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What Lies Ahead for the Future of the Wildlife Professional?

When I mention the word “organismal” to college-aged or graduate students in biological disciplines, many look at me crazier than fellow graduate students in non-science disciplines did several years ago.

When I was applying to graduate school I was pretty naive, but I knew that I, at least, wanted to attend a program offering coursework in organismal biology.

I looked for the name in department titles and knew that I was safer with “Zoology” or “Organismal Biology” than a more generalized biological curriculum, based on my interests.

I liked the study of the whole animal and its ecology, perhaps, to the detriment of my performance in molecular biology. But as one bear biologist said to me, “I don’t think kids today could tell you the front end of a bear from the backside of the bear.”

An entire generation of wildlife biologists, managers and conservationists is retiring. Have we adequately trained potential replacements?

Are there enough people trained in the organismal biology and wildlife management and conservation disciplines to sustain the wildlife profession? Do they have the skills sets needed to deal with a profession that is as multi-faceted and rapidly evolving as wildlife management and conservation?

These are questions that I posed to esteemed conservationist, scientist and author Dr. Michael Hutchins as part of our ongoing series of online interviews on various topics in wildlife management and conservation.

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TWS

Interview:

Michael: It is serious.   Many of today’s experts and leaders in wildlife management and conservation are baby boomers who came into the field in the 60s, 70s and 80s and who are now contemplating retirement.   While some individuals have delayed retirement due to the recent economic downturn, they cannot avoid it forever. This coming retirement “tsunami” could drain our nation of much of its institutional knowledge of environmental science and natural resource management (Unger, K. 2007. The graying of the green generation. The Wildlife Professional 1(1): 18-22).

A survey conducted by Virginia Tech University on behalf of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA), indicated that nearly 80% of employees in leadership positions in wildlife management and conservation expected to retire by 2015 (McMullin, S. 2004. Demographics of retirement and professional development needs of state fisheries and wildlife agency employees. Unpublished report for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center and AFWA).

Federal agencies are in a similar situation.  Natural resource agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Forest Service, are all top heavy with baby boomer professionals teetering on the brink of retirement.  The U.S. Forest Service, for instance, is losing 4,000 workers per year (http://cnr.ncsu.edu/fer/directory/documents/Article-SupplyofProfessionals.pdf).

One thing we currently lack good data on, however, is exactly how many young professionals will be needed to meet future needs.  The TWS and CNRS studies cited the need to obtain more accurate data on projected future personnel needs of state and federal wildlife agencies, academia, conservation NGOs, consulting companies, professional and scientific societies, zoological parks and aquariums, and others who hire natural resource professionals.

Jordan: What are some of the trends that are likely to impact the wildlife profession in the coming decades? What implications do they have for how we train future wildlife professionals?

Michael: In 2010 and 2011, I took the lead in organizing and co-moderating two meetings intended to address these issues.  First, there was a Wildlife Society (TWS) Blue Ribbon Panel on “The Future of the Wildlife Profession and its Implications for Training the Next Generation of Wildlife Professionals.

In addition, there was a Coalition of Natural Resource Societies’ (CNRS) “Natural Resource Education and Employment Conference.”   The basic intent of both meetings was to identify the major trends that were predicted to impact the wildlife and other natural resource fields over the coming decades and to discuss their implications for how we train current and future natural resource professionals.

There are many trends currently underway in our world, and, unfortunately, none of them are good for native wildlife and their habitats, or for the wildlife profession (Hutchins, M. 2012. What the future holds: Challenges for the profession and TWS. The Wildlife Professional 6(3): 83-87). We have spoken about many of these in our previous interviews.  For example, the public’s growing lack of connection to and knowledge of the natural world—the Nature Deficit Disorder—is a major challenge as it may make implementing necessary wildlife management and conservation policies more difficult and controversial (see below,  http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/12/14/the-nature-deficit-disorder-and-how-it-is-impacting-our-natural-world-an-interview-with-dr-michael-hutchins/).

