Quick Q&A with the New President

Posted on in On the Mountain by Hawk Mountain

At the beginning of this year, Sean Grace arrived on the Mountain as the new president of the Sanctuary. Read below to learn more about his background and what his plans for this position. 

1. Tell us about your previous experiences that have led you here to Hawk Mountain.

 I've always been very passionate about the natural world and I learned that right away from the time I was a very young person, and that led to  a strong connection with nature that includes raptors.

 I grew up in MA, and through my explorations, I became very connected to the Assabet River, and the section where I lived was the Mill Pond. I knew every square inch of that for many miles, upstream and downstream. I would go down there to fish, and that connected me with birds and wildlife. Those explorations were pretty formative for me as a child. I also had experiences with my mom feeding birds, and I got my first birding field guide from my mom.

 When I went to school for my undergrad, I decided to do the practical thing and majored in business management. I always had this strong connection with nature, enjoying hiking and backpacking and outdoor pursuits so when I finished school, I matched my personal interests with my scholastic training and started a career in outdoor retail. I worked first for Eastern Mountain Sports and then Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, both in New Jersey.

 At a certain point, when I had been with Eastern Mountain Sports,  I was able to take advantage of this program where I could take a 3-month sabbatical. I traveled out west and ended up at a place called the Teton Science School, and the director at the time, Jack Shay, invited me out to take the winter ecology course for free, if I could get the plane ticket. It was a two week course that was always scheduled after Christmas, so of course, working in outdoor retail, I couldn't leave then.

 Eventually, I decided to take a left turn in life, and I applied to the Teton Science School (TSS) grad program and got in. I did 34 graduate credits through Utah State University, but all of the work was actually done at TSS. It was a residential education facility, so groups would come in from anywhere from a week to five weeks. It was a fabulous experience, and I had opportunities to work on three different scientific research programs, including elk, coyote, and moose  studies. It was simply the best $9 an hour job I could ever have.

 I had met my wife-to-be while finishing my master's at the New Jersey School of Conservation, so I decided to come back east and put my life as a wildlife guide to the side. I then ran the operations for Blue Ridge Mountain Sports for a couple of years in New Jersey as a District Manager. I liked this experience because I learned all of the practical aspects of business. I was working with people and learning about their adventures. 

 An opportunity came up to run the Plainsboro Preserve for New Jersey Audubon. When I came in it was their number three center in terms of educational volume, and in a couple of years we were number one. It was a great opportunity to design an entire educational platform. I had had many previous experiences, but my rule has always been to find what the community needs and then to build the program around that.

Sean with an American kestrel
Sean with an American kestrel.

I had interviewed at the time for the National Audubon, and they came back with the opportunity to run the Sharon Audubon Center, which is comprised of four nature sanctuaries. At Sharon we did a whole diversity of things: we have a kestrel nest box program that we are a part of, we monitor close to 200 bluebird boxes, we had five different MAPS stations (mapping avian productivity and survivorship), and we had the wildlife rehabilitation unit.

One thing I want to point out about that: all of that work is all done through volunteer efforts. For me, it's really important to recognize the importance of volunteers. Even if we look at it here at Hawk Mountain, we have 18 employees, 25 board members, and about 250 volunteers. That really magnifies the ability for us to meet our mission. Everyone is here for the same reason, because they are passionate about that mission and what they do.

I was also the team leader of a forest program, the eastern forest work in the state of Connecticut. I launched that program about a month after I arrived. A big part of that was censusing the property by different habitats, essentially mapping it and documenting the avian populations present. In that realm, I am highly skilled: identifying species of birds by ear.

The magic of that program was the fact that you're giving that landowner their own private field trip on their own land. There was power in connecting people with their local wildlife and land.

All of these different opportunities, including fundraising and specific program responsibilities, lead me here to Hawk Mountain. I'm really excited just to be here and to embark on a new chapter. I can't wait to work with the team here; I want to listen, first and foremost, and learn what we do. Collaboratively we can move forward together and build off the platform we have.

2. What kind of leader are you, and what strategies will you bring to Hawk Mountain?

sean grace

My strengths may lie in my diversity in experiences, because I have had to wear a lot of the hats that the members of this senior team wear. I understand the opportunities and the challenges, so I want to strategize and work collaboratively to bring the best out of what we already have here.

Hawk Mountain is this awesome organization that has an incredible reputation. Really good organizations are built because there are great and committed people that work there. I know that going in.

I'm definitely a person who likes to innovate; I like to strategize ways to keep improving. One of the things that I always strive to do, is look through the lens of the community, which can be done on multiple levels: our staff, board, volunteers, local visitors, national and global partners , etc. I'm invested in exploring all of those lenses and creating this network of supporters with those communities who are committed to our mission and to raptors. There is strong power at the intersection of people and raptors.

If we at Hawk Mountain "win" and are successful, then raptor populations and their habitats are successful, and then people as a whole are successful. It's an easy thing to come into work every day and be committed to. We can continue to be that beacon of light that's guiding those global successes from the top of Hawk Mountain.

3. Do you have anything you want to say to our supporters?

 I'm here to listen. I like to meet people and hear what their connection is to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. I want to know what your interests are what opportunities you see for us. The best ideas come from within, and that includes our local community.

Sean Grace