How to Become a Wildlife Biologist in Texas
By: Justin Bryan
The persistent, slow rain that started mid morning had finally soaked through…. we were wet. Our layering system began with good intentions, yet fell short of achieving the goal when we forgot the rain gear at the truck. Luckily for us, at least we weren’t cold; the heavily wooded river bottom served us well blocking the cool December breeze. In addition, our rattling technique was quite athletic, and it kept the blood flowing.
We had covered a little over two miles since daylight it was now near noon; our pace may have been slow, but the action was fast. We had a sense we were involved in something special. The pulsating energy of the rut was intense; scrape lines were spread throughout the bottom, cottonwood saplings were shredded from aggressive pre rut posturing, and bucks were quickly losing their sense of caution in search of receptive mates.
Robert Casey, my hunter from Georgia, was just as excited as our sound of clashing antlers once again echoed through the river bottom, instigating a quick response of wide eyed, testosterone-filled Casanova’s darting in and out of the intermingled stands of briars and fallen trees. Half an hour later the action began to slow and the sound of light rainfall quieted the bottom. From the east, the faint vocalization of a love struck buck “bird-dogging” a doe could be heard. As we promptly scanned the area the pair could be seen playing a game of cat and mouse, weaving in and out of the timber as the doe tried in vain to escape the persistent “courting” attention she was now receiving. As fate would have it they were coming right to us and this “Casanova” was a quality animal. Three minutes and one well placed shot later and Robert had acquired his Texas trophy…..a lifetime goal fulfilled. For me it was just another day in class.
Just three months prior to this hunt I found myself arriving on location far from the Texas Tech campus yet still in school. Persistence over the six prior months to my arrival, including some thirty, give or take a few, long distance phone calls further clarifying my desires, led to being awarded a wildlife management internship position. As I opened the ranch gate for the first time the August sun welcomed me with a pleasant, how-do-you-do, hovering just around 109°F. The landscape was seared from the summer heat and blanketed with a diversity of brush species including kidneywood, elbowbush, guajillo, and lime pricklyash, important plants to the ecology of south Texas, yet I had only heard of in class. The typical learning environment it was not; no text books, Ph.D.’s, crowds of students, or PowerPoint presentations; instead a hundred plus thousand acres of pristine natural resources in the “Golden Triangle” of south Texas. Oh yeah and the deer, that can be summed in one word, large. I was excited to be awarded the chance to spend the next five months entrenched in living, smelling, and breathing big deer and big deer management. From my perspective I had begun to create the opportunity of a lifelong career that a multitude of others only get to experience a fraction of mere moments each fall season….and wish for the rest of their lives.
The chance was one I just could not pass up. It was my second year of college and I was afforded the possibility to use some of the knowledge I had gained in class, and as well learn the real, hands-on practical applications of range and wildlife management in-the-field, learning how to become a wildlife biologist, more specifically a wildlife biologist in Texas. I did not grow-up on a ranch, I had never built a barbed wire fence, nor so much as possessed a real idea of how to field score a deer, age a quail, the fine details of quail management, assess rangeland condition, or calculate stocking rates. But I did know one thing, as a hopeful mere pup of a wildlife student I needed my resume to overflow with such experiences; I needed to be competitive in knowledge, skills, and abilities and I needed letters of recommendation. Just a degree was not going to get it done.
In the ever evolving dynamics of range and wildlife management, interns are an important staffing resource for many entities in the field of natural resource management. Federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and state agencies like Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and various non profits such as The Nature Conservancy regularly employ interns who are pursuing degrees in natural resource management and pursuing a career and figuring out how to become a wildlife biologist. First this provides the employer with a “cheap”, monetarily speaking, employee and second offers the student the opportunity to gain valuable “real” work experience as well as a time to network among peers – which can and often does prove to be more valuable than the actual work. This is the right path for anyone learning how to become a wildlife biologist.
Particularly in Texas, private landowners and hunting outfitters have become a major employer, seeking and using those students pursuing degrees in range and/or wildlife management as a key part of their workforce. A quick look on the internet at various employment sites frequented by such entities for posting these jobs shows in excess of 30 positions in the last 6 months in Texas alone. These students are in high demand and generally there are more opportunities than takers.
Texas is 95% privately owned and greater than 80% of land buyers in Texas purchase land for hunting and fishing motives. The hunting industry alone generates 1.8 billion dollars into the Texas economy annually. It stands to reason landowners and/or outfitters want individuals employed by them, even if only temporarily, who can bring some form of knowledge of natural resources (game, nongame, habitat maintenance or restoration) to their management program. Albeit not yet a fully educated professional, these students have at least shown the desire to pursue these positions, and generally the dedication to work and work ethic follows closely.
Long standing programs in wildlife management are scattered sparsely throughout the state and historically produced the lion’s share of natural resource interns for these various agencies. These include but are not limited to Texas Tech, Texas A&M – College Station & Kingsville, Sul Ross, and Tarleton State. Recently Southwest Texas Junior College located in Uvalde has developed a wildlife management program designed to fill the demand for the large void between interns and professional wildlife biologists. Initiated in 2005 by well-known wildlife biologist and outdoor author Bob Zaiglin, SWTJC became the only college in the state to offer an associate of applied science (A.A.S) degree in wildlife management. This is valuable information if you’re discovering how to become a wildlife biologist, and specifically a Texas wildlife biologist.
For me that occasion was just over 12 years ago. I went to work on one of the finest, natural resource minded, private ranches in south Texas for some wildlife biologist that from time to time reckoned himself as an outdoor writer named Bob Zaiglin. It was an opportunity and experience that has since had a lasting impact on my attitude, life plan, and education toward range and wildlife management. As well at that time it fulfilled my passion for white-tailed deer. I was fortunate to spend countless hours around deer camps that led to endless conversations on hunting strategies and memorable adventures, as well I made many lifelong friends. That particular internship lasted for three Fall semesters, during the Spring semesters I attended school, and in the summers I worked for natural resource organizations such as the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Oklahoma, the National Park Service in New Mexico and I served one more tour-of-duty in south Texas working with the Rob and Bessie Welder Wildlife Foundation. Needless to say it took a while to graduate but more importantly my resume did swell with the practical, hands-on knowledge that I needed; in addition, my professional maturity was taken to another level as I was constantly expected to be an over-achiever. Zaiglin was especially good at that; ask the 50-plus wildlife students that went through his program in 22 years.
Professional development is a must, more often than not is never brought up in conversation’s pertaining to wildlife management – yet is becoming a new buzz word. Possessing only a degree in hand rarely leads to many job opportunities in this competitive line of work, it is a battle. Having the knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform is essential to first acquiring and second succeeding in a career, as well as life. As is often preached from the pulpit of every ecology class, “diversity breeds stability” so too will one’s diverse experiences breed success.