In the next few decades, earth’s human population will continue to expand, pushing wildlife into smaller and smaller areas of remaining habitat and increasing the incidence of human-wildlife conflict (http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/03/09/human-wildlife-conflict-an-interview-with-dr-michael-hutchins/). Furthermore, this comes at a time that global climate change is altering the very nature of these habitats, with some areas becoming colder and wetter and some warmer and dryer, resulting in pervasive changes in vegetation and altering entire ecosystems. Seasonal patterns (phenology) are being altered as well, resulting in mismatches between many animals and their habitats (http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/01/10/the-climate-change-conundrum-what-the-future-is-beginning-to-look-like-for-wildlife/).

Global trade has resulted in the movement of species across natural barriers to dispersal and invasive species now present a major challenge to conservationists (http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/12/25/the-threat-of-invasive-species-an-interview-with-dr-michael-hutchins/). A failure to control or eliminate the most destructive or these organisms will surely result in numerous extinctions of native wildlife.  In addition, we are in the midst of an extinction crisis, with thousands of species of animals and plants classified as endangered or threatened and in need of recovery efforts (http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/04/05/on-the-brink-of-extinction-a-closer-look-at-endangered-species/).

Last but not least, add to that the increased risk of emerging diseases and the risks that they pose to humans, domestic animals and wildlife (http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/03/22/the-threat-of-emerging-and-re-emerging-infectious-diseases-to-wildlife/) and we have a host of serious challenges that present and future wildlife and other natural resource professionals are going to have to face.  How will we prepare future professionals to address these issues?  What kinds of specific knowledge and practical experience will they need to confront these increasingly complex challenges?

There are many other relevant trends in society and education, including changing demographics.  Our nation’s population is becoming more diverse, and by the year 2050, the United States is predicted to become a “minority-majority” country (http://www.voxxi.com/en-route-to-majority-minority-nation/). Yet, the natural resource professions (like many others) are not attracting a representative diversity of students or young professionals and this could be highly problematic (Unger, K. 2007. Exploring diversity in the wildlife profession. The Wildlife Professional 1(4): 20-25).

How seriously will people absorb the message of science-based conservation if it always given by people who do not look like them, speak like them, or have no knowledge of the subtle idiosyncrasies of their cultures?  Furthermore, having a diversity of opinions and approaches makes organizations stronger, causing two wildlife experts to emphatically state, “Unless we diversify our ranks and become more representative of the nation’s changing demographics, our profession and the resources we protect will not survive” (Lopez, R. and Brown, C. Why diversity matters. The Wildlife Professional 5(2): 20-27).

Unfortunately, students that have a propensity for the biological sciences are often pulled away into high-paying positions in human medicine and biotechnology.  One conclusion of the TWS and CNRS meetings is that universities, agencies and scientific societies must do a better job of informing a broader diversity of young people about careers in the natural resource professions and to extend a welcoming hand to those who do decide to enter (http://www.wildlife.org/publications/the-wildlifer/2012/april).

Changes in academia are also problematic. For example, many universities have dropped the “ologies” (mammalogy, ornithology, herpetology, etc.) from their curriculums and replaced them with general environmental studies or zoology courses. This is making it more difficult for students to gain a detailed knowledge of organismal biology, so critical to formulating effective wildlife management and conservation strategies. In addition, many science-based programs are not spending enough time introducing students to the so-called “soft skills”, such as team- and consensus-building, oral and written communication, public relations, etc. (see below). In addition, many courses involving ‘hands-on” practical training of wildlife students in field techniques, such as animal capture, restraint and necropsy, have been dropped due to liability concerns.

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CNRS

Generational differences may also impact the number of students who choose to go into the natural resource fields. Many government agency cultures are traditionally top-down, hierarchical and inflexible in nature and innovation and novel approaches to problem-solving are often discouraged. In addition, getting ahead may involve “paying one’s dues” and moving from one area of the country to another. None of this may play well with newer entries into the job market, many of whom have very different perspectives on professional advancement, work-life balance and the relationship between management and staff in the contemporary workplace (http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2013/02/020113-cnre-generationalchange.html ; http://www.inc.com/brian-halligan/how-millennials-think-and-what-to-do-about-it.html).

