By Published: March 10, 2022

CU Boulder ecologist Karen Bailey, who serves on the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Commission, aims to listen to advocates for predators and also ranchers and farmers

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Karen Bailey always felt a connection to both urban environments and the ocean.

“But in an urban setting, I was not exposed to career opportunities in environmental spaces,” says Bailey, assistant professor of environmental studies and member of the Well-Being, Environment, Livelihoods and Sustainability Group at the University of Colorado Boulder.

It wasn’t until a 10th-grade trip to the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming that she realized it was possible to make a career in “doing science outside and interacting with and understanding wildlife.”

During that time, she also studied at the Smithson Tropical Research Institute in Panama and did field work on the fabled “grunion runs” of southern California, where people gathered to watch the fish mating on sandy beaches.

Karen Bailey

At the top of the page: CU Boulder ecologist Karen Bailey, center, focuses on solving human-environment problems through her research. Above: Last year, Gov. Jared Polis appointed Assistant Professor Bailey to the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Commission for a four-year term.

“The fish swim up on the beach, and it’s a great community science opportunity,” she says. “I loved doing research outdoors and engaging people in environmental spaces.”

Years later, Bailey’s continuing interest in human-environmental interactions was one reason Gov. Jared Polis appointed her to a four-year term on the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Commission in 2021.

The commission “is responsible for perpetuating the wildlife resources of the state, providing a quality state parks system and providing enjoyable and sustainable outdoor recreation opportunities that educate and inspire current and future generations to serve as active stewards of Colorado natural resources.”

“We provide guidance on regulations for Colorado Parks and Wildlife,” she says. “Our work also ranges from things perceived as more mundane”—such as state parks hours and swimming regulations—to more contentious issues such as predator management and implementing wolf restoration recently approved by voters.

After graduating from high school, Bailey earned a BA in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton University and a master’s degree in wildlife ecology and conservation from the University of Florida.

During high school, she learned from shadowing two veterinarians that she wasn’t interested in that profession. And as an undergraduate, she participated in laboratory research that involved “strapping sparrows and finches to foam blocks,” and knew that wasn’t for her, either.

“I always tell my students it’s important to learn about what you don’t like as well as what you like,” she says.

At the University of Florida, she started doing traditional ecological research and field work in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) in southern Africa. Observing how one of the worst droughts in the country’s history affected human populations catalyzed “a big shift in my career trajectory,” Bailey says.

“I saw the intersection between negative environmental outcomes and social-justice outcomes, how the interaction and degradation of those same systems led to the oppression and marginalization of different groups,” she says.

She learned how to do social science and interdisciplinary research and eventually earned a PhD in interdisciplinary ecology at University of Florida. At CU Boulder, she’s been teaching introductory environmental science courses, where she takes “a broad overview of all things environmental—waste management, biodiversity, climate, energy, human-environment interactions in sub-Saharan Africa, conflict management and collaboration.”

I always tell my students it’s important to learn about what you don’t like as well as what you like.”

A friend on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission first suggested she apply for the Parks & Wildlife Commission, recognizing her interest in solving human-environment problems. She was surprised and flattered when she received a letter from Polis’ office encouraging her to apply. 

“My work now is really about how humans interact with the environment. Resilience and human-wildlife coexistence is probably part of the reason I was appointed,” she says. “I’m also interested more broadly in justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM and natural resources fields.”

While her urban background and research may seem removed from issues addressed by the commission, Bailey is deeply interested in making sure that all voices are heard.

“I’m happy to work with the Keystone Policy Center and other voices for wolf restoration, but I also want to hear the voices of those most likely to be impacted and influenced” such as ranchers and farmers, she says. “My agenda, if I have one, is really understanding and supporting equitable and transparent processes.”