Becoming a Conservation Officer: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a conservation officer career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a conservation officer is right for you.
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Conservation Officer Careers: Pros and Cons

Conservation officers work to protect natural resources, including plants, animals and ecosystems. Some may focus on law enforcement activities related to regulating fish and game, while others work to maintain recreation areas, forests and other natural environments. Check out the pros and cons of becoming a conservation officer to see if this career field is right for you.

Pros of a Conservation Officer Career
Multiple career options (law enforcement, wildlife management, forestry)*
Some conservation officers may begin work with a high school diploma and on-the-job training*
Protecting lives, property and natural resources can be satisfying*
Wide variety of work activities (habitat protection, public education programs, enforcement, data collection)*

Cons of a Conservation Officer Career
Slow employment growth (1% for fish and game wardens and 4% for conservation workers between 2012-2022)*
Forestry conservation positions, which require less education, also have lower average salaries (around $30,000 in 2014)*
Physically demanding work, often outdoors*
Strict eligibility and training requirements for law enforcement positions*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Essential Career Information

Career Options and Job Descriptions

Your job duties as a conservation officer will depend on whether you pursue a law enforcement position or a natural science one. Fish and game wardens often work for state-level natural resources departments to cite violations of hunting, fishing, boating and recreational vehicle usage laws. They educate the public in the safe use of natural resources and recreation areas, investigate reports of criminal activity and assist with emergencies and natural disasters. Many also collect biological and environmental data relating to animal populations, plant life and habitats.

Conservation officers may also work to protect and maintain natural habitats through forestry. Working at forest nurseries, parks, campgrounds and other recreation areas, these conservation officers care for plant life and maintain animal habitats. They may clear brush and debris, prune and cut trees, maintain roadways and eliminate threats of fire, disease or pest infestation. Some wildlife conservationists also assist the public by selling recreation permits, providing information and inspecting equipment.

Salary Information

You will find that your salary potential may vary based on the type of conservation career you pursue. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in 2014 that fish and game wardens with law enforcement duties earned an average yearly salary of about $53,000. In the same year, the BLS noted that forestry and conservation workers earned an average salary of approximately $30,000.

Career Outlook

Because many of the positions in these various career paths depend on government funding, future employment prospects will be influenced by local, state and federal budgets. The BLS predicted only 1% employment growth for fish and game wardens between 2012 and 2022, while forestry and conservation workers could expect an increase of 4% for the same time period.

What Are the Requirements?

The education requirements for conservation officers vary widely, and often depend on whether the position includes law enforcement duties. According to the BLS, entry-level forestry and conservation workers are often hired with a high school diploma or GED and then complete on-the-job training with more experienced employees.

Additional education may be required by some employers, and O*Net OnLine reported that 36% of forestry and conservation workers held a bachelor's degree in 2011. For conservation officers with law enforcement duties, education requirements may range from a high school education to a bachelor's degree in natural science, environmental science or a related field. In the same year, O*Net noted that 74% of fish and game wardens had a bachelor's degree.

Law enforcement positions usually have stringent eligibility requirements. Some agencies require that applicants are at least 21 years old. Most have physical fitness standards candidates must meet, including the ability to lift a certain amount of weight, perform designated physical tasks, run and swim. Applicants must also pass criminal background checks, psychological and medical testing, drug tests and a written exam or skills test. Prior law enforcement or military service can be beneficial in meeting these qualifications.

Training and Licensure

Conservation officers are usually required to have a valid driver's license, since the job often requires a vehicle for traveling to remote locations. Employers provide training that may last anywhere from a few months to one year. For law enforcement positions, this may include attending a police or training academy and then performing job duties during a probationary period (typically one year). Trainees can learn relevant laws and regulations, emergency response procedures, firearm use, conservation protocols and other skills relevant to the job.

Top Skills for Conservation Officers

Whether they work in law enforcement, forestry or wildlife management, conservation officers need excellent written and verbal communication skills to provide public service, education programs and keep records. Conservation officers must also have the physical strength and stamina to cover all kinds of terrain, regardless of weather conditions.

Due to the possibility of physically dangerous situations, conservation officers must possess the ability to think and act quickly, making sound decisions and leading others while maintaining a calm demeanor. Many employers appreciate an ability to operate machinery and equipment, including off-road vehicles. Conservation officers also benefit from outdoors skills, including first-aid and safety training, plant and animal identification, survival skills and knowledge of a variety of outdoor activities.

Job Postings from Real Employers

For conservation officers, job skills and knowledge acquired through relevant experience can be just as important as formal education. Some employers substitute work experience for equivalent years of college coursework. Here are some May 2012 job postings from state and federal agencies:

  • A New Mexico law enforcement agency advertised for a conservation officer trainee to assist with wildlife management after completion of the law enforcement academy. Ideal applicants would have a bachelor's degree from a related area, including wildlife law enforcement and fisheries science, and experience isn't required for the position.
  • A historic site in Hawaii wanted a park ranger to provide law enforcement and visitor assistance at the site, with patrol duties and wildlife management responsibilities also included. Applicants must pass the Physical Efficiency Battery (PEB) and have completed an approved Seasonal Law Enforcement Training Program.
  • A forest in Michigan sought a forestry technician to gather, record and report requested statistical data for use in scientific studies. The candidate would work in the field to take measurements, read scientific instruments and inspect vegetation.

How to Get an Edge in the Field

Earn a Degree

If not already required by the employer, earning an associate's or bachelor's degree may improve employment prospects and provide opportunities for advancement in conservation officer careers. Your educational pursuits can be tailored to the type of conservation work you'd like to do. For example, students interested in law enforcement careers can take courses in computer science and criminal justice to prepare for the skills needed to ticket violators and write reports. Coursework in biology, environmental science, zoology, forestry, wildlife management or another science-based field can help develop the knowledge needed to work with plants, animals and natural resources.

Complete Professional Training or Certification

Many states have training programs for forestry and conservation workers, which offer field-based training relevant to vegetation management. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative provides training to a variety of groups, as well as certification for foresters who use sustainable and responsible practices.

You can also pursue the 2-year Certified Professional in Rangeland Management credential from the Society for Range Management. This credential is for individuals who have earned at least a bachelor's degree in an appropriate field, have at least five years of experience and who have passed a written certification exam.

Other Careers to Consider

Forestry and Conservation Careers

If you want to work protecting plant and animal habitats, natural resources and recreation areas but have little interest in becoming a law enforcement officer, you might want to consider other forestry and conservation careers. An associate's degree is usually sufficient preparation for a career as a forestry or conservation technician, with O*Net reporting that 40% had a high school education and 36% earned a 2-year degree as of 2011.

The BLS predicted a 1% decline in employment through 2020, but reported an average salary of around $37,000 in 2011. With a bachelor's degree, you could become a forestry or conservation scientist, which could include work as a range manager, soil conservationist or water conservationist. The career outlook for these scientists was slightly better, with projected employment growth of 5% between 2010 and 2020, and a mean salary around $56,000 for foresters and $62,000 for conservation scientists in 2011.

Forest Firefighter

Besides protecting buildings and property in urban areas, some firefighters focus on assessing fire risk in forested areas, working to protect natural resources, animal habitats and humans alike. Working as a forest firefighter can be dangerous and requires rigorous on-the-job and academy training, which can include EMT-Basic training and other voluntary or mandatory certifications.

However, the profession requires little formal postsecondary education, with 63% of forest firefighters having earned only a high school diploma, according to O*Net in 2011. In the same year, the BLS reported mean annual wages of around $48,000 for firefighters and estimated job growth at 9% from 2010-2020.

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