Last, but not least, some students, growing up in urban or suburban settings, have an idealized view of wildlife-related jobs, thinking it would be fun to emulate popular TV stars, such as Steve Irwin, the “Crocodile Hunter.”  When they discover that such jobs require a deep technical understanding of the natural and physical sciences, involve working with people more than animals, often entail sitting in front of a computer or in a meeting, and are comparatively low-paying, then they may not be as enthralled.

Of course, there are real benefits to working in the natural resource fields and these should certainly be communicated to potential students. Some of these include intellectual challenge, travel, interesting colleagues, time spent outdoors in nature, and an opportunity to make a real difference for the future of life on our planet.  As I have said previously, working with wildlife is “not just a profession, it is a passion” (http://news.wildlife.org/the-wildlifer/the-wildlifer-2012-august/in-the-field/).

Jordan: Given the new and more complex skills sets needed to address human-wildlife conflict and human-dimensions aspects of wildlife management and conservation, do today’s wildlife professionals need more than what a basic degree in wildlife science, management, or conservation currently provides?  What skills do you think a wildlife biologist entering the field may need that probably surprises the general public and even students in wildlife science disciplines?

Michael: Yes, one can be an excellent biologist with a deep understanding of biological science and still be a lousy wildlife conservationist or manager.  Indeed, to be effective, knowledge must go beyond the theoretical and into practical application.  Future wildlife conservationists and mangers will need to know how to address the major challenges outlined above.  Some of the solutions will necessitate their having a deep knowledge of ecology and organismal biology, but it will also involve the practical application of that knowledge to real-life problem-solving.   Much of this will mean an ability to apply the so-called “soft skills.”  Soft skills–those related to teamwork, cooperation, communication, and consensus building—are becoming increasingly important in the modern world.

Whereas wildlife professionals of the past tended to be independent loners who enjoyed spending time alone in nature, today’s wildlife professionals must like dealing with colleagues, the public and the media and be excellent communicators and collaborators (Peek, J.M. 1989. A look at wildlife education in the United States. Wildlife Society Bulletin 17: 361-365). Indeed, human dimensions are becoming increasingly important aspects of wildlife and habitat conservation (http://joomla.wildlife.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=859). Human attitudes and perceptions of wildlife are often key factors when developing effective conservation strategies (e.g., grizzly bears: http://summitcountyvoice.com/2013/06/30/wildlife-conservation-groups-say-cultural-hostility-to-grizzlies-could-threaten-their-recovery-in-northern-rockies/).

Communication and consensus-building are key elements to the success of modern conservation.  Advances in communication technology, including the Internet and smart phones, are making the potential link between scientists and the public stronger (http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/36274/title/Opinion–Tweeting-to-the-Top/). However, the Internet has its drawbacks too—in this day and age everyone is an “expert”, regardless of their level of expertise or experience.

Combined with the growing disconnect between people and their environment (i.e., Nature Deficit Disorder (http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/12/14/the-nature-deficit-disorder-and-how-it-is-impacting-our-natural-world-an-interview-with-dr-michael-hutchins/) and general distrust of science and government, this has the potential to generate even more controversy over wildlife management and conservation practices. One needs only look to the current societal conflict over the control of native white-tailed deer and non-native feral domestic cats and horses and to get an inkling of where this might lead us.  None of it will be good for our native wildlife or their habitats.

There is also a need for greater collaboration among colleagues.  The complexity of modern conservation makes cooperation among various disciplinary specialists increasingly necessary. Biologists may need to work in teams with economists, anthropologists, psychologists, media experts, and others in order to reach their ultimate goals. Furthermore, wildlife scientists and resource managers need to get on the same page. Often the language of science is too technical and sometimes too difficult to understand for non-scientists. Thus scientists need to get better at both explaining the results of their research and its practical applications.  Conversely, resource managers need to better articulate their needs to scientists, so that science and management can be more effectively integrated (Sands, J.P. et al, eds. 2012. Wildlife Science: Connecting Research with Management. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press).

