WILDLIFE BIOLOGY and WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT
A short essay on the state of the art
Like most folks in the profession I decided to pursue a career in wildlife because I simply loved animals. Some of my earliest memories are of pouring over a series of wildlife picture-encyclopedias my parents bought me before I was old enough to read, and by the time I was 8 years old I could name for you virtually all the animals of the world just by seeing their photographs. Because my father was a hunter and my grandfather a Virginia State Game Warden, I dedicated myself to becoming a biologist, a job that was my dream from the time I was a first-grader.
The world is different today than it was in 1960 when I was 6 years old; where I was raised, in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, hunting was a way of life for everyone I knew. I was raised to be respectful of the game we hunted, safe and ethical with firearms and certain of the life and death reality of the world around me; since much of that early education took place on family farms I was from the earliest age exposed to that reality. We raised and butchered farm animals, we kept hunting dogs and barn cats and work horses and we accepted our role as the responsible party for their, and our, well-being. By any definition we could be considered poor but I never looked at myself or my family in that way; in fact, I thought I was the luckiest boy in the world and I naively thought that everyone else had the same upbringing as I did.
When I started college in 1972 I got my first exposure to people that did not share my rural experience, and it was a shock to me to find out that there were actually people in our country that did not know where their food came from, or how it got from the pasture to the grocery store, and people that did not accept the necessity and reality of game animal husbandry through sport hunting. By the time I graduated it had become very clear to me that there were two types of wildlife biologists; those that shared my life experience, and those others whose formulated opinions on wildlife management came, in general, from interpretation of the works of Walt Disney. My professional experience over the ensuing 40 years has reinforced that truth. So, if it is your intention is to be a “cubicle” biologist, in your penny loafers and button-down shirt, sitting in front of a computer screen 8 hours a day, neat and clean and above the fray, what I am going to say is not going to make you very happy.
Working in wildlife biology and management is not all sunshine and roses. If it is done thoroughly, professionally and effectively it is demanding, hard, and sometimes painful. Wildlife biology and management can be dangerous, dirty, stinky, sweaty, freezing cold and shockingly bloody. The compassion and love you feel for the creatures of the earth will be tempered in the fire of long hours of collecting samples, performing nuisance animal control, euthanizing injured animals and birds and dealing with the public, the last of which can be at the same time the most uplifting, and the most discouraging and depressing, part of the entire exercise.
From my own experience I can tell you about never-ending hours pulling thousands of reproductive tracts from hunter-killed does, watching their embryonic fawns kick their last in a sea of amniotic fluid up to my elbows; of laying in the snow wrapped in a bedsheet for hours waiting for that last black duck to step across the rocket net, and so frozen after the shot that my partner and I had to be carried to the vehicle. In the name of science I have collected hundreds of wild animals and birds for biological samples, lethal collections that were conducted in as cold, quick and efficient a manner as I could execute. I have head-shot, on sanctioned night collections with a spotlight and rifle, over five hundred whitetail deer. In control of nuisance animals I have trapped and killed hundreds of small and large mammals, including deer, bear, hog, beaver, groundhogs, opossums, skunks, bats, foxes, raccoons and coyotes. When conducting blood disease surveys for state and federal agencies I trapped dozens of ruffed grouse, quail and wild turkeys, tearing the chest open with my bare hands on the live birds to stick a vacutainer needle directly into their hearts before they stopped beating, to retrieve the volume of samples that we needed and that could not be collected by any other method. In culling operations I have helped depopulate illegal deer enclosures and fox pens, killed deer in zoological parks where they had become a threat to people or other wildlife, euthanized truckloads of illegally transported, diseased raccoons and on federal lands where I was employed as the Natural Resources Manager, I have personally culled hundreds of doe deer in making sure the kill on these areas met the management quota. During one twelve day period on a military base in eastern Virginia my technician and I legally shot fifty-four does, using shotguns and two-man drives, retrieved the biological samples from them, then processed the carcasses for the local food bank and the skins for the Jamestown living-history settlement. As part of my job I have trapped and executed dozens of feral dogs and cats and I have by my own hand killed, in order to end their suffering, hundreds of injured or diseased wild animals and birds.
I have spent a hundred steaming August evening hours bent double at the waist, in mud to my hips and my face within inches of stagnant stinking water, removing wood ducks from a kidney trap so they could be banded; thousands of backbreaking hours on tractors and bulldozers dozens of miles deep in National Forest, alone, working food plots; I have worn out a score of chain saws creating sprout openings and burned up boots, clothes and some skin on thousands of acres of prescribed burns. I have been defecated upon by bears, Canada geese, turkeys, beaver, deer, grouse and waterfowl that I trapped for relocation or banding; I have been kicked, gouged, gored, scratched, bitten and run over by more animals and birds than I care to remember and I have spent hours after summertime timber marking, picking the ticks off of my body and treating the chigger bites that it took help to reach. And, while I cannot say I loved every minute of it, I can say with certainty and conviction that I would give anything to be able to turn back the clock and do it all again—because I have had the other moments too; like witnessing the smiling faces of my son’s first grade classmates when they saw the live beavers I brought to their classroom, then the principal making me wait while she brought out the entire rural elementary school so I could give them a short lesson on wildlife; watching the fledgling Peregrines I hacked take their first flight; seeing the unbridled joy of a first-time hunter with the deer she took on my management area; watching with speechless awe the dozen hours-old hatchling turkey poults huddled around my feet as I banded their mother; the indescribable feeling of the deer fawn leaping into my arms when I rescued it from the flooded river; the irrepressible smile I had while spying on the thousands of ducks happily feeding and chuckling to each other on the shallow impoundment I built just for them. I have been truly blessed by God, who gave me the intelligence, skills, determination and physical ability to be a part of this career path and as a general rule I hold my contemporaries in high regard, because of our shared experiences. But there is a sad fact in our profession and I am not one to shy away from it: among us are pretenders. This is of course because we have to recruit from the human race to fill our ranks and some of these folks will never face the reality of the world we know.
That reality is simple: that it was sport hunting that made our profession possible and today pays for the wildlife management, research and law enforcement that ensures that wildlife will forever be a part of the American experience. I don’t care if you don’t hunt, but you cannot be a professional wildlife biologist without recognizing and acknowledging that hunters are the world’s conservationists. The simple fact is that if we didn’t have license-buying hunters, we would not have the abundant wildlife populations, both of game and nongame, that we enjoy today.
So, you want to be a wildlife professional. I welcome you to the profession with this advice: Get dirty, get bloody and get real, or get out of the way for those that will. We have to be the voice of creatures that cannot speak, and we cannot be that voice if we don’t get into the field and learn the language. If you do this, your reward will be more than you can imagine.