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4,000 wetlands and counting: Journeys of a wetland ecologist

4,000 wetlands and counting: Journeys of a wetland ecologist Joining a nature club is just one way to obtain the practical skills needed for a career as a wetland ecologist. Here, Joelyn identifies plant species near Edmonton, Alberta, as part of a nature club.

Joelyn Kozar is a senior wetland ecologist in Barr’s Calgary, Alberta, office. With more than a decade of experience with wetland assessment, delineation, classification, restoration, and monitoring, Joelyn’s passion lies in assisting clients with complex challenges involving reclamation, restoration, and rewilding. Here, we chat with Joelyn about her in-demand career and the importance of wetland management, conservation, and restoration.

What is the role of a wetland ecologist?

Wetland ecologists understand and assess the interactions between species and their environment and recognize the importance that hydrology plays in shaping wetland habitat. Their skills are important for understanding how a new or existing project interacts with wetlands, including how the wetlands might be impacted and how the wetland might impact the project. With this information, wetland ecologists can help others better plan and inform efforts to manage, conserve, and restore wetlands.

Wetland ecologists understand and assess the interactions between species and their environment and recognize the importance that hydrology plays in shaping wetland habitat.

Wetlands have been actively destroyed and undervalued for much of history, despite providing invaluable services for us, including flood mitigation, water purification, shoreline stabilization, carbon capture and storage, groundwater recharge and stream flow maintenance, fish and wildlife habitat, and resources like timber, peat, and food. Wetlands do all of this, and more, for free and it is costly to replace their functions. This is why I think it’s important to be an advocate for wetlands.

What are the steps involved in restoring a wetland, and why is it important?

Wetlands are the intersection of where upland and aquatic habitats merge. Therefore, they support many different species. Restoring wetlands helps reverse the long-term trend of habitat loss and provides more space for these species. Restoring a wetland starts with identifying the factors that are degraded, comparing that to a reference wetland that is pristine, and then changing those factors to nudge the wetland toward recovery. The easiest wetland restoration is to return water to a drained wetland by plugging a ditch or removing a dam. Water is life and, remarkably, many species return on their own when the water is restored.

Walk me through a typical workday for you.

I spend many hours in the office focusing on digitally delineating (spatially drawing or outlining) wetlands on aerial imagery, entering data collected in the field, and writing up the results of my evaluations. I also meet with clients to understand their challenges, complete administrative project tasks, and support the development and goals of my team and company.

Out in the field, it is a total change of scenery. I go from typical office hours to 12-hour days in the field. That might seem like a lot, but the varied activities throughout the day keep me energized. I wear long sleeves, hiking pants, and rubber boots to protect me from the elements, the brush, and the biting insects. My day alternates between driving, walking, and documenting wetlands, and then finishes with a small amount of desk work back at the hotel.

Last year, one project alone took you to more than 100 restored wetlands in Canada. What was your role?

It is impressive to go to so many wetlands in just a few weeks, but it is not unusual for me. I have visited over an estimated 4,000 wetlands in my career. And, in my spare time, I still want to visit more!

The 100 wetlands I visited had been restored for some time, so my role was to delineate the wetlands’ current boundaries and see how they are doing—basically, give them a progress report card. I also identified if maintenance actions were needed. It is important to closely monitor and maintain restoration projects until they are established and, depending on the design, maintenance may be routinely required, such as weed management.

What challenges did you encounter along the way?

Though the restored wetlands were on agricultural lands, many of them were quite remote with no accessible roads. It took an hour just to walk to some of the wetlands; one wetland was so large and remote, it took an entire day to walk around it. And weather is always a challenge. We battled thunderstorms and a heat wave. I checked the weather every morning and tried to plan the most challenging work for the nicest days.

In the office, the vast amount of data collected made for very large datasets. It was important to quality check the data at each step of data entry and analysis. The data revealed interesting trends about the importance of precipitation accumulation on wetland health. Again, water is life.

What did you enjoy most about this project?

Spending time outdoors has always been important to me and is a key reason why I became a wetland ecologist in the first place. I also particularly enjoy identifying and recognizing the names of plants—both sitting down with a field guide and solving the puzzle of identifying a plant and later seeing the results of the data. The plant species datasets were impressive—it was the first time I had been on a project that documented all the plants in each individual wetland. We were able to identify the most common wetland plant species in the project area, which encompassed 180 species.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I enjoy the opportunity to think big picture. By that, I mean thinking of the connections and patterns, and considering long-term and/or external implications. Wetlands are not self-contained and are linked to the other ecosystems around them. This means any action we do will have ripple effects. This fact also feeds into my curiosity. There are many opportunities to learn more: the soil chemistry, how the water flows, which species use the habitat, etc. And all the knowledge I gain adds back to the overall picture I can paint.

What advice would you give someone considering this career?

It is an excellent time to be a wetland ecologist. Society’s value for wetlands is growing exponentially, and there are more career and learning opportunities now than when I started 12 years ago.

Choosing a career takes time and exploration. I initially thought I wanted to be a geneticist or a chemist. It was midway through my degree that I realized I really enjoyed ecology and began to focus in on that area of study. When I look back to my younger days, I realize the signs were there. I enjoyed being outside in nature, I cared about our impact on the environment, I am detailed-oriented, and I am naturally curious. I think many of my fellow ecologists share these same passions.

Once you have decided to be a wetland ecologist, gaining practical skills is instrumental. You need to get out in the field to really understand and learn about wetlands.

Once you have decided to be a wetland ecologist, gaining practical skills is instrumental. You need to get out in the field to really understand and learn about wetlands.

When I was in university, I looked up job postings for environmental consulting positions and started taking courses on the skills that were valuable to employers. I took every lab and field course I could fit into my schedule and did an internship too. I believe this gave me a boost over my classmates and helped me secure a job before I even completed my degree. These skills don’t need to be learned in a classroom either; you can join nature clubs, attend events, or learn from field guides. These demonstrated practical skills speak volumes to potential employers.

Interested in joining the Barr team? Check out our open positions.

About Joelyn Kozar

Senior Wetland Ecologist Joelyn Kozar applies her in-depth understanding of organisms’ interactions with each other and with their physical and chemical environments to projects for clients in the public, mining, and oil and gas sectors. Her expertise in both biology and the inner workings of environmental policy helps clients protect the environment and save on costs while doing so.

Image gallery (below):

1. Joelyn hikes and camps in the badlands of southern Alberta, Canada.

2. Getting lost in the reeds, Joelyn visited 100 restored wetlands last year for one project alone.

3. Joelyn enjoys sharing her love of nature with others. Here, she shows her friend’s son the wonders of duckweed in a wetland on their property.

4. Joelyn takes a winter hike in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta.


Joelyn Kozar, Senior Wetland Ecologist
Joelyn Kozar
Senior Wetland Ecologist
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