So you want to be a wildlife biologist?
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DWR technician holding a fish

So you want to be a wildlife biologist?

How to get one of the best jobs in the world

By Mike Canning
DWR assistant director

Do you love wildlife watching, hunting or fishing? If so, you're not alone. You've probably even wondered how you could earn a living working with wildlife.

Although there are many good options for wildlife careers, no other organization works more closely with Utah's wildlife than the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). The DWR is the state's wildlife management agency, and we serve the people of Utah as trustee and guardian of the state's wildlife.

A passion for wildlife

We get to work with wildlife every day. It's our passion, we love it and we are always looking for new employees who feel the same way. If this describes you, and you want a fulfilling job that means more than just a paycheck, then the DWR may be the place for you.

Depending on your interests, there are many career paths at the DWR. We hire conservation officers, accountants, shooting range managers, heavy equipment operators, media specialists and wildlife biologists, to name just a few.

A DWR technician with a fish during an East Canyon survey.

— Story continues below photo.

A DWR technician with a fish during an East Canyon survey.

Because most of our employees are wildlife biologists, or served as biologists at some point in their careers, this post focuses on how to become a wildlife biologist. (Although the following approach generally applies to all jobs at the DWR.)

Gain wildlife experience

The first thing you must do to prepare for a job as a wildlife biologist is to gain relevant experience however you can. If possible, try to obtain a seasonal (short-term) position with the DWR or another wildlife agency so you can learn about multiple aspects of wildlife management.

If you can't find a short-term position or your schedule isn't flexible, you still have some options:

  • Volunteer to help with habitat-restoration projects, wildlife transplants or bird counts.
  • Join a wildlife conservation organization and volunteer to help build a wildlife guzzler.
  • Spend time in the field observing wildlife and learning as much as you can.
  • Read about wildlife management, including some of the most recent research on your favorite species.
  • Learn a lot, become an expert and be able to speak intelligently about your area of expertise.
Build a network of contacts

While you are busy gaining experience, start building a network of contacts in the wildlife community. If you want a career at the DWR, it is helpful to build relationships with DWR employees. Over time, you can demonstrate that you are a highly qualified worker who gets the job done and does it well.

Build the largest network you can and don't just focus on the DWR. Get to know members of conservation organizations, university professors, members of other state and federal agencies, community leaders and even wildlife students. You never know who will let you know about the perfect job opportunity.

Understand the public's interest in wildlife management

If you've read this far, you already know that it takes a passion for wildlife and lots of preparation to become a DWR biologist. In addition, it's tremendously helpful if you are a hunter, angler or wildlife watcher who also enjoys working with the public. The skills you gain while hunting, fishing and wildlife watching will enhance your understanding of wildlife and their behaviors. This will also make it easier for you to understand and work with the DWR's primary customers, the sportsmen and sportswomen of Utah.

Mike Kinghorn and Kirt Enright taking a lively young bighorn sheep to be transplanted from Antelope Island to the Newfoundland Mountains.

— Story continues below photo.

Mike Kinghorn and Kirt Enright taking a lively young bighorn sheep to be transplanted from Antelope Island to the Newfoundland Mountains.

The importance of valuing and communicating with the public cannot be overstated. Some people are attracted to a career in biology because they want to work only with animals — not other people. Unfortunately, that attitude will doom a biologist to failure in the DWR, where we work closely with the citizens of our state to be successful. Anyone seeking a career as a DWR biologist must be willing and able to work with the public on a regular basis.

Obtain a degree

In addition to everything discussed above, all DWR biologists are required to have a bachelor's degree. This degree can come from any institution of higher learning, but most of our biologists attended either Utah State University (USU) or Brigham Young University (BYU). They majored in areas such as fisheries and wildlife, wildlife science, range science or biology.

USU and BYU both have historically strong wildlife programs, and they have good track records of preparing students to become professional wildlife biologists. In fact, the DWR has recently partnered with these universities to develop undergraduate internship programs.

Participation in the internship programs is competitive, but the students who are selected get to spend a summer being paid to work for the DWR. As an intern, you can get hands-on experience in wildlife management, build your professional networks, and determine if a career with the agency would be a good fit.

Pursue an advanced degree

Finally, although a master's degree is not required to become a DWR biologist, it helps tremendously. Students who obtain a master's degree not only learn a great deal about wildlife management, but they also learn how to conduct research projects and become much better writers. Along the way, they often gain a lot of confidence.

During job interviews for new hires, applicants with a master's degree definitely stand out. A master's degree will also help you throughout your career. It makes you more competitive, whether you're seeking a promotion within the DWR or considering a move to a new employer.

Biologist Rich Hansen during waterfowl banding operations.

— Story continues below photo.

Biologist Rich Hansen during waterfowl banding operations.

If you are interested in pursuing a master's degree in a wildlife field in Utah, the same recommendations apply: Both USU and BYU are great options. The DWR currently funds multiple research projects at both universities, and these projects allow graduate students many opportunities. They can conduct interesting research, work closely with DWR staff and build networks with wildlife professionals — all while earning their degrees.

Many DWR biologists (including me!) started off as university students working on projects funded by the DWR, and that led them to a career with the agency. It's a great path if you are truly serious about becoming a professional biologist.

If you have what it takes and are willing to put in the effort, I hope you will consider a career with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. It's a great place to work, and you can make important contributions to wildlife conservation. Having a career where I can help make a lasting difference on the ground has always meant the world to me. Come join us if you feel the same way.

Mike Canning

Mike Canning

Michael "Mike" Canning serves as the Division's assistant director and has spent most of his career working on wildlife habitat and land management issues. Prior to becoming assistant director, Mike worked as GIS Coordinator and Habitat Section chief.

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