Polar Bears International Executive Director Krista Wright

Photo: Jenny Wong

Celebrating 10 Years of Krista Wright's Leadership

By Barbara Nielsen, Senior Director of Communications



08 Feb 2023

Krista Wright will never forget the moment she saw her first polar bear. After working for more than two decades in environmental education, she took a year off to reexamine her life and recharge—riding her bike across northern Thailand and Laos, helping a friend launch a nonprofit, and volunteering to teach Nordic skiing and winter ecology to kids.

Polar bears weren’t on her radar, but owls were. So she pressed Denver Holt, director of the Owl Research Institute, to take her on as a volunteer, 

“Denver refused, saying I wasn’t tough enough—though I was,” Krista recalls. “So my friend Dan Cox, a wildlife photographer who volunteered with Polar Bears International, said, ‘Well, if the owls won’t take you, the polar bears will’.”

That was 2008. Within five years, Krista had progressed from volunteering with Polar Bears International during polar bear season in Churchill—where she saw her first wild polar bear—to being appointed executive director when Robert Buchanan, the previous president, retired. 

This year marks 10 years since Krista took the helm. During that time, Polar Bears International has grown from a small nonprofit with a budget of less than $500,000 to one with projects across the circumpolar Arctic, a global reputation as a leader in polar bear conservation, 31 staff members in four countries (the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and Norway), and a budget of more than $4.5 million. 

We caught up with Krista to talk about key accomplishments from the past 10 years and her vision for the future.

Q: Your first volunteer experience with Polar Bears International was during polar bear season in Churchill, Canada, in 2008. What was that like?

A: It was actually pretty hard! Robert and his wife, Carolyn, had recruited a group of tough, passionate people who didn’t mind roughing it for the opportunity to educate travelers to Churchill about polar bear science and conservation. It was inspiring to work alongside those early pioneers.

I spent nine weeks in Churchill, sleeping on a plywood bed and working long hours with no breaks. Due to the small team, I’d get up at 6 and keep going until 11 or 12 at night—just trying to keep everything moving, from working with visiting media to helping with our education programs and getting scientists out to the tundra. 

It was hard but I felt a passion for the work from the beginning. What drew me to Polar Bears International was not just the bears and the Arctic ecosystem, but the chance to work on a broad global issue like climate. I recognized that it was important, for polar bears and all of us. 

Photo: BJ Kirschhoffer / Polar Bears International

Krista Wright, Brigham Young University's Dr. Tom Smith, Geoff York, education outreach advisor Julene Reed, and board advisor Dr. Don Moore in front of a Tundra Buggy in 2008 during the early days of the Tundra Connections program.

Q: After that first season as a volunteer, you began working on a contract basis. Can you tell us about that?

A: That first season as a volunteer showed that I was organized and could take charge. I could communicate effectively and wasn’t afraid to voice my opinion or offer suggestions. From that point on, Robert provided me with an opportunity to work more closely with him and to learn from him. 

I started attending board meetings, and the board saw that I was good at organizing and a strategic thinker, someone who had the ability to lead. I came in with the right experience and the right skill set at the right time. In the past, I’d worked for a variety of nonprofits and had always worn a lot of hats. I’d also served on nonprofit boards and had a broad understanding of how nonprofits worked and what structures were needed. 

At the time, Polar Bears International didn’t have an office—all the volunteers and contract help worked remotely—and Dani Reiss, the board chair, pressed me to open an office in Bozeman, where I lived. So, I did that and we centralized operations for the first time. I found a new, Bozeman-based accountant and started to build out a structure. 

Establishing an office was a big first step. My second biggest accomplishment was setting up a donor management software system. I did that along with one of our board members, Val Beck. A lot of my work in those early days had to do with putting systems in place. 

Q: At what point did Polar Bears International start hiring staff?

A: By then, we’d come to a point where we had to decide whether to remain an all-volunteer organization, supported by some contract help, or start hiring staff. Doing so took a commitment from the board and they made that commitment, with generous support from two board members, Dick and Val Beck, who agreed to pay several salaries until we could get on a sound financial footing.

We hired our first paid employees in 2010—a total of four people, including me; Dr. Steven Amstrup, our chief scientist;  BJ Kirschhoffer, our field projects manager; and Barbara Nielsen, our communications director. Robert, who had retired from a career in marketing, and his wife, Carolyn, continued to volunteer their time and provide guidance. Then, the next year, we hired our first office administrator followed by a development specialist and some education employees. Having staff in place really allowed us to grow, especially since most of us could wear a lot of hats. When you have a small staff, you need people with broad skill sets.

