Steward of the Land: Elise Bouthillier Protects and Serves Connecticut Wildlife and Natural Resources

How the James V. Spignesi, Jr. Memorial Scholarship changed the course of one student's life

Elise Bouthillier, a UConn alumna, wears her state Department of Environmental Protection uniform as she lifts a small boy, wearing an orange shirt.

Elise Bouthillier '08 was inspired to pursue a career as a steward of Connecticut's natural resources thanks to a scholarship honoring a UConn alum who became a DEEP enforcement officer and died in the line of duty (contributed photo).

Elise Bouthillier never expected a scholarship to change her life, but in the case of the James V. Spignesi, Jr. Memorial Scholarship, it did.

The Spignesi Scholarship has been supporting students who wish to dedicate their lives to protecting the environment for the past 21 years.

The scholarship was established in 2001 in honor of Officer James V. Spignesi Jr. A 1975 UConn graduate, Spignesi was a 21-year veteran of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. He began his career with DEEP as a wildlife biologist and joined the law enforcement division in 1990. He received the Medal for Meritorious Services by the Department of Environmental Protection. In 1998, Spignesi became the first environmental conservation police officer to die in the line of duty. He was shot and killed while searching for an illegal hunter in the town of Scotland.

Now Spignesi’s memory is supporting future stewards of the land, like Elise Bouthillier.

Bouthillier ’08 (CAHNR) started her undergraduate career at UConn thinking she wanted to become a veterinarian, but through her interactions with the environmental conservation officers on the scholarship committee, she decided to follow in Spignesi’s footsteps instead.

Bouthillier was first nominated for the scholarship her sophomore year, but she would be the recipient her junior year in 2007. During interviews for the scholarship, Bouthillier got to speak with environmental conservation officers who spent their days working to protect and preserve Connecticut’s natural resources.

“I met a lot of officers and was like, ‘that’s it, this is what I want to do’,” Bouthillier says.

Bouthillier graduated in 2008 with a degree in natural resources and the environment with a concentration in wildlife management.

Environmental conservation officers’ work is varied and may include enforcing hunting, fishing, and trapping regulations, search and rescue operations, helping injured animals, responding to storm-related emergencies, and making sure people are enjoying the state’s resources in a respectful and sustainable way.

“If we aren’t responsible stewards of our natural resources, they won’t be here for our children or our grandchildren to enjoy,” Bouthillier says. “I want my grandchildren to enjoy this state the way I do.”

While there is no “typical day” for Bouthillier, much of her job involves patrolling areas in the northeast corner of the state and making contact with people fishing, hunting, or camping to ensure they are following all relevant regulations.

Conservation officers may also deal with illegal animal trafficking, fights, vandalism, car break-ins, or prostitution.

“You name it we’ve seen it,” Bouthillier says. “No two days are alike. That’s one of the parts of the job that I love.”

Bouthillier has now been on the force for 12 years. She says the part of her job she enjoys most is working as an educator and public information officer. Bouthillier talks to high school classes and works with the Sigma Alpha alumni association at UConn to educate young people on what environmental conservation officers do and help people understand the importance of their work. Sigma Alpha is a professional agricultural sorority Bouthillier was a member of at UConn.

“It’s always been a very community-based job by the nature of what we do it has to be, which I enjoy,” Bouthillier says. “Protecting our state’s natural resources is not just an individual responsibility. We as officers can’t do it alone. It’s not just about enforcement.”

Bouthillier has always loved spending time outdoors. She says her self-motivated work as a conservation officer, which has brought her to just about every corner of Connecticut, allows her to enjoy all the natural beauty the state has to offer.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to see that much of the state,” Bouthillier says. “It’s really wonderful.”

The Spignesi Scholarship is awarded to an undergraduate or graduate student concentrating in wildlife or fisheries management at the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources who wish to pursue a career in wildlife management or conservation law enforcement. The scholarship awards students who have the dedication, generosity, and professionalism Spignesi demonstrated during his life.

“A scholarship, in so many ways, is not just monetary,” Bouthillier says. “It can have a lasting impact on the individual who receives it. I never would have thought that a single scholarship would have put me on the path I’m on today, but it did.”

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