AFWA Honors its 2023 Annual Awards Recipients

October 3, 2023

The Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) recognized nine individuals, two state agencies, one federal agency, and one private landowner for their dedication to advancing fish and wildlife conservation at the Association’s Annual Awards Ceremony on September 26, 2023, in Calgary, Canada.

Sara Parker Pauley received AFWA’s top honor, the Seth Gordon Award, for lifetime achievement in conserving North America’s natural resources in the public trust and contributing to the programs of the Association.

Sara Parker Pauley’s service to the Association is exceptional through her active engagement in various affairs of the Association. She serves as the chair of the Wildlife Diversity Conservation and Funding committee, served in many roles as an officer on the executive committee, including a term as the first female President of the Association.  

Joan Blankenship received the Association’s John L. Morris Award which recognizes a lifetime commitment to fish and wildlife stewardship by citizen conservationists who have exhibited exemplary leadership at the highest level and demonstrated a steadfast commitment to large scale natural resource challenges.

Joan’s outstanding contributions to fish and wildlife stewardship as a citizen embodies the progressive conservation work this award represents. Joan’s tireless efforts have made Virginia a better place for aquatic resources and anglers and has inspired and enabled other citizen conservationists across the country to enhance habitats in their own states.

Dr. Andrew H. Raedeke with the Missouri Department of Conservation received the Association’s Earnest Thompson Seton Award for leadership in scientific management of wildlife. Dr. Raedeke has consistently demonstrated leadership, innovation, dedication, and passion for his work. His work truly exemplifies a meaningful impact on wildlife and wetland conservation.

Nicole Nichols, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is the recipient of this year’s Boone and Crockett Club Award, which honors an agency and team leader for outstanding achievement in promoting and encouraging outdoor ethics.

Nicole Nichols and her team illustrated their outstanding achievement in promoting and encouraging outdoor ethics through their outreach promoting the use of descending devices and venting tools with Florida’s world class fisheries.

Justin Grider with the Alabama Wildlife & Fisheries Division is the Mark Reeff Award recipient for distinguished early career professional.

Grider has elevated Alabama’s Recruitment, Retention, and Reactivation (R3) programs to a notable showpiece for the agency through his dedication to developing and enhancing R3 programs to successfully serve a diverse citizenry, his personal attentions to participants in these programs, and his steady encouragement of other staff to take part in R3 initiatives.

This year’s recipient of the Association’s Private Lands Fish and Wildlife Stewardship Award is Josiah Austin and the Cienega Ranch, in Arizona, for their proactive conservation and environmental practices and exhibiting outstanding stewardship of fish and wildlife resources.

Cienega Ranch demonstrates pride in working alongside many agencies and organizations to integrate a fully operational cattle company with ecological restoration and wildlife conservation efforts. Mr. Austin has worked tirelessly to make his ranch a thriving ecosystem that benefits cattle and wildlife. Josiah has worked to implement conservation measures across his ranch for over 25 years.  Mr. Austin’s commitment to conservation and ranching is unparalleled and made possible because of his collaborative spirit. 

This year’s recipient of the Stephen Kellert Award is Tom Wilcox, Director of Engagement, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. Mr. Wilcox’s work has introduced tens of thousands of people to the outdoors that may not have otherwise had opportunities to spend time in nature. The organizations he has supported and worked alongside, have, in many cases, evolved into pillars of the Mid-Atlantic outdoor education. His passion for people and introducing them to the outdoors is apparent in everything he does. Tom has increased the public’s knowledge of what the Virginia Department of Wildlife does and drawn attention to the department’s conservation work. He has supported local artisans, created lifelong memories, and provided funding to enhance non-profit organizations. His unique personality and ability to engage with diverse audiences has served him, the Virginia outdoor community, and the agency well.

This award goes to the Virginia Office of Professional Standards (OPS) Advisory Council. The Virginia OPS Advisory Council showcases remarkable dedication and significant contributions in enhancing the professionalism and advancement of conservation law enforcement in the Commonwealth of Virginia over the past five years. Through unwavering commitment and outstanding accomplishments of its membership and collaboration with officers and staff, the OPS Advisory Council has exemplified the highest standards of excellence, making a lasting impact on the conservation and protection of our natural resources. The Virginia OPS Advisory Council stands as a shining example of excellence in conservation law enforcement and embodies the very essence of this national-level recognition.\

The Association presented three special recognition awards for outstanding commitment to the work of the Association to Megan Wisecup with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Silvana Yaroschuk with Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, and Thomas Decker with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 

Megan Wisecup has gone out of her way to work with the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (MAFWA) Directors to help transform the R3 and Relevancy Committee of that organization into a model team. Megan then navigated an extremely time consuming and groundbreaking process to be the first to develop and hire a Regional R3 Coordinator position for the MAFWA R3 and Relevancy Team.

Silvana Yaroschuk has been successful in the past few years running the Multistate Conservation Grant Program. She has been extremely active in fostering change to support the most successful fish and wildlife management possible throughout the country. Silvana’s work with the multistate conservation grant program has had a tremendous impact on processes to better our collective multistate grant efforts that are so important to all our organizations.

Tom Decker has shown outstanding leadership in running the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partner with a Payer program.  Partner with a Payer seeks to educate state fish and wildlife agency personnel, firearms and angling industry leaders, and key nongovernmental conservation organizations about the critical importance of federal excise taxes on hunting, shooting, and fishing equipment in fueling the U.S. conservation engine.

The Association would like to pay tribute to the wildlife professionals, Fallen Heroes, who have lost their lives while carrying out their duties to enforce conservation laws and regulations and to manage fish and wildlife resources within the past year.  This deceased professional is Senior Investigator Kyle Patterson of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.



The Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies represents North America’s fish and wildlife agencies to advance sound, science-based management and conservation of fish and wildlife and their habitats in the public interest. The Association represents its state agency members on Capitol Hill and before the Administration to advance favorable fish and wildlife conservation policy and funding and works to ensure that all entities work collaboratively on the most important issues. The Association also provides member agencies with coordination services on cross-cutting as well as species-based programs that range from birds, fish habitat and energy development to climate change, wildlife action plans, conservation education, leadership training and international relations. Working together, the Association’s member agencies are ensuring that North American fish and wildlife management has a clear and collective voice.


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