Krista Wright giving a talk on the Tundra Buggy Lodge

Photo: Madison Stevens / Polar Bears International

Krista Wright giving a talk to the 2016 Climate Alliance cohort on the Tundra Buggy Lodge.

Q: Three years later, you were appointed executive director after Robert Buchanan retired. What were some of your early decisions in that role?

My first decision was to hire polar bear biologist Geoff York, now our senior director of conservation, to bring more science and research capabilities to the organization. Although Polar Bears International had always helped fund research, and we were lucky to have Steve Amstrup on staff, I thought it was important to further build on that. Geoff had been a polar bear researcher in Alaska but also had the interest and capability on the polar bear management side and had worked with another wildlife nonprofit, leading WWF”s Arctic Program. Like our chief scientist, Dr. Steve Amstrup, he understood the need to link science to conservation. He could be in both lanes. 

After that, I brought on biologist Alysa McCall, now our director of conservation outreach. The decision to strengthen the science team helped put us where we are today. It helped build our credibility and positioned us to serve as policy experts and leaders in polar bear conservation. This not only includes research projects that inform conservation but initiatives to help protect polar bear moms and cubs—the most vulnerable groups—and efforts to help polar bears and people coexist, which is increasingly important in a warming Arctic. We currently have 10 scientists on staff in four countries, all working to ensure a future for polar bears. Through it all, we’ve retained our nimbleness and have earned a reputation for tech innovations that are helping to advance polar bear science.

Q: Polar Bears International has a strong education and outreach arm as well. How has that grown during your tenure?

A: When I joined the staff, Robert had created early versions of innovative programs that have become real powerhouses. For example, Polar Bears International was a trailblazer in online learning through its Tundra Connections webcast program. However, it was fairly primitive back then, largely due to tech limitations, basically featuring panelists on a Tundra Buggy talking and answering questions. Our Climate Alliance training program—which empowers zoo staff to communicate effectively with the public about polar bears, sea ice, and climate change—also existed, although it was originally called Leadership Camp and the course wasn’t as in-depth as it is today. 

Our Climate Alliance program now includes a months-long online training course and features facilitators from the National Network of Ocean and Climate Change Communications, who train participants in using tested messaging on climate change. Also, thanks to tech advances, we’re able to mix images and short videos into our Tundra Connections broadcasts, making them highly engaging. 

We’re also able to filter in live footage from the Polar Bear Cams, which we launched in partnership with explore.org in 2011, bringing the bears to the world. BJ Kirschhoffer, our tech guru, was a big part of setting up the cams on the tundra. Later we added Beluga and Northern Lights Cams, helping people fall in love with the Arctic. 

Between the cams and the webcasts, we now reach roughly 3.2 million people around the world every year. In addition, we have a top-ranked website that is heavily used by students, teachers, the media, and the general public, helping us meet our education goals. We also have amazing media coverage, reaching 5 billion people around the world last year alone—cutting through the digital clutter to share the science and highlight the need to act on climate change.

Photo: Kieran Mulvaney

Kieran Mulvaney, Geoff York, and Krista Wright in Russia in 2017, where they explored potential collaborative projects.

Q: You’ve also helped move the dial on corporate engagement and sustainability efforts. Can you give us some examples of these partnerships?

A: We’re lucky to have some incredibly committed sponsors, who not only provide funding but are leaders in sustainability, providing a model for others to follow. Canada Goose, for example, one of our platinum sponsors, has committed to net-zero emissions by 2025 and is leading the way in reusing materials in their production. Frontiers North Adventures recently launched the first electric Tundra Buggy and has been recognized as a Certified B Corporation, with sustainable practices at the fore. Both of those companies became sponsors when Robert was president, and they remain committed to polar bear conservation. 

Other, more recent sponsors, also show concern for climate and the environment. VICKS/WICK in Europe, for example, which recently became a sponsor, follows sustainable practices throughout its operations. Another new partner, MINI USA, rolled out their new electric cars in 2022. The leadership shown by these corporations truly gives me hope that societies can change, moving away from business as usual to a sustainable future.

Q: Let’s talk about the big picture. What strikes you most about the changes you’ve seen since taking on the role of executive director?

I feel privileged to have worked with the early pioneers in Polar Bears International—those dedicated, passionate volunteers who hoped that the threat of climate change might be solved by now. While it’s clear we’ll need to continue evolving and strengthening our capacity to address the issues, it’s heartening to see how far we’ve come. Polar Bears International is now a circumpolar organization with a global reach, focused on the overarching threat of climate change while also working to ensure healthy polar bear populations survive in the short-term. 