Jordan: Can you elaborate on any differences that have emerged among wildlife professionals working for local, state, and federal agencies. Are there any trends in the profession that may be specific to the type of agency one might work for?  Are there benefits to working for a state or federal agency, for instance?

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Photo (Courtesy of Michael Hutchins)

Michael: This is a difficult question, as I have not worked for either. That being said, based on my extensive interactions over the years with friends and colleagues that work for both state and federal natural resource agencies, I do have some thoughts on this topic. With regard to federal and state agencies, one of the trends currently impacting both is massive cuts in government spending. Many states are still struggling after years of decreased tax revenue, and this has impacted their wildlife programs. Add to this the impact of sequestration on federal and state agencies and it is making it difficult for people to do their basic jobs, let alone think about the future (http://www.fish.state.pa.us/promo/funding/trust-funds/sequestration_faq_AFWA.pdf).  Considering the many challenges we face, this couldn’t come at a more inopportune time.   Furthermore, many state wildlife agencies are highly dependent on revenue from hunting and fishing licenses to carry out their important work, but the number of hunters and fishers has been steadily declining (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/23860020/ns/us_news-life/t/decline-hunting-fishing-hurts-state-coffers/), along with all forms of outdoor recreation.  If this trend continues, then states, in particular, will need to find new sources of revenue to fund both their game and non-game wildlife programs (Jacobson et al. 2010. A conservation institution for the 21st century: Implications for state wildlife agencies. Journal of Wildlife Management 74(2): 203-209).  There have, for example, been some attempts to charge excise taxes on the sale of equipment related to non-consumptive users of wildlife (e.g., binoculars, spotting scopes and camping equipment), but few have been successful. There are also have been attempts to implement user fees in wildlife areas, but again, politicians and the public have been reluctant to implement such changes (Regan, R. 2010. Priceless, but not free: Why all nature lovers should contribute to conservation. The Wildlife Professional 4(3): 39-41).  Jacobson et al. (2010) make numerous additional recommendations for state agencies going forward, including using science as the basis for decisions, rather than politics, involving a more diverse range of stakeholders and partners in consultation, more stability in state agency leadership (the current average incumbency of state agency directors in less than three years), and higher pay for employees.  The authors see transformative evolution as critical to the continued effectiveness of state agencies in a rapidly changing world.

Jordan: Do you see a change in attitude towards wildlife among the younger workforce? If so, how may this impact management and conservation of wildlife?

Michael: One trend we may be seeing is related to urbanization and the Nature Deficit Disorder.  Many people now coming into the profession grew up in cities or suburbia and have little or no experience with “real” nature. Many have never hunted or fished or spent time on a farm. This can lead to completely different attitudes about wildlife management. In particular, utilitarian attitudes towards wildlife may be transitioning into greater concern for animal welfare and “rights.”   While some of this is good—individual sentient animals are certainly worthy of our moral consideration–some of it is also problematic (Hutchins, M. 2007. The limits of compassion. The Wildlife Professional 1(2): 42-46).  As a result of their more “compassionate” worldview, some employees may, for example, be reluctant to engage in necessary management actions that involve lethal population reductions.

Yet, in the case of invasive species, human-wildlife conflict, and native species populations that overshoot their ecological carrying capacities, such management actions are often critical to ensure a future for endangered species and their habitats in a world dominated by human influences (Hutchins, M.   2008. Why we must control wildlife populations. INformation (the magazine of Operation Migration) Spring: 29-33).  In fact, animal welfare, rights and conservation philosophy can lead to very different resource management policies.  Animal rights, with its exclusive focus on the rights of individual animals, is a highly reductionist view of nature, which does not take into account the interdependencies that exist in functioning ecosystems. It is therefore often incompatible with the goals of conservation.  It would, for example, restrict or curtail many aspects of modern conservation research and wildlife management, and thus be detrimental to populations, species and ecosystems. Indeed, most people also do not realize that there is a huge difference between animal rights and welfare philosophy (http://www.care2.com/causes/animal-rights-vs-animal-welfare-which-side-are-you-on.html).

