A wild career in Texas with Matt Wagner

Conservation Careers Blogger Naïma Montacer speaks with Matt Wagner, Deputy Director of the Wildlife Division at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, about his fascinating career…

Matt Wagner fly fishing for rainbow trout on the Guadalupe River in Texas. Photo credit: Matt Wagner.

Matt Wagner fly fishing for rainbow trout on the Guadalupe River in Texas. Photo credit: Matt Wagner.

I sat in a small room overlooking the coast of Texas, listening to Matt Wagner speak about what’s new in wildlife conservation around the state. I was intrigued by Wagner’s enthusiasm, not only for wildlife, but also for spreading the word to the general public. I knew I had to interview him to share his passion with the readers of Conservation Careers. He eagerly agreed to chat about his career path and inspire you to get involved in conservation. Wagner’s story is a reminder to, as he put it, “Don’t be afraid of going down a path that may not be comfortable or exactly what you wanted to do. Persevere and be patient.”

Wagner is Deputy Director of the Wildlife Division at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). He has been in this role for six years and with TPWD for over 25 years. The Wildlife Division of TPWD has a mission to “manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas and to provide hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation opportunities for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

I was inspired by his desire to continue forward in his career. This Fall, Wagner is looking forward to teaching Wildlife Law and Policy at Texas State University, “I want to take that inspiration to the next level. As I end my government career, what can I do to inspire young people, so they will carry on some of that legacy in conservation.” After hearing about his desire to influence younger generations, I couldn’t wait to hear how he got to where he is today.

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Wagner, in 2001, with colleague, Brian Hays, and landowner, Allen Wolf, at his native grassland restoration project back. Photo credit: Matt Wagner

 

Growing up, Wagner learned to hunt and enjoy the outdoors through friends and family, which set the foundation for a career in natural resource management, but it took time. “When I got out of high school the last thing I wanted to do was go back to school, so I took a year off,” says Wagner. Wagner spent about a year living up north, working construction, and exploring the outdoors. After a year, he realized in order to move forward, he would need to go back to school. Feeling uncertain about his options for school, in his mailbox he receives the key to his future. He describes it, “My sister mailed me the course catalog (from Texas A&M University). I was painting (searching) through every page looking for what do I really want to do. I read that there was a natural resource option, and it hit me right between the eyes, that’s what I really want to do.”

Wagner completed his Bachelor’s degree at Texas A&M University but hit another hurdle. He discusses how the job search was tough, “(I) Graduated back in 1980 and I couldn’t find a job, and that was frustrating right away, I had to go back into construction. And then I realized, if I want a job in natural resource management I’m going to have to get a Master’s Degree. After I got that Master’s degree doors began to open.”

Wagner perused the physical headquarters of TPWD’s job board and landed a position as one of two biologists working in the Parks Division, at that time. As time goes on, Wagner filled rolls throughout TPWD, one which lands him in his perfect spot. Wagner lights up when he talks about some of the best years of his career as working with private land owners back at the campus of Texas A&M University. “Coming home to that campus, having an office right in the Wildlife and Fisheries Department, was like going to heaven for me” says Wagner.

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Matt Wagner enjoying a pheasant hunt with his dog, Levi. Photo credit: Matt Wagner.

 

He emphasized the enjoyment in those years stemming from the relationships he made with people. The collaborations built on trust helped conserve wildlife. He passionately describes the relationship importance, “Once you educate them (private land owners) about the importance and significance of habitats on their private property they become very proud and want to learn more.” Without those relationships biologists would not be able to investigate and discover some of the most wild areas in Texas. Of the 168 million acres in Texas, about 95 percent is private land. During his time at Texas A&M University, he managed about 125 land owners with written wildlife management plans for their combined land of about 400,000 acres.

After hearing his career path, I chatted with Wagner about advice he would give future conservationists, the future of wildlife conservation, and more. I pulled out some of his quotes to educate, inspire, and engage you in making your path into a conservation career a success.

On the future of conservation:

  • “Working together is really the future of wildlife management, not only in Texas but in every state. We have to work on a larger scale today.”
  • “Make sure that you are engaging all the stakeholders, the general public, the average hunter, the average landowner.”
  • “At some point conservation and economics are going to become tied together in a union.”

On the job itself:

  • “You’re not going to get rich working for a government agency. You will be rich in terms of your experiences, the importance of what you’re doing, the things you learn that you can pass on to other folks, and that is extremely rewarding. We’re paid in the exposure to the natural world, experiences with wildlife and those are things you carry with you for the rest of your life.”
  • “It’s really the people, that make life rewarding for me. Relationships with individuals, with groups, and stakeholders that are engaged in wildlife management is really the most exciting thing.”

On career advice:

  • “One piece of advice is don’t be afraid to stretch yourself and get uncomfortable. I think today, we rely so much on our electronic devices to provide us with entertainment. Communicating one on one or in a group, has become a fearful thing.”
  • “Being focused on what you want to do and willing to go in a different direction at first part of your career.”
  • “Being patient, let things develop and doors will open.”

On getting the job:

  • “My advice is to get a mixture of both: the wildlife core courses but make sure you are heavy on the habitat and land management. On top of all of it, make sure to get your human dimensions, however you can do that: with public speaking, professional writing. How do you communicate all of this to a public that is detached from the natural world.”
  • “Today when we look at applicants for an entry level biologist job, we are looking at first of all do they have the correct degree, and then secondly what kind of experience do they have?”

Wagner’s final thought was perfect. It’s what I do when I’m frustrated or in a rut and I highly suggest you do this right… now!

“Put your devices down, put on your hiking shoes, get outside, experience the outdoors without being connected and let that inspire you.”

Happy hiking!

Careers Advice, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Interviews, Organisational Management Conservation Jobs, United States