I feel that we’ve made an impact on polar bear conservation. But we still have a lot of work to do. A recent paper co-authored by our chief scientist shows unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed, most polar bear populations are likely to disappear by 2100.

But we’re seeing signs of momentum all around. In 2015, the world’s nations came together on the Paris climate agreement and the current U.S. administration passed the first major climate bill. We’re starting to see mass-produced electric cars and there’s been strong growth in renewables. 

Last fall, Good Morning America visited us in Churchill and came out with a strong climate change message without us having to ask or coerce them. So, I’ve seen progress on the climate front even though we’re not yet where we need to be—and that makes our job that much more important.

I’m also seeing more normalcy around what we’re going to have to do to ensure a better future for polar bears and all of us. There’s been a definite shift in public opinion on the need to act on climate change, and it’s been exciting to see technology advance and to learn about new ideas and approaches. Part of the reason for inertia is not tapping into creativity or being able to imagine what the future could be—but a sense of urgency is building and with that comes real change.

BJ Kirschhoffer and Krista Wright set up solar panels in Svalbard

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

BJ Kirschhoffer and Krista Wright set up solar panels for a maternal den cam in Svalbard, Norway, 2022.

Q: In 2019, you opened Polar Bears International House in Churchill, giving PBI a base camp there, and a year later unveiled the Mars Center for Arctic Research, which provides staff housing. You’ve also expanded projects across the circumpolar Arctic. Those are big leaps forward. Did you ever imagine that in your early days?

When I think back to the days of sleeping on the floor in rental houses in Churchill, using a Canada Goose coat as a sleeping bag, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come. PBI House, our interpretive center in Churchill, has been hugely successful in terms of outreach and community relations. It came about thanks to the donation of land from former board member Bob Williams and a lead gift from Dani Reiss, CEO of Canada Goose, along with other generous donors. The Mars Center stemmed from a surprise gift from the Mars family. It’s made our work while in Churchill so much easier, not only from a logistical standpoint but for staff well-being. It makes a big difference to have your own room where you can rest and recharge during busy field seasons.

At the same time, we’ve expanded our work across the polar bear nations. When I started with Polar Bears International, we had research projects in Alaska and Canada. Now we have field work in Svalbard, Norway in partnership with the Norwegian Polar Institute and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. And, until the war in Ukraine broke out, we were helping to support field work on Wrangel Island in Russia led by Dr. Eric Regehr of the University of Washington. We have staff in Denmark and Norway, and our scientists also actively take part in international meetings, including those held by the Range States and the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group. The “International” is now there in Polar Bears International.

Q: Polar Bears International recently unveiled a new tagline, “Protect their future and save ours.” How does this align with the organization’s mission and your plans for Polar Bears International in the future?

From the beginning, Polar Bears International has emphasized that action on climate change is not just about polar bears, it’s about people, too. And of course now we’re seeing the impacts of a warming planet not only on sea ice and polar bears, but on people around the world—from floods to wildfires and more frequent and more intense storms. We feel it’s important to make that connection, to show how our futures are intertwined, and our new tagline captures that concept perfectly. A healthy Arctic ecosystem and healthy polar bear populations matter to us all.

Looking forward, we plan to continue our strategy of addressing the overarching threat of climate change while also working to ensure healthy polar bear populations in the short term. This includes putting resources into coexistence efforts, supporting northern communities in living safely with their bears, and helping to ensure that polar bear moms and cubs have the best possible chance of survival. We’re also looking to further strengthen our presence across the circumpolar Arctic and are considering pop-up interpretive centers in key locations like Svalbard.

We also recently created a policy and advocacy department, and I’m excited about that. Polar Bears International has earned a reputation for research that informs conservation, and we need to make sure those findings are applied to conservation plans and policies. At the same time, advocacy is critically important, and we can leverage our network to get the word out. This includes working with our zoo partners, who not only reach millions of people but are trusted messengers, which is incredibly important in our polarized world.

Polar Bears International Staff

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

Polar Bears International staff on the Tundra Buggy Lodge in 2015. During polar bear season, the staff stays busy with outreach including Tundra Connections broadcasts, live Polar Bear Cams, video projects, and visits from key media outlets, bringing the polar bears’ story to a global audience.

Q: Looking back, what are you most proud of?

A: The team and all we’ve accomplished. I feel privileged to work with an outstanding group of people who are really committed to the cause. From the early days, our people have been one of Polar Bears International’s greatest strengths, along with the polar bears. They’re magnificent animals that capture hearts all over the world, and they carry an important conservation message. They’re iconic and unique—and we’ll continue to do all we can to sustain their future.