At a Glance
Imagine crouching behind a bush, doing your best to be still and quiet so as not to alarm the herd of elk 150 metres in front of you. With your binoculars, you study the group from your hiding place, carefully taking notes. You are a wildlife biologist and for the past few weeks, you have been surveying elk herds in the area to determine the health of the local population. Your department will use this information to determine how many elk hunting tags can be issued this year. Every year, thousands of hunters apply for a licence to hunt elk, but the existing populations can't sustain that many losses from their herds. You survey these populations to determine how many animals the population can afford to lose, which will determine how many hunters will be granted licences and allowed to hunt mature elk.
As a wildlife biologist, you know how dangerous overhunting can be to wild game populations and how critical this survey is to the proper management of local elk herds. For the herd you're watching today, you count their numbers to measure the herd's size. But this alone won't tell you how many hunting tags can be issued this year. You must also look at the herd's makeup, which will indicate other factors that could be affecting the population. First, you count the number of males and females the herd will need a certain number of each in order to reproduce. You also look at the relative age of the elk, particularly how many mature animals there are, how many adolescents, and how many of last year's young have survived. There must be enough young elk to replace the older ones as they die.
After gathering as much information as you can on the area's elk herds, you will compare that to data from years previous to get an indication of the population growth or decline. If the population is growing, you can use the information to determine how much hunting should be allowed.
Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a wildlife biologist:
- Plan and conduct population surveys.
- Research, make recommendations for, and supervise habitat restoration and the reintroduction of species.
- Manage endangered species populations, including conservation, protection, and rehabilitation.
- Evaluate federal and provincial wildlife programs.
- Review and conduct studies and provide information and expert testimony for ecological and environmental impact assessments.
- Provide technical expertise related to wildlife survey design.
- Collect data and analyze and prepare wildlife management plans and scientific reports.
- Monitor the status and trends of wildlife populations.
- Mitigate the impacts of development on wildlife habitat and resources.
- Participate in meetings with government agencies, consultants, and engineers.
- Resolve conflicts with competing issues and promote good conservation ethics.
- Set bag limits for hunted species.
Wildlife biologists work in a variety of locations, including:
In the field:
- Studying wildlife populations, location data, behaviour, and habitat inventories, often under harsh conditions and difficult schedules
- Checking compliance with wildlife regulations
- Surveying areas from small airplanes or helicopters
- Supervising technical staff
In the office:
- Analyzing data on the computer, including spatial mapping, statistical analysis, and GIS
- Using maps, aerial photographs, and other tools to design field data collection programs
- Responding to information requests from the public
- Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, colleagues, and experts in the field
- Researching new technology and studies in wildlife management
- Compiling data and preparing reports and scientific articles
In the lab:
- Processing samples collected in the field or turned in by the public
- Maintaining and preparing equipment for fieldwork
- Supervising technical staff
Where to Work
There are a number of places wildlife biologists can find employment. They include:
- Federal, provincial/territorial, municipal, and Aboriginal government departments
- Colleges, universities, and research institutes
- Environmental and engineering consulting firms
- Natural resource and utility companies, for example, logging, mining, and hydro
- Conservation authorities and centres
- Not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations
See current job opportunities for Wildlife Biologists on the ECO Job Board.
Education and Skills
If you are a high school student considering a career as a wildlife biologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a wildlife biologist is a university undergraduate degree. If you are interested in research, a graduate degree is usually required. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a wildlife biologist, the following programs are most applicable:
- Wildlife Biology
- Conservation Biology
- Fish and Wildlife
- Environmental Science
- Habitat Restoration
Although it is not mandatory to become certified in order to work as a wildlife biologist, some practitioners choose to apply for Professional Biologist status. Requirements for this designation vary among provinces.
Environmental employers look for professionals who can combine technical knowledge with business skills. The ECO Academy can help you build the essential skills needed for a successful environmental career. Learn more
I knew I wanted to be a biologist in grade three. I have always enjoyed interacting with wildlife. There were two people who gave me a good direction towards my career in the environmental field. The first was a biologist who sponsored me in a Junior Conservationist Program during the summer when I was attending high school. The second was the government contractor I worked for during my summers as a university student. I also did volunteer fieldwork and was able to learn current information by talking to project leaders. These experiences led me into a consulting position as an environmental biologist.
After I completed my Master of Science degree I started working for Environment Canada. Government, universities and some of the larger environmental consulting firms hire wildlife biologists. Many of these positions are in Canadian cities but a few are in remote locations. I write scientific papers on my own time and these combine with my fifteen years of experience in wildlife biology to establish my credibility in the field. While some of the efforts of my colleagues in larger urban centers are reactive and involve correcting previous problems I am fortunate to be able to work proactively as my knowledge of the Canadian Arctic increases. Being a member of The American Orthinologists Union, The Wildlife Society, The Arctic Institute of North America, Ottawa Field-Naturalists, Ottawa Duck Club, and Ducks Unlimited Canada provides me with opportunities to network with other professionals and read a variety of publications.
I attend conferences, scan on-line journals and act as a scientific referee to review papers. I have taken courses in environmental assessment, stormwater management, media training, first aid, hazardous materials and rock climbing. My daily interaction with other environmental workers also enhances my current knowledge. I expect increases in employment opportunities related to endangered species and environmental assessment. Consulting positions will become available as demand increases for solutions in these areas. I hope to remain in the arctic and develop an adjunct status with a Canadian university. This would allow me to address research questions in the field with the help of university summer students. The arctic is a place where your efforts in the environmental field can have a very positive impact.
Although I knew in grade three what I wanted to do I didn’t know until later in high school how to go about doing it. Experience is key. Try to find out who’s doing what in the environmental sector. Get involved by volunteering and talking to people. Promote yourself and remember that experience counts as much as education. There are more environmental jobs now than ever before but don’t pass up a job that you think may be below you. To get judged on your record you need lots of diverse experience. Establish yourself by doing fieldwork, writing and publishing scientific papers. I officially work thirty-seven and one-half hours per week but often add fifteen to twenty hours of unregistered overtime. During the field season, work is seven days a week, twelve or more hours per day. I enjoy travelling to remote places where few people go.
I spend most of my time in my office when the field season ends. Financial accounting, updating of budgets, preparation of proposals, report writing and data analyses are common activities. There is great satisfaction in seeing a project through from beginning to end. I have almost completed the work of establishing a new National Wildlife Area in Canada’s Arctic. I also contribute by visiting schools and educating the kids about environmental issues. I plan on writing a book or career guide at some point in the future to provide assistance to others who want to get into wildlife biology.