Two conservation artists receive ‘Ding’ Darling Memorial Award

Melissa Groo and Erika Coover are being honored for their work

The Wildlife Society is recognizing two artists for putting their artistic talents to work for conservation.

Melissa Groo and Erika Coover have received TWS’ 2023 Jay N. “Ding” Darling Memorial Award for Wildlife Stewardship Through Art.

Groo is a wildlife photographer who has devoted her career to conserving the species she captures. She has also encouraged fellow photographers to adopt a more ethical approach to photographing wildlife.

Coover is a wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Her painting of a marten (Martes americana) was used for the cover of the commission’s plan to reintroduce the mammal to the state.

“It’s a real honor,” Groo said of receiving the award. “I had been a big fan of TWS for years, but I was not aware of this award.”

The award honors popular artist “Ding” Darling and his legacy of using art to advance conservation through the Federal Duck Stamp Program, poignant political cartoons and other work. In 1950, Darling became the first recipient of TWS’ Aldo Leopold Memorial Award.

Groo had worked with researcher Katy Payne collecting acoustic recordings of forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in the Central African Republic. After the birth of her daughter, Ruby, a photography course at a community college turned her on to a new career.

Melissa Groo Courtesy: Melissa Groo

Her wildlife photographs have appeared in magazines like the Smithsonian and Audubon. Her photo of a displaying great egret (Ardea alba) won the grand prize of the Audubon Society’s 2015 photo contest, sparking a relationship with the organization, where she has collaborated to create ethical guidelines for photographers and videographers.

“With the explosion of digital photography and nature photography, there’s just a lot of people out there now with cameras wanting to get near animals of all kinds,” Groo said. “How can we be out there in such a way that we’re not causing unnecessary disturbance and introducing further risks?”

She is a fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, a group of photographers who work to not just capture images of wildlife but advance conservation efforts. “I’m always trying to educate. I’m always trying to have an impact on the animals I love so much,” Groo said.

Photographer Melissa Groo uses her images, like these scarlet tanagers (Piranga olivacea) killed after striking a window, to advance conservation efforts. Credit: Melissa Groo

Coover, the other award recipient, took up painting in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns. When the state began making plans to return the American marten (Martes americana) to the forests of Pennsylvania, her newfound skills came in handy. Her painting of the mesocarnivore—using acrylic paints on a canvas board—was selected to grace the cover of the reintroduction plan.

Erika Coover Courtesy: Erika Coover

For some Pennsylvanians, her image—depicting a marten with a mouse in its mouth—may be the closest they will come to seeing a marten. By the beginning of the 20th century, the species had been extirpated from the state in the wake of deforestation. The Pennsylvania Game Commission is proposing to reestablish a population of martens.

Erika Coover’s painting of a marten was used for the cover of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s reintroduction plan for the species. Credit: Erika Coover

“I was really excited about the potential opportunity we had for reintroduction,” Coover said.

She wanted to at least introduce the idea of having the species around to a sometimes skeptical public.

Receiving the award was a welcome surprise, Coover said. “Art is just kind of a hobby for me, but it was very much appreciated.”