CLIMBING THEIR WAY TO THE TOP
by D'Lyn FordThis article appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of New Mexico Resources.
From the state's scenic stream banks to the highest levels of Washington policy-making, NMSU's fishery and wildlife students and graduates make a difference in the world.
Long before graduation, Richard Vacirca had experience carrying out fishery improvements on a Ruidoso creek. In December, he joined a group of NMSU fishery and wildlife alums that includes the nation's top-ranking wildlife official - John G. Rogers, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Though New Mexico has a small pool of people to draw from compared with other states, it possesses a wealth of wildlife, a number of natural resource jobs, and a strong program at NMSU, all of which attract students.
With an undergraduate enrollment of 220, NMSU ranks among the West's largest fishery and wildlife departments. It leads the nation in another category: the number of Hispanic students earning undergraduate degrees. In fact, NMSU probably has produced more
Hispanic undergraduate wildlife majors than any other university, says Raul Valdez, wildlife professor.
In a 1994 study, Valdez compared the number of Hispanic undergraduates earning degrees from 10 western universities. NMSU led the pack, finishing first in both total and yearly numbers of Hispanic undergraduates, even when compared with universities in Texas and California, home to half the nation's Hispanic population.
A secret of NMSU's size and strength lies in how it prepares students for a highly competitive field. About 90 percent of majors come for the wildlife option, though many pick up aquatics courses or add a second major in fisheries.
Half to three-fourths of graduates will become conservation officers or biologists. They will work for state agencies, such as New Mexico's Department of Game and Fish, and a host of federal agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and agriculture and defense departments. Other alums work in private or educational settings as hunting guides or nature center directors.
To make graduates marketable, the fisheries and wildlife faculty stress a combination of solid science, hands-on experience, and people skills. For students, it means when they're not in the classroom or studying, they'll be taking part in field trips, class projects, six-month co-op assignments, and seasonal jobs.
Even with their limited downtime, some students seem to have energy and ambition to spare. Anna Muñoz, a junior wildlife major from Carlsbad, relaxes by rock climbing several times a month.
It's the perfect hobby for someone progressing toward a promising career. Already, Muñoz has landed internships in New York with Cornell University and in Oregon with the Forest Service.
"At Cornell, I didn't know how I'd stack up against students from across the country," she says. "But I wasn't intimidated when I found out I had just as good an education as they did - and it cost a lot less."
Muñoz is clearly going places. Last spring, she was among the finalists considered for student representative on the NMSU board of regents. This year, she earned a coveted summer internship with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, for which only 25 of 400 applicants are chosen. Meanwhile, she is taking a graduate class in addition to her undergraduate courses.
Along with wildlife courses, NMSU students take general ecology and biology classes, as well as range science. Today's wildlife classes reflect a broader concern for all natural resources as part of what's known as an ecosystem approach, rather than focusing on a particular endangered or game species. Team teaching and inter-disciplinary projects are part of the philosophy.
"We're making changes in the curriculum to prepare future generations of professionals as best we can," says Richard Cole, acting department head.
The adjustments reflect the shifting makeup of wildlife students. While most majors once were rural or suburban with strong interests in hunting and fishing, a large number now come from urban areas and bring different experiences to their studies.
From a practical standpoint, it means students are likely to have less outdoor experience, says V.W. "Doc" Howard, longtime wildlife professor. They may never have changed a trailer tire, driven a vehicle with a five-speed manual transmission, or handled a four-wheel drive in sand and mud. Horse packing skills common 25 years ago are "a lost art."
Whatever their backgrounds, wildlife students must learn not only how to use information but also how to collect it. That's why practice is important, whether it's a hands-on lesson on sampling plants or a field trip to count migratory waterfowl.
"They learn that you really don't count 114 snow geese after seeing them in flight," Howard says. "The number comes from counting some individual birds and estimating numbers in groups."
The lessons often are more than teaching exercises. One class inventoried fish in a warm-water lake for Jim Winder, an innovative rancher and
Sierra Club member who had acquired new property near Nutt, N.M. A different group conducted a riparian analysis for the wildlife biologist at the Ladder Ranch, owned by Ted Turner, near Hillsboro.
