Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about newly appointed Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife commissioner Judy Camuso and her priorities as she charts the agency’s course into the future.
While her appointment as commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife may have come as a surprise to some who didn’t know her, or didn’t expect the first woman ever to be selected to fill that position, Judy Camuso confessed that she had made her career goals pretty clear during an early meeting with her former boss and predecessor.
“The truth is, I’ve always wanted this job. It’s probably sooner than I had in my master plan, and envisioned, but I remember I was out with Commissioner [Chandler] Woodcock very early in his tenure here, and were out looking at, I don’t know, at some site in Portland,” Camuso said with a grin. “I was driving him in my state pickup truck and he asked, ‘Where do you want to be in 10 years?’ I was like, ‘Oh, I want your chair.’ He said, ‘What?’”
Woodcock wasn’t doubting her, Camuso said. Instead, he seemed stunned at her blunt answer.
Either way, less than a decade later, after being nominated by incoming Gov. Janet Mills and confirmed by the state senate, the 48-year-old Camuso is sitting exactly where she said she wanted to be: In the commissioner’s seat.
“Here I am,” she said.
And here’s how she got there.
Boston bird nerd
Growing up in Melrose, Massachusetts, about 10 miles outside Boston, is not the kind of background you may expect from a future wildlife biologist and Maine outdoor leader. But Camuso said she wasn’t the typical Boston kid.
“I did not grow up in a family that hunted or fished,” Camuso said. “I would say that I am a classic example of, sort of, nature vs. nurture, and this is always the way I was. I was always an outdoor kid. I was always an animal person.”
In fact, her family didn’t quite know what to make of her.
“From the time I was a little kid, the only jobs I’ve ever wanted in my life have been around animals or wildlife,” she said. “Growing up, my family would tease me — the nature nut, the bird nerd — that’s how my genetic makeup is. Those are the things that I’ve just always enjoyed.”
Camuso said she headed to the University of Vermont to study veterinary medicine after high school because “as a kid from Boston, you don’t know about wildlife biology as a career path.”
At UVM, she found that major, and embraced it. During an internship at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, she realized she had found her life’s work.
“It was like, ‘This is it. I am all in for this. I don’t ever want to do anything else,” she said. “Now, convincing my family that getting a degree in wildlife biology was something that one could get a job at was a totally different story.”
After several internships and part-time biological gigs, Camuso took a job with an engineering firm, working on environmental planning. That career wasn’t for her, so she quit, figuring she had work seasonally at L.L. Bean until something better came along. Then Maine Audubon called her with a job offer.
To say that Camuso was eager may be an understatement.
“When they called me to offer me the job they said, ‘When can you start?’ And I said, ‘Tomorrow,’” Camuso said. “They were like, ‘We’ve got to clean out your office. Can you give us until Monday?”
She did, and spent 11 years at the conservation organization, working her way up through the ranks as far as she thought she likely would. Then she decided to take another step and applied for a regional wildlife biologist job with the DIF&W, working out of the Gray office.
Again, she got the job. The transition was striking, she said.
“Regional biologists do a little bit of everything, jack of all trades; from moose to mayflies, is kind of how I would phrase it,” she said. “Not only did I kind of switch gears with the species that I worked with, I totally went from [one work situation to another] — Audubon was mostly women to [a job where] I was the only woman. And not only the only woman, but most of the men that walked around were carrying a gun on their hip, sort of like how I would carry lipstick.”
Though she found herself in a totally new environment, Camuso said she felt welcome at once, and quickly learned that she could always depend on her colleagues.
“When I came to work for fish and wildlife, I was just astounded,” Camuso said. “Never once in my career have I asked for help and [been turned down]. The answer has always been “Yes.” No one has ever said, ‘I can’t. I’m too busy. It’s not in my job duties. Who am I going to charge this to?’ The answer is always, ‘Yes.’
Camuso said she had a career plan in mind — 10 years as a regional biologist, learning the ropes, and then she hoped she had be able to advance and become the agency’s special projects coordinator.
The previous special projects coordinator, however, had other plans, and retired two or three years before Camuso thought she might. Unfazed, the biologist jumped at the chance, and was rewarded with that post.
That promotion didn’t last long. Within eight months, in 2013, the director of the department’s bureau of resource management retired, setting off a domino-effect of job swaps that led to Camuso hopping up the ladder again, this time, to wildlife division director.
“So, in about eight months time, I went from being a Bio 1 in the region — the lowest sort of seniority in the wildlife division with the least experience … to the wildlife director, overseeing the whole wildlife program and division,” she said.
Six months later, she hopped into the middle of a referendum battle to help defend the department’s bear management methods.
“Although that process was very challenging and exhausting physically and emotionally for many of us on staff, I think it really helped people see that I was pretty committed to the agency and to our management,” Camuso said.
Over the ensuing six years — up until her appointment as commissioner — she waited, and waited, and waited for a time to catch her breath. It hasn’t come yet.
“I like to say I’ve been waiting for a slow season in the agency,” Camuso said.
Her time as a jack-of-all-trades regional biologist had already taught her that wasn’t likely. Not that she’s complaining.
And the former bird nerd from Boston is happy with her lofty new perch.