Career Options for Nature and Wildlife Enthusiasts

Explore jobs that’ll get you out of the office and into the great outdoors.

article image
flickr/National Park Service

As the chair of a university range and wildlife program, I’m often asked to speak to prospective students about our curriculum. I always ask students what job they’d like to pursue with a range and wildlife degree, and, incredibly, I always get the same two answers: game warden or park ranger. This amazes me, because more than 100 types of employment opportunities are available to those who are interested in working with wild animals, like the idea of being outdoors more than being behind a desk, and enjoy outdoor activities, such as camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing. Jobs exist all over the country, including within federal and state government, in the private sector, in education, and with nonprofit organizations. Let’s take a look at some of the options.

Federal Level

The United States government manages more than 600 million acres, the majority of which are located in the western half of the country.

An agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages approximately 245 million acres, as well as about 700 million acres of federal subsurface mineral estate.

Most of the land managed by the BLM is dedicated to livestock grazing, and the agency administers nearly 18,000 permits and leases to ranchers. However, the agency is mandated by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which dictates that all natural resources on BLM land must be managed to obtain the optimal sustained use, including wildlife, rangeland, water resources, and recreational uses. The BLM employs about 9,000 professionals, many of whom are rangeland and wildlife specialists.

The U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, manages approximately 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. The Forest Service is mandated by the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act, meaning the agency must manage all natural resources and allow for multiple uses of the forestlands and grasslands, inclusive of recreation, fishing, hunting, livestock grazing, and timber harvest. The Forest Service has 30,000 employees, including forestry technicians, rangeland specialists, botanists, wildlife biologists, law enforcement, and public relations staff.

The National Park Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, manages more than 85 million acres, comprised of 400 historic parks and monuments, national parks, battlefields, recreation areas, seashores, and parkways.

The park service hosts millions of visitors each year, and employs seasonal and permanent employees. Its professionals include anthropologists, archeologists, biologists, range and forestry technicians, soil scientists, hydrologists, geologists, entomologists, and geographic information systems specialists.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) manages about 25 million acres. DOD property is regulated by the Sikes Act, which promotes the conservation and rehabilitation of natural resources on military land. Military installations aren’t exempt from U.S. laws, such as the Endangered Species Act. For example, wildlife professionals at Fort Hood military post manage critical habitat on the Texas base to protect and promote golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos. Previous military experience may be useful, but isn’t required to work as a wildlife specialist on a military base.

An agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages more than 700 wildlife refuges, fish hatcheries, and ecological field stations. Each refuge fulfills a primary directive. For example, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas operates as a sanctuary for migratory birds, notably endangered whooping cranes. The USFWS employs about 9,000 people, including biologists, refuge managers, visitor staff services, and federal game wardens.

In addition, there are other agencies within the U.S. government that don’t directly manage land, but still operate within the scope of range and wildlife.

An agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) was formed in the 1930s as the “Soil Conservation Service,” but changed its name in 1994 to better reflect the agency’s mission. NRCS biologists work directly with soils and wildlife habitat, typically in association with farming, ranching, timber production, and other types of agriculture.

Wildlife Services is a division of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The program works to resolve human-wildlife conflicts and reduce wildlife damages, such as predator-related livestock losses, wildlife damage to crops, bird strikes at airports, wildlife-related diseases, and the spread of invasive species. Its staff includes biological science technicians, wildlife biologists, and research scientists.

An agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) provides impartial research on the health of ecosystems and the environment, natural hazards, natural resources, and impacts of climate and land-use changes. The USGS employs scientists, technicians, and support staff to collect, analyze, and report on such issues.

State Level

Every state has an agency that administers wildlife regulations on behalf of the people of that state. Agency names differ from state to state — Parks and Wildlife, Fish and Game, Natural Resource Commission, etc. — but the agencies function in a similar manner, hiring biologists and game wardens to manage their wildlife resources and enforce state laws.

Biologists are also hired by other state agencies. One function of a state health department is to prevent and control zoonotic diseases (diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans), such as rabies, West Nile virus, and hantavirus. These departments hire specialists to capture and test wild animals, determine where “hot spots” of potential disease transmission occur, and find ways of reducing human exposure.

A state’s transportation department is responsible for managing roadways, railways, and airports. Because of the National Environmental Policy Act, new roadways or improvements to existing roads cannot begin until an environmental assessment has been conducted. Environmental specialists, including wildlife biologists, are needed to assess how wildlife will be affected, and to determine where overpasses or underpasses are needed as wildlife corridors to reduce the number of animal-vehicle collisions.

A land department oversees its state’s trust land (areas designated to support essential public institutions, primarily public schools), and will hire biologists to manage the natural resources.

The nation’s land-grant universities provide services through local extension offices that assist and inform the public on a wide array of topics. Extension biologists take cutting-edge research and break it down to a level where such knowledge can be used by the general public.

Alternative Options

Another seldom-considered career is that of tribal biologist. Biologists are often hired to manage natural resources on American Indian reservations, and to act as liaisons between the U.S. government and the tribe. They’re employed by the tribal government, and may work on a single reservation or for several reservations as part of an intertribal organization. These biologists don’t have to be tribal members; however, previous experience with a tribe may help in obtaining such a position.

Additional employers related to range and wildlife include private consulting agencies that hire on a project-by-project basis; private corporations, such as timber or petrochemical companies, that hire biologists to manage natural resources on their property; wildlife ranching enterprises that offer private hunting opportunities to clients; and wildlife control operators who remove nuisance animals for the private sector.

If you have a knack for writing or are skilled with a camera, consider a job as a wildlife photographer or writer. A career in the education field, which includes high school agriculture teachers, museum curators, university professors, or zoological workers, can be a good fit if you enjoy teaching. Consider working in wildlife rehabilitation if you have a heart for injured, ill, and orphaned animals. And if you enjoy the political arena, a position with a nonprofit wildlife organization may pique your interest. The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society, and Ducks Unlimited are a few of the more well-known nonprofits.

Expectations and Anticipation

For any of the jobs listed above, biologists should expect to conduct species inventories of plants, wildlife, invertebrates, fish, and more. You’ll be asked to conduct numerous types of habitat manipulations as a biologist, some of which may involve driving a tractor, ATV, or boat, or require knowledge of farming implements. You should also know how to conduct prescribed burns, be able to identify animals and plants, and be familiar with the laws that govern such species. Outdoor skills, such as camping, orienteering, and survival techniques, can be quite useful. Biologists need a strong background in math and sciences as well, including statistics.

Many of the career options mentioned here require at least a bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree is typically required for managerial positions, while some postings require doctorates. Grades are important. Almost every graduate-level program requires a minimum of a 3.0 grade-point average for admission. A person with a bachelor’s degree will typically be offered a starting salary of $35,000 to $40,000, while those holding master’s degrees and doctorates begin at $45,000 to $55,000 and $65,000 per year, respectively.

Even though a career in wildlife means you’ll be working with nature, you’ll likely still interact with the public often, so oral and written communication skills are essential. Also, carefully worded, easily interpreted writing is important, because litigation could depend on it.

Whatever path you pursue, a job that gets you outdoors and into nature is bound to be rewarding. Spend some time finding the right fit for you, and then let your career run “wild.”

Scott E. Henke is a research scientist and regents professor at Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute and Texas A&M University, Kingsville, where he’s the chair of the Department of Animal, Rangeland, and Wildlife Sciences.