Protecting the Wildlife of the American South

Ramona McGee BA ’08 works to defend the biodiversity of the Southin her new leadership position at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Ramona with her daughter, Rory, part of the next generation of environmentalists. Ramona with her daughter, Rory, part of the next generation of environmentalists.

When Ramona McGee BA ’08 reflects on the remarkable biodiversity of the American South, she offers a long list of examples. The Duck River running through middle Tennessee is home to more mussel and fish species than all of Europe combined. The Appalachian Mountains host more than 40 species of salamanders. Alabama is the most biodiverse state east of the Mississippi River. And the Atlantic Coastal Plain has been recognized as one of just two global biodiversity hotspots in the United States. But she is quick to add that these markers of incredible ecological richness are under threat.

Ramona McGee BA ’08

BA in environmental studies | JD, UNC School of Law at Chapel Hill

Professors Elizabeth Safran, George Austin, and Stephen Dow Beckham

Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, by Michelle Nijhuis

“What is going to happen to wildlife with accelerating habitat loss and climate change creating additional stressors? If climate change means an animal needs to move to a different altitude, how will it get there if the habitat in that area has been clear-cut or paved over?” McGee is working to tackle these questions every day in her position as senior attorney and wildlife program leader at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). A nonpartisan nonprofit, the SELC recently formalized its focus on wildlife—with McGee at the helm. The SELC also focuses on clean water and air, environmental justice, and conservation of forests and wetlands. This multipronged approach enables the organization to better respond to the inter-connected climate and extinction crises.

McGee’s role, like that of the organization itself, is wide-ranging. As an attorney and wildlife advocate, she takes a holistic, solutions-oriented approach to defending the environment of the South. McGee’s role involves both supporting the SELC’s team of attorneys and managing her own cases and projects. She also weighs in on federal policy and helps educate the public about the vulnerabilities of Southern wildlife.

McGee’s lifelong passion for the natural world has its roots in her early childhood in rural Alaska. “I grew up among those iconic Alaskan images that people see in travel brochures,” she says. “My interests quickly extended to the creatures outside.”

Lewis & Clark provided an academic and social experience that met her needs: a small liberal arts college with a politically engaged student body, ample opportunities to study overseas, and a leading environmental studies program.

Ramona working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Ramona working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Shortly after graduating, McGee entered law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her belief was that a law degree would enable her to become the most effective advocate for the environment, preparing her for a blend of policy work and litigation. After an internship at the SELC, she returned full time as an associate attorney in 2015.

For the last eight years, McGee has worked on some of the region’s most pressing environmental issues. For example, North Carolina is home to the last remaining wild population of red wolves, which has seen a precipitous drop in the last decade. The SELC’s successful court orders against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have set the species on a better track, allowing the wolves to reproduce with sup-port from the agencies tasked with managing their recovery. Most recently, the SELC secured a historic settlement recommitting the Fish and Wildlife Service to conservation efforts to grow the wild population of red wolves.

The SELC, which is headquartered in Charlottesville, Virginia, has branch offices in six states and the District of Columbia. McGee works in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, office. For her, it is meaningful that the SELC is based in the communities it is working to defend.

“I have a 5-year-old daughter, and because of where we live, I’m able to show her and teach her about our area’s wetlands and the birds we see in our backyard,” she says. “The first step toward environmental responsibility is learning about the wildlife around you and taking action in the spaces you care about. It seems simple, but we all need to hold onto that inherent childlike wonder for wildlife and harness it to make a difference.”