Kristen Linner - Alumni Interview
NRM alumna, Kristen Linner, discusses her experiences working for the Forest Service in New Mexico and offers advice for undergraduates interested in conservation and wildlife biology in our first alumni interview.
Maggie Zebracka: Where do you work and what is your job?
Kristen Linner: I work in Clayton, New Mexico for the U.S. Forest Service on the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands. These grasslands are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and are a district of the Cibola National Forest. I am the wildlife biologist on the district. I think my job has three main parts: monitoring wildlife species on the grasslands, creating/implementing habitat improvement projects, and writing biological documents that analyze the effects of projects on wildlife species of concern.
MZ: What does a typical work week look like for you?
KL: There is no typical work week... Usually I'll spend a day or two per week outdoors in the field (driving, hiking, taking pictures, observing wildlife, taking notes of the plant species present), and the other days doing work at a desk. The species I monitor include prairie dogs and nesting birds of prey, among others. Some habitat improvement projects I'm working on right now include planning prescribed burns, fixing fences on wildlife exclosures, and designing and planting pollinator gardens. It's also pretty normal to spend a day here or there helping the range staff read vegetation transects, helping the recreation staff with site upkeep, or going on fire assignments.
MZ: What are the long-term goals or projects of your work with the Forest Service?
KL: The big picture for my job is habitat management. So, my long-term goals are to conserve the native habitat on the public lands on my district for the benefit of the wildlife and the public. The Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands include shortgrass prairie, sand sage, pinyon-juniper, riparian, and some ponderosa pine habitat. For my work, it's important to get those to a more natural state – lack of fire, plus grazing pressure, plus lack of bison can mean that what the land looks like right now may not be how it was in the past, and may not be ideal for a number of native wildlife species.
First, I have prescribed burns planned for the prairie. Burns have the potential to do a lot of good: it returns nutrients to the soil, changes the structure of the vegetation, and creates patchy habitat that appeals to grassland species like swift fox and mountain plover. Another of my goals for my job here is to improve pronghorn passage through our extensive fencing. I'll use help from the state and volunteers to manually raise the bottom wires of the fences and make the passage easier. I also want to work on the wildlife public relations out here, since some farmers or ranchers are wary of wildlife biologists. I'm starting with getting schools involved in pollinator garden establishment, and will continue with some outdoor classroom work in the future.
MZ: What did the job search look like for you? Did you apply to a variety of jobs (federal, state, private sector) or did you know you wanted to work for the Forest Service?
KL: I did apply to a variety of jobs, both government and private. I've always been interested in the federal government because between undergrad and grad school, I spent about 3 years moving around the country doing temporary jobs. These included working for the Forest Service, BLM, and for graduate students. The government jobs paid really well and had flexible schedules, and had a ton of land to roam. Now, things like paid insurance and contributions to retirement are important to me, which the federal government offers.
So I went on USAjobs (www.usajobs.gov) and found a job posting for "recent graduates." I had no idea what that heading meant as far as a job, but I clicked on it because I recently graduated with my masters from Texas Tech. I found out that it is a hiring program through the forest service which seeks out those that have finished a degree within two years of the hiring event. It turned out that you had to apply in-person for this hiring event, and it was that upcoming weekend! I dropped my weekend plans, drove over to the event and turned in the application packet they requested. They interviewed me the next day and offered me the job here.
MZ: In your experience, what are the traits or skills of a good wildlife biologist?
KL: - Flexibility and resiliency. Projects never seem to go as planned.
- Experience/knowledge of the ecosystem you will be working in.
- Good writing skills.
- Basic GIS skills. This is the standard forest service mapping software, and I use it almost every day.
- Ability to work well with a team. In the federal government (and probably the state as well), you often work with a team when you are starting up a new project. For example, say the range staff wants to create an array of water troughs in grazing pastures with underground pipelines connecting them. We will assemble a team of range, wildlife, recreation, fire, archaeology, and other folks so that everyone can analyze the effects of the project on their area of expertise. This is part of the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process. Sometimes, working with a team means holding your ground and making your concerns about wildlife species known. But other times, compromises need to be made in order to keep a project moving forward. There are federal laws and regulations that are non-negotiable, and then there are personal opinions that sometimes you need to let go. It is important to learn how to distinguish these.
MZ: How can undergraduates begin preparing themselves for a career in wildlife biology, or more generally, for working for in a national park?
KL: Well, I can't say much about a national park because that is in the National Park System, in the Department of the Interior. I work for the Department of Agriculture on a National Forest. Many folks aren't very familiar with the difference, but the National Parks are very visitor-focused, and have more of a "preservation" management system. The National Forests are a "multiple-use" public lands, meaning we manage for a lot of different uses like recreation, grazing, wildlife interests, fuels, and sometimes oil and gas, ski areas, and other things. The National Forests are more geared towards conservation than preservation.
My background is: Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science, 2.5 years of temporary field work/wildlife jobs, a Master's degree in Wildlife Management, and another temporary job writing survey protocols for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. To prepare yourself, I would get a bachelor's degree in a wildlife, environmental science, or natural-resources related field. I highly recommend getting some field experience - working for a graduate student on their project, or getting a temporary job with a state or federal agency. That will help you discover what direction you really want to go, and what you enjoy. A master's degree is a good idea and will make you more competitive, but is not a requirement. Also, get involved in wildlife organizations or groups where you are right now – you would be amazed how these connections with people and groups will pop up again in the future.
MZ: Anything else you'd like to add?
KL: Just that I enjoy my job and Texas Tech prepared me well!
Kristen Linner is a Wildlife Biologist working in the Cibola National Forest, Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands. She graduated from Texas Tech with her M.S. in 2014.
Maggie Zebracka is the Graduate Program Assistant for NRM.