What Is Wildlife Biology?
The work of a wildlife biologist is about as varied as the actual wildlife. As a professional in this field, you might help out with hot-button issues including climate change and the impact of the recent wildfires on Australian koalas. Or, you might be working in a lab to develop a new method to measure an obscure biological marker that few people really care about.
Wildlife biology is becoming increasingly important as the impact of humans on the world grows. At the same time, most wildlife biologists work for state or federal natural resource agencies, and their departments are often seriously underfunded. Wildlife biologists may face stiff competition, high educational requirements, and a tricky work-life balance.
Because it can be difficult to get a foothold in this career, and because earnings aren't as high as other jobs, wildlife biology is often considered a "passion career." In other words, it's a field that requires drive and passion to succeed. But if you're prepared with the facts and have weighed the pros and cons, it can be a very rewarding career indeed.
Photo: LUIS ROBAYO / Contributor
Is Wildlife Biology a Good Career?
Wildlife biology is an excellent career, but it may be more difficult to earn a high salary, particularly in the early stages of your career. Below, you can review data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) about median salaries and the sectors these professionals work in.
The BLS projects that wildlife biology jobs will grow by about 5% over the next decade, which is about average compared to other occupations. However, consider this: There are only 19,300 active wildlife biologist jobs nationwide. Compare that to a more popular career such as accounting, which has 1,424,000 active jobs nationwide, and you can see that the odds aren't as great as other professions for finding employment.
What Do Wildlife Biologists Do?
Wildlife biologists are responsible for studying and managing wildlife populations, which can take several forms.
Many wildlife biologists at the federal and state levels are involved in managing wildlife populations. They are responsible for knowing how many animals of certain species are within their management area, and what causes their populations to fluctuate. They may also be involved in management decisions, such as setting harvest (i.e., hunting) guidelines or modifying the habitat to make wildlife populations go up or down depending on what the public wants.
Others work as research wildlife biologists. Rather than focusing on how to manipulate populations of wildlife, they focus more on the science of what causes wildlife populations to change. This information may be used in making management decisions, but wildlife biologists are not necessarily involved in that process.
Wildlife Biologist Duties
Understand scientific papers
You'll need to be comfortable with reading, writing, and analyzing information in peer-reviewed scientific studies.
Work with chemicals and biological samples
You'll need to be comfortable with safely handling everything from hydrochloric acid to infected blood.
Be self-sufficient in remote areas
If you work in the field, you'll need to know first aid, how to perform basic mechanical repairs like replacing a flat tire, and possibly even wielding a firearm for bear protection.
Fill out forms and complete trainings
Since most wildlife biologists work for the government, there's no shortage of bureaucratic requirements that need to be checked off.
Capture and handle wild animals
You'll have to be familiar with capture and handling techniques for everything from mice to moose, using tools like traps, net guns, and chemical immobilization.
Write reports and give presentations
You'll need to have good writing and presentation skills in order to create information for different audiences ranging from technical scientists to the general public.
Collect and analyze data
Whether you're simply tallying up the number of animals in an area or performing complex statistical calculations, you'll need to have good math skills.
You'll need to gather information from a wide range of sources, such as scientific studies or even the rancher down the road, putting it together to form complex ideas.
Stay physically fit
You might have to lift heavy equipment or hike the backcountry for several days at a time while carrying a backpack.
Work well with others
Many folks go into wildlife biology to avoid other people. Ironically, most of the job is dealing with other people — oftentimes angry people — rather than wildlife.
You'll need at least a bachelor's degree to become a wildlife biologist. In most cases, this will only allow you to become a wildlife technician. Most full-fledged wildlife biologists have at least a master's degree. If you want to be a research wildlife biologist, you'll likely need a doctorate and possibly a stint as a post-doc researcher.
In addition to the educational requirements, you'll need a hefty amount of experience. Most people start out volunteering and eventually make their way to internships and/or seasonal paid positions before becoming a wildlife biologist, even if they already have the academic credentials.
The competition at each of these levels is tough, and you may deal with frequent periods of unemployment. Open positions may have a hundred or more applicants from around the United States. Thus, it's common to have to move across the country frequently to chase short-term wildlife jobs.
How to Become a Wildlife Biologist
Becoming a wildlife biologist isn't as easy as many other professions. You'll need a lot of education and experience in just the right areas in order to succeed.
A lot of it comes down to luck. For example, you might have worked as a wildlife technician doing surveys on rusty blackbirds. There are many other people who have experience working with birds, but if a position somewhere just happens to open up for people with rusty blackbird experience, you'll have an easy "in" for the job. If not, you may need to continue your job search.
Earning a Wildlife Biology Degree
If you want to become a wildlife biologist, you'll need to get at least a bachelor of science degree, ideally in wildlife biology, wildlife conservation, wildlife management, or a related life sciences degree. These programs are offered only at certain colleges and universities across the country.
As an undergraduate, you'll study subjects like animal anatomy and physiology, statistics, writing, mathematics, and wildlife management. If you choose to pursue a master's degree or higher, you'll conduct your own thesis research under the direction of a professor, and you'll be expected to publish the results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Most people foot the bill for their undergraduate degrees. You can pay for this out of pocket, with scholarships, or with student loans. Try to avoid taking out any student loans if you can, because the payments you'll need to make once you graduate may be more than you can afford based on your salary.
Once you get to a master's degree or higher, though, it's common to get a tuition waiver and a basic living stipend as a teaching assistant or research assistant. This way, you don't have to pay for your graduate degree.
Wildlife Biology Internships
Paid and unpaid internships are an important part of gaining enough experience to become a competitive applicant. Many nonprofits and government agencies offer internships.
Another popular option is volunteer work. Most people who go on to become a wildlife biologist have at least some volunteer work under their belts, whether it's a weekend doing browse surveys for state biologists or even a year helping with research projects in Africa.
Careers for Wildlife Biology Majors
Working just to have the title of "wildlife biologist" on your business card is tough. Luckily, you're not limited to just this narrow career path if you study wildlife biology. There are many career options available to you if you choose wildlife biology as your major, including:
Wildlife Biology Jobs
Study the relationships between wild animals and their environment.
Help set harvest guidelines for state natural resource agencies.
Wildlife Law Enforcement Officer
Enforce existing wildlife laws, often working with hunters and fisherman.
Protect and supervise wild areas and the recreational visitors who wander into them.
Collect data for wildlife research projects, usually under the direction of a wildlife biologist.
Teach the general public about science issues, including wildlife.
In addition, the skills you'll learn while studying wildlife biology are highly transferable and can open the doors for many careers, even outside of the life sciences. As a wildlife biology major, you'll learn how to interpret data and scientific studies, interact with the public, work independently, think critically, research, and write coherently — all of which are highly valued skills by any employer.
The Value of a Wildlife Biology Career
Becoming a wildlife biologist is tough. You'll need to be willing to make a lot of sacrifices, whether it be living away from your family for months (or years) at a time, dealing with constant rejection, or watching your peers advance faster than you with life goals like having children and buying homes.
That said, if you're willing to deal with these issues and the natural world is important to you, a career in wildlife biology can be one of the most rewarding there is. You might be able to say that you helped an endangered species survive, that you sparked an interest in wildlife among inner-city children, or that you helped balance the natural world with that of the human world — all while having a blast.
Lindsay VanSomeren graduated with a BS and MS degree in wildlife biology and conservation from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She has spent time capturing, raising, and training wild caribou; doing surveys for rare migratory birds; and assessing forage quality for herbivores in northern Alaska and rural Wyoming. She currently lives in Kirkland, Washington, and works as a freelance writer.