Jordan: Depending on where one lives, wildlife agencies may seem to have greater visibility and influence on recreational activities and the daily lives of residents/citizens.  For instance, in some states few people could name the wildlife agency with jurisdiction over their region while in other states people are well acquainted with such agencies.  Can you talk about this?

Michael: I agree. In this fast-paced, media-driven world, people are unlikely to be aware of their state wildlife agency unless they have had a reason to interact with them. If they are hunters or fishers, they are certainly aware as they need to buy licenses annually in order to engage in their sports. In addition, they may interact occasionally with wildlife law enforcement officers whose job it is to make sure that in-state and out-of-state hunters and fishers are adhering to all regulations. Other than that, state wildlife agencies receive little media attention, especially when compared to politics, crime and terrorism.  So, in states in which hunting and fishing is still a big part of tradition, such as Pennsylvania and Wyoming, the wildlife agency may be better known, but in states where the hunting and fishing tradition has been largely lost, such as California, there is less awareness. In those states, wildlife conservation programs may yield greater visibility to the public in spite of the reduced funding relative to harvest management programs.

Jordan: Are wildlife professionals in other developed regions of the world and even in developing countries afforded similar treatment and respect as they are in this country?  Do they have similar responsibilities to our agency wildlife professionals?  Are they deemed authorities on wildlife issues or are they more typically considered to be law enforcement operatives as opposed to wildlife experts?

Michael: It depends. In some developing countries, such as Indonesia, wildlife scientists, law enforcement officers (rangers) and administrators are not paid well compared with other professions and do not seem to carry the respect afforded to similar professionals in developed countries.  Conversely, wildlife professionals and law enforcement officers (rangers) in selected developing East African countries, such as Kenya and Tanzania, are well-respected and, in many cases, well-trained. This is because wildlife tourism is a major source of foreign currency for those nations, thus elevating the societal importance of wildlife conservation.  That being said, I’m not sure that the wildlife and natural resource professions carry the same prestige or clout that they once did, no matter what the location.

Unfortunately, with so many other distractions, wildlife conservation is not receiving the attention or priority it once did. This is, in my opinion, an unfortunate consequence of many factors, including the global economic downturn, politics, media neglect and misunderstanding, rampant consumerism, and perhaps a growing public apathy about wildlife and the environment.  Unfortunately, this is coming at a time when we are facing some of the most serious environmental challenges in human recorded history.

With pollinating insects dying by the millions, widespread pollution, fish stocks being over-exploited, elephants and rhinos being slaughtered for their ivory and horns, human populations soaring, critical habitat being continually lost to development and the specter of global climate change looming, I wonder when people are going to take notice and actually do something about it. We don’t have any more time to waste; the status quo is not an option. If we do not act now to curb human population growth, conserve energy and find alternatives for fossil fuels, limit development, control populations of the most destructive invasive species, and retain and restore wildlife habitats and endangered species, I fear for the future of life on our planet, including human life. Natural resource professionals must engage, step up their games, and get into the fight. Well-trained and experienced natural resource professionals will be key to our success, and regardless of where they are from, deserve everyone’s respect.  Indeed, they may be the ultimate heroes that save us all.

