Spring cycle on and off the field: Meet Damon Oliver

Senior Team Leader for the South-Eastern NSW Regional Office Damon Oliver grew up in the southern suburbs of Adelaide back when kids spent all their time riding bikes, playing footy on the streets and catching tadpoles in the local creeks. Damon writes...

Damon Oliver, Senior Team Leader for the South-Eastern NSW Regional Office, OEH, tree planting in Taralga

While we did not appreciate it at the time, urban kids were more connected to their environment back then.

I think Saving our Species (SoS) has a crucial role to play in getting the next generation of adults to value their environment, including threatened species, and what they can do to help them.

That’s where I think kids in the bush still have that appreciation and interest in their environment and one of my favourite roles is to talk with schoolkids in regional areas because many of them have that connection already.

I think my strong conservation ethic was fostered during my full-on fieldwork job at Adelaide Uni and then working with NPWS and OEH with like-minded colleagues who have a passion for environmental conservation.

Damon Oliver in the 1990s, early threatened species projectAs a Science undergraduate at Adelaide Uni in the mid-1980s, I was privileged to gain a sound immersion in field ecology from some amazing mentors – I ended up working as a research officer for five years investigating pollination dynamics of plants and animals, so I spent most of my time studying and counting plants and animals. I then ran out of options and found myself at UNE in Armidale studying the endangered regent honeyeater (it was a lot more common back then!).

Eventually, Matt Cameron was kind enough to offer me the job of a lifetime in Dubbo NPWS Western Directorate Threatened Species Unit in January 1999 – and the rest is history.

Damon has worked on threatened species for OEH for almost 19 years – 5 in Dubbo and 14 in his current base at Queanbeyan. We asked about some of the focus, highlights and more unusual days.

Superb parrot (Polytelis swainsonii)In between keeping up with paperwork, new systems and templates, and helping with some of the programmatic aspects of SoS, I still have a strong interest in working with community, particularly landholders, Landcare and school groups to conserve threatened woodland birds and ecological communities such as Box-Gum woodland in rural landscapes.

The superb parrot has galvanised community interest in trying to protect threatened woodland birds on farms, including the difficult challenge of maintaining large hollow-bearing trees on farms and regional road corridors.

The Save Our Scarlet Robin project that is funded by Environmental Trust has also kept me busy looking for birds on properties where South East Local Land Services is investing funds in habitat restoration for the robin and other woodland birds – farmers are excited and proud to have threatened birds on their properties, so I really enjoy that field-based aspect of my work – I just wish I had more time to do it.

We are a team of 11 very experienced and highly regarded botanists, zoologists and generalists with a total of more than 200 years of research and practitioner experience. We have been a harmonious team since its creation 22 years ago.

Our newest SoS staff have slotted in remarkably well and are benefiting from being mentored by the ‘lifers’ in the team. I think we also bring a collegiate attitude to helping our mates in other Ecosystems and Threatened Species (EATS) team and across the broad portfolio of OEH, including NPWS and Science. Many of the team also collaborate with interstate and international partners. As well as managing and implementing numerous SoS-funded flora and fauna projects, the team regularly contribute to working groups, committees and expert panels both as part of SoS but also in a wider policy and program sense.

Damon Oliver thanking landowner Mark Selmes at Taralga tree plantingThere’s been a few proud moments starting with the plains-wanderer habitat mapping project and acquisition of Oolambeyan National Park in the late 1990s when I was based in Dubbo, the collaborative team effort between OEH and Murray CMA to develop the Murray Biodiversity Management Plan, and most recently I’m proud to be part of a team that is delivering so many projects under SoS funding. I’m also rapt to have helped Lorraine Oliver and Debbie Hunt arrange collateral for the recent Threatened Species Day activities. Their efforts brought a great selection of stickers, fact sheets and posters.

Community engagement is the key to the sustained success of SoS!

We get lots of interesting and sometimes random phone calls and requests for information about all sorts of topics or to identify strange creatures, often spiders. The OEH Queanbeyan team have also held some fun and whacky fund-raising events and cook-offs – a few years ago everyone dressed up in lycra bike-wear to help me raise funds for a charity bike ride I did in Europe, which was quite a sight!

Damon Oliver, overseas cycle challengeWhat does he like to do outside of work?

Family, bike riding, gardening, travelling, AFL (as a proud Port Power fan!), Japanese language and culture.

And finally, what message would Damon send to a young person about to embark on a career in conservation/threatened species management?

Work as hard as possible in as many different ecologist roles and seek out as much volunteering and work experience as they can. If you know what you’re interested in, focus on that speciality, but try to keep your skills as broad as possible. With the current dearth of good botanists, I’d encourage them to love plants! I’d also love to see an SoS-intern program for recent graduates developed.