Another valuable source of experience for students is the Wildlife Society chapter. Under a contract with the state game and fish department, members work at check stations during special hunts for pronghorn, deer, oryx, and sandhill crane. They help wildlife biologists collect measurements, samples, and data for research. Besides skills, the students earn money for travel and projects.
Their activities include volunteering for range, water, and fencing projects with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. An educational committee makes presentations about wildlife at elementary schools.
"One weekend last fall, we had four groups working on three projects," Howard recalls. "We were scattered like a covey of quail."
Yet another group drills twice a week to cover 2,000 questions in preparing for the wildlife quiz bowl at the Western Student Wildlife Conclave, made up of 11 member universities. Over the past decade, NMSU teams have placed among the top three schools, finishing first about half the time. For seniors, the quizzes are a comprehensive review; for freshmen and sophomores, a preview.
However, some of the most valuable education takes place during six-month co-ops and seasonal jobs.
In addition to his Wildlife Society involvement, 1996 chapter president Tim Hall has worked his way across New Mexico. In Carrizozo, he trapped pronghorn on private land for a conservation agency in Mexico. Near Folsom and Tres Piedras, he helped introduce three wild turkey species to expand their habitat. In Raton, he trapped and transported deer 150 miles away from golf courses and gardens inside city limits.
In Reserve, he ventured inside the den of a bear sow that had been tracked with a radio collar and tranquilized. Hall wrapped a six-week-old cub in his jacket to keep it warm as biologists collected information.
"There's a lot of work experience available inside our state," he says. "In wildlife these days, education is important, especially hands-on experience, which is probably the most marketable asset."
Vacirca found seasonal work with the Forest Service, building his resume by improving fish habitat along Cedar Creek, which runs through Ruidoso. Over two years, he saw his management recommendations literally take shape. While the best marshland areas were preserved for wildlife, in other areas channels were altered to improve fish habitat.
Like 10 to 15 percent of students in the department, Vacirca chose to major in both fisheries and wildlife, expanding his job prospects. Besides gaining fisheries experience, Vacirca learned techniques for studying owls and goshawks and worked on a hotshot crew on the front lines of forest fires during the 1996 drought.
He practiced his communication skills in presentations and projects with schools and sport fishery groups and made valuable professional connections that could help him get a job.
Overall, experience with humans may be the most valuable gains from co-ops and seasonal jobs in wildlife. "Even though much of their training is with animals, graduates will be dealing as much or more with people, and their interactions with people may be the most important," says Phillip Zwank, head of the state's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit housed at NMSU.
Students must learn the fine art of networking to find and keep jobs in the close-knit wildlife field.
"From the start, that's how a new graduate goes to work - not in isolation, but as part of a team," says Charles Davis, who recently retired as fishery and wildlife sciences department head after nearly 30 years at NMSU.
Lorenzo Enciñas, a 1996 wildlife graduate, was able to venture to California for a USDA co-op, thanks to connections he made through the wildlife department.
During his co-op, Enciñas worked to protect the least tern in the San Diego area. Declines in population have left the ground-nesting birds vulnerable to coyotes, dogs, cats, skunks, and birds of prey. "They used to nest in huge colonies where they would ward off predators by mobbing them," Enciñas says. "They don't have enough individuals now to create those mob attacks."
After graduation, Enciñas was offered a full-time job in California, though he declined the offer to focus on finding a fisheries position.
Vacirca's stream bank experience has created a flood of job possibilities. "Every day I get a pile of letters, though many of them may be for seasonal jobs," he says. Typically, permanent hires come from the ranks of successful temporary workers.
Hall, the former Wildlife Society chapter president, expects to be leading hunts for a private firm in Colorado by fall 1997. "It's a very competitive field," he says. "It wasn't something I had planned, but the opportunity came up."
Making sure graduates can find their niche in the wildlife field is what the classes, experience, and teamwork at NMSU are all about.
Enciñas put it simply. "It's one thing to be book-smart, but it's another to be able to find answers." That is the challenge for the latest graduates from NMSU who will manage wildlife and shape the future, whether on a single stream bank or across the 50 states.