 

Comments

  1. Anthony Gervase Ryan
    United States
    August 11, 2013, 11:33 am

    Good article. Some points to ponder. Wildlife Professionals in the field who have the where with all should be advocating, higher wages throughout the spectrum from entry level to expert, the contract and seasonal work deters many from being able to turn their schooling into a career. Several years of volunteerism followed by several more years of low pay for someone dedicated to science is simply unacceptable and a deterrent to the forward progress of the profession. As a non traditional student, my perspective, (that of an entry level biologist), I certainly didn’t choose biology to make money, but a job requiring this level of schooling, training and proficiency requires a living wage and a more permanent approach to positions. Shortly, only the most wealthy students will be able to consider wildlife training. That dynamic has its own inherent implications, lack of racial, social or financial identity with biologists and conservation scientists, and their mission. The low pay, contract work, chronic funding issues, the required vagabond lifestyle…is impossible for adults with children or even without. I have been offered jobs for $8.50 an hour and told when I balked that there a dozen behind me that would work for less. I needed to move out of state for a job that lasted 3 months, give up my apartment, store all my belongings, live out of my truck in a camp in the woods for months for less money than it took to live on- I leave the job with ” valuable experience” but in the hole a few thousand. How can i afford to support your research by giving up my living wage..How can you even ask that of someone with a straight face? The high school dropout that bags my groceries on the corner makes $10.00 an hour . Is this is how we pay back our dedicated biology students who stayed the course invested monetarily and academically in themselves to be told that they are worth less to the wildlife profession than a high school dropout? It is shameful how we treat out emerging professionals. I am not surprised medicine and biotech industries are absorbing wildlife science students with crushing debt and little hope of earning enough to even live on. I myself am considering it, especially considering the alternative, working for land development and energy projects as a biostitute. Additionally, I would like to comment on the offered curriculum in these programs. Although the student has a certain responsibility to their own educational design, these programs are often dumbed down, or watered down to lower the bar of expectation. Graduation is what’s sold, not pragmatic functionality for the emerging graduate. I received a good education but am now aware as a working professional that I was misguided, ill advised and sub trained in relation to the requirements of actually working in the profession. I apparently required fisheries sciences, GIS and a host of other course that would have boosted my value to potential employers. Instead I was required to take a suite of expensive, useless courses with no redeeming value, but that the college could include as mandatory to the curriculum. If Colleges and institutions are allowed to water down courses, or eliminate difficult or necessary classes and replace them with money making filler, then Industry and government need to intercede and insist on more involvement with accreditation. As a union sheet metal worker I completed a 4 year apprenticeship, 1/3 of which was school, 1/3 on the job training, and the final 1/3 in the shop. As a result, upon graduation I was regarded as fit for immediate placement, for all work, on any job in the country. As a 51/2 year Wildlife Biology undergrad (3.39 GPA), a decent CV and a stack of recommendations and references, I am continually told, I am ineligible because i am too inexperienced and undertrained. The intellectual elitism and posturing of people in this field is sometimes astounding to me. So much of what I do at this undergraduate level is elementary that to suggest after all that schooling and training I am incapable of collecting data or performing basic wildlife biology survey requirements is not only insulting, its demeaning. Universities need to spearhead the effort to insure their graduates are good right out of the box by working hand in hand with the very agencies that will hire them. It’s time for the hiring agencies, institutions and industry to bring about the necessary changes to the existing dynamic to foster advance practice, insure that new graduates can stand and deliver and eventually fill the shoes of the baby boomers that they are slated to replace.

  2. Stacy Carpenter
    Massachusetts
    August 6, 2013, 9:51 pm

    Greetings,

    Michael nailed it…especially on nature deficit, job expectations, need for “soft skills” (which are darned hard to master!), frequent low pay/value ratio and dimished respect from other professions. (Bug people, bunny huggers, snake wranglers, bird watchers, plant guys.. or the general catchall “environmentalist”)
    .
    The profession demands high skill across a number of disciplines, adaptable personality, political finesse and deep dedication to the work. Unfortunately, it is often rewarded by low pay, slow promotions, heavy “dues paying”, few available positions and culturally static (or unstable.. think contract work) work environments. We often lose our best talent out of the gate because it is so difficult for young professionals to survive in the profession long enough to get a stable position.

    Having passion for the profession is a beautiful thing, but that alone doesn’t pay the mortgage, feed the family or pay for day care.

    Things are changing, but we’re feeling (and going to feel) the impact of this current professional state for a very long time.

    Unfortunately, time is not on our side with the work that needs to be done now.