Wildlife Management Degrees Attract Animal and Nature Lovers | Education


Students seeking a career that centers around the outdoors and the creatures that inhabit those spaces can choose from a number of wildlife-focused academic programs. Wildlife biology, wildlife ecology, zoology, and wildlife or natural resource management are among the degrees offered at colleges across the U.S. for those who love nature and desire to work with animals in conservation, habitat science or other fields.

What Wildlife Professionals Do 

Wildlife professionals specialize in a wide variety of disciplines and work in both the government and private sectors, including federal and state agencies, parks and refuges, nonprofits and academia. They may serve as educators, policy analysts, research scientists and industry consultants.

“The study of animals is critically important,” says Ed Arnett, a wildlife biologist, CEO of The Wildlife Society and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University. “The way things are changing so fast today – with development, population growth, climate change – we need continued study of animals and their interactions with habitat, their ecosystems and how human systems are affecting them so we can properly manage the biodiversity.”

Salaries for wildlife careers vary, depending on the job, degree and level of education achieved. The annual median pay for zoologists and wildlife biologists was about $67,500 in May 2022, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Different Degree and Career Paths

Students who typically find success in these programs love wildlife and nature, Arnett says. “You’ve grown up camping, hunting, fishing, being outdoors. It drives you. You love the idea of wildlife management, nature and conservation.”

Arnett says his own initial focus was obtaining an associate degree in natural resources management from Colorado Mountain College. But then doors opened as he met mentors and learned about other subjects, which is typical in this field, he says. A bachelor’s degree in fish and wildlife management from Montana State University followed; then a master’s degree in zoology and physiology from the University of Wyoming; and a Ph.D. in forest science from Oregon State University, where his dissertation focused on bats and their habitats.

Ed Arnett catches an eastern red (Lasiurus borealis) bat in a mist net.

Ed Arnett catches an eastern red (Lasiurus borealis) bat in a mist net.(Janet Tyburec, Bat Conservation International)

“I tell my students that a bachelor’s is now a bare minimum for being competitive in the wildlife field,” he says. “The master’s degree will make you more competitive, but you’ll also have greater depth. You will understand how research is conducted and utilized in management and decision-making.”

Janet Rachlow, a professor of wildlife ecology in the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho, says most students enter her college “with an inkling of what they want to do.”

“When they get here as freshmen, they can feel out the different majors in our college. They’ll take a lot of foundational courses; it’s easy to switch majors in the first year or two. We want students to try different things – to find that spark where they really go, ‘Yeah!’” says Rachlow, who is also the department head of Fish and Wildlife Sciences, where students can choose from majors in wildlife sciences, fishery sciences or conservation biology.

Rachlow says their graduates head out in a variety of directions: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and state agencies that manage wildlife. “Some of them go into conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy or the World Wildlife Fund, zoos or wildlife rehabilitation or ecotourism,” she says.

She also points to a new aquaculture (or fish farming) and hatchery management emphasis at the college.

“Aquaculture is growing very rapidly worldwide and in North America, in both food production and conservation,” she says. She notes that cold-water species like salmon or burbot have problems with conservation. “So we’re figuring out how to grow them in captivity to reestablish populations in the wild. That area is one of huge growth.”

Hands-on Experience 

Ryan Martin at the University of Idaho is completing his Ph.D. in natural resources, which follows his undergraduate major in ecology and conservation biology.

Idaho Ph.D. student Ryan Martin pictured in southeastern Washington with a bighorn sheep lamb that he helped capture in order to attach a high-frequency collar that expands as the sheep grows.

Idaho Ph.D. student Ryan Martin pictured in southeastern Washington with a bighorn sheep lamb that he helped capture in order to attach a high-frequency collar that expands as the sheep grows.(Katey Huggler)

The Kansas native grew up hunting, fishing and observing the “spectacular waterfowl migrations” that passed through his home state. Now he is researching bighorn sheep in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.

“These sheep in Teton are unique,” he says. “They are isolated from a lot of other populations. Most sheep migrate to lower elevations in the winter to avoid deep snow. These animals actually spend all winter at 10,500 to 11,000 feet. The Park Service wants to conserve the sheep, have a fuller picture of available habitat and develop management objectives.”

Classwork Can Vary Depending on Career Choices 

A popular entry point at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for students wanting to work with animals is zoology – or the study of animal biology – in the Department of Integrative Biology. About 130 students are currently in the program, says professor and department chair Lauren Riters, who says the pull of the major lies in its flexibility. Many go on to medical school, but students hoping to work with wildlife can tailor their path through the major, she says.

For instance, a student planning on becoming a veterinarian might take biochemistry and genetics. Those more focused on conservation can take a primate behavior class, marine biology or ornithology, which is the scientific study of birds.

Another popular class is behavioral ecology, she says. “That’s a really good start. We look at the adaptive value of animal behavior, such as observing how crows will drop nuts from the top of phone poles into streets so cars will crack them.”

Academia also attracts career wildlife devotees, and Riters is one. She specializes in vocal communication among songbirds and was drawn to the field because of her love for birds and animal behavior.

“I can continue to study birds and biology my whole life,” she says. “I can share this enthusiasm with the undergraduate zoology majors. I enjoy guiding them and watching them make their own career paths.”


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