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Courtesy Photo by Dakota College Bottineau Students at Dakota College Bottineau learn waterfowl banding hands on.

Cutting an outdoors career

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Between the phone and my email inbox, I get a lot of questions. This time of year, the most popular are: "Where are the fish biting?" and "How are the pheasants doing?"

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The answers are: "Beneath the ice," and "Pretty good, but a few weeks of winter still remain."

Another frequent question throughout the year, from parents and students, is "How do you get a job in the in the natural resources field?"

How to become a game warden seems to be at the top of the list, followed by both fisheries and wildlife biology in equal numbers. Few people ask about the many other possibilities, but whatever the career goal, there are literally dozens of other paths to take.

I can personally attest that in the natural resources field, similar to most other employment, you can follow a typical progression, or travel down a winding road and end up in a good place that you never imagined or dreamed existed.

Not to say goals are not important, but here's some insight from a guy who's been there. First and foremost, a four-year college degree is a basic requirement. If the career aspiration is more research or species-specific, such as furbearer biology, you'll need a graduate degree.

Even then, if you're willing, able and meet the minimum qualifications, the high level of interest in limited opportunities (North Dakota Game and Fish has one furbearer biologist) will generate stiff competition from applicants from across the nation.

Beyond the degree, and especially if you are more adept at hands-on technical work such as a fisheries or wildlife biology, field experience sandwiched into college will provide multiple benefits. First, you'll find out if the job is something in which you'd potentially like to spend your working life. Better to find out early during your collegiate years, rather than after you've invested money and time into earning a degree.

I spent college summers working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service across the state, learning how to band ducks, trap predators, fix fence, etc. But I also took a detour to Dakota College Bottineau, and learned other practical skills, not just in the classroom, but in the field as well.

Such experiences make for another box to check on an employment application. Beyond the skills learned, you'll also forge valuable working relationships, which are of course important as your career continues.

In short, expecting to land a full-time permanent job is short of realistic if a career plan just calls for earning a bachelor's degree in biology without any field experience. Even with a degree and on-the-job experience, candidates realize how competitive the market is.

Finally, keep your options wide open. You may aspire to become an outreach biologist, but in the meantime you may find yourself working at a lumber yard, farm show, as a private lands biologist and a game warden before reaching your goal.

That's the route I'm on. Where it ends up, only time will tell. One thing for certain: If I had sat back and tried to decide exactly where I would go and what I would do, I'd probably still be filling out job applications.

Leier is a biologist with the Game & Fish Department. He can be reached by email: dleier@nd.gov. Read his blog at dougleier.areavoices.com

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