Waning interest in wildlife work
FORT MORGAN – Dan Cacho walks through thigh-high weeds along the South Platte River, shiny badge on his chest, handgun on hip, watching for hunters as a Labrador retriever bounds through the brush, more interested in blazing a trail for Cacho than flushing out birds.The self-described big-city boy is a long way from Cleveland and right in the middle of a dream come true. The 25-year-old Cacho is nearing the end of 10 months of training and will soon become one of six new district managers with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.”It’s the best thing that’s happened to me,” Cacho said during a recent ride-along with veteran Bill Miles, whose district takes in some of the state’s eastern plains.A declining number of people share Cacho’s passion: Wildlife agencies across the country are struggling with the double-whammy of mass retirements and declining interest from young people seemingly disconnected from hunting, fishing and rural life.
The latest statistics available from the Government Accountability Office predict federal agencies will face big losses by 2007: The Interior Department will lose 61 percent of its program managers; the Forest Service will lose 49 percent of its foresters and 61 percent of its entomologists as Western forests are being ravaged by infestations of bark beetles; and the Environmental Protection Agency will lose 45 percent of its toxicologists.Urban backgroundsThe trend is appearing even as natural resources jobs grow more complex. A Colorado wildlife manager must have a four-year biology degree and complete law enforcement certification. They can spend any given day citing hunters with no licenses, helping beekeepers prevent bears from raiding honey or weighing in on the potential impact of energy development on native trout.Nationwide, natural resource managers are juggling more and frequently conflicting demands, including the “more wilderness vs. more trails for off-road vehicles” debate and a push for greater gas and oil development vs. the preservation of wildlife habitat.
“We now have more people and greater opportunity for human interaction with wildlife. We need the brain power to examine and manage that,” said Ryan Colker, programs director for the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation.Gary Berlin was one of 600 applicants for a job with the Colorado Division of Wildlife when he was hired in 1980. This year, there were only 135 applicants.”And we’re probably still among the best in the nation as far as applicants go,” said Berlin, who was in charge of the division’s training program before retiring in August.The trend has left universities and other organizations searching for ways to spark more interest. Enrollment in the fish and wildlife program at Colorado State University has decreased 25 percent since 2001. There were 313 students last fall.”It really is a paradox, with students caring more about the environment, and yet there’s a drop,” said Joyce Berry, dean of CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources. “More people used to come from rural areas and had fishing and hunting backgrounds. Now, it’s much more urban.”
‘Often in the crosshairs’Students may be more pragmatic, seeing natural resources as more of a hobby and better-paying fields of study, like engineering, as actual careers, said Terry Sharik, head of the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University.Another explanation, reflected in Sharik’s survey of 24 natural resource colleges scattered across the country, is a higher interest in conservation, environmental policy and recreation than more traditional fields.He said there seems to be a shift away from “more extractive” fields. Forestry, for example, “might have some baggage” with its history of managing logging.The trend worries Peter Aengst of The Wilderness Society’s regional office in Bozeman, Mont., who said scientists with public agencies can be the moderating voices in fights over energy development, endangered species and wilderness. Those pressures might be part of the problem, he said.
“It’s not an easy position and they’re often in the crosshairs,” Aengst said of public agencies.Linking well-beingDennis Buechler, who retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003, said he doesn’t think there will be a shortage of natural resource professionals because of the openings created by him and other baby boomers. But he criticized politicians from both parties for anti-government rhetoric that he fears could discourage the best candidates from choosing public service.”I found my job very rewarding because I thought I was doing something for society,” said Buechler, a wetlands ecologist who now lives in the Denver area.
The goal, Berry said, is to tailor courses to fit the growing diversity of students’ backgrounds and interests and better market the programs.”For our students now, it’s not just about forestry or wildlife. It’s really about linking natural and environmental well-being with human well-being, poverty, economics,” Berry said.What hooked Cacho, a graduate of Hiram College in Ohio, was a trip out West. He worked a summer as a ranger in Yellowstone National Park and was set to enter graduate school when he got the call from the Colorado Division of Wildlife. He and the other five trainees will find out in mid-December where they will work in Colorado.”It’s just been jam-packed with the training,” said Cacho, who learned wilderness survival techniques and how to ride all-terrain vehicles. “It’s a whole different world out here. I love it a lot.”Vail, Colorado