chapter to the miracle of science.
“I still get goosebumps thinking about them.”
“One of my best memories of Tina is her releasing a black-footed ferret on a private landowner’s ranch in 2022,” Fraser reminisced. “She had the awe and respect with a great infectious enthusiasm of what it means for us to release this special North American native species back into the wild.”
Now it’s time to make new stories to tell, although she thinks it will be hard to live up to the excitement of working with wildlife, like the day she tried to tranquilize a bear at the Lakeside amusement park and accidentally hit the wooden roller coaster with a dart.
“I’m going to travel with my husband,”Tina says about her retirement dreams. “Sit around and read some books. Not attend a Zoom meeting. I joked that I’m going to chase some toads, maybe do the fun side of our jobs.”
Tina admits it will be hard not to have work to tackle. She has to have things to do and will often knit during meetings to occupy her hands (“I have a pair of socks I’m knitting in my bag” she whispers to me). One thing she’ll always make time for: leaving things better for the next generation of biologists.
“How do we get the kids to think this is something cool and they can do it? If I don’t get the chance to show kids this is a career path, they’re never going to know it exists. Even our bad days are better than anywhere else.”
Written by Kara Van Hoose. Kara is the Northeast Region Public Information Officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.