Wildlife biologist, John Neill
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John Neill spends much of his time monitoring Great Salt Lake birds.

Name and position

John Neill, wildlife biologist, Division of Wildlife Resources

What do you do?

I AM AN AVIAN BIOLOGIST with the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, which monitors the aquatic and avian wildlife of Great Salt Lake (GSL) and its surrounding wetlands. GSL is an incredibly interesting and unique place to work. The juxtaposition of an enormous water body filled with seemingly inhospitable, saline water surrounded by a semiarid desert and rugged mountains often makes me feel like I'm in a Salvador Dali painting. This surreal landscape teems with an abundance of life, millions of birds, feasting on plentiful brine shrimp, brine flies, and many other invertebrates.

John Neill
As an avian biologist, John Neill visits Gunnison Island with others to survey the pelican colony. (Left to right: Jim Van Leeuwen, Chris Martin, and John Neill.)

I'm in charge of coordinating and conducting several different surveys of waterbirds (grebes, pelicans, cormorants, herons, egrets, ibis, waterfowl, rails, shorebirds, and gulls) that either breed at GSL or just stop by for some food to sustain themselves during their biannual migration. My work often entails traveling all around the lake from tracking the yearly population of the isolated American White Pelican colony on Gunnison Island, to counting colonies of White-faced Ibis and Franklin's Gulls in Willard Spur, to listening for secretive marsh birds, like Soras and Virginia Rails, in the early morning hours at Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area.

Even though many waterbirds fly south in the fall, I still do a fair amount of field work during the winter. Every October I conduct an aerial photo survey of the million-plus, brine shrimp eating Eared Grebes on GSL. I am also involved in some scientific studies such as researching the population, diet, and body condition of waterfowl wintering on the lake or studying the mercury concentrations in waterfowl.

I wanted to work outdoors and experience the incredible array of plants and animals within their individual landscapes.

The numerous chances for experiencing birds and their natural environment keep my work interesting. Although not as exciting as watching a flock of 10,000 phalaropes in a speeding airboat, many important aspects of my job include writing reports on monitoring efforts and research projects, participating in local and regional efforts to develop avian conservation plans and initiatives, and communicating to the public what natural and avian resources Great Salt Lake provides.

What kind of education is required for a job like yours?

Most positions within the Division of Wildlife Resources require completion of a bachelor's degree with a background in wildlife ecology, zoology, biology, or botany. Previous work experience in natural resources and a general appreciation and love of the outdoors is also beneficial. Wildlife biologists interact with the public quite often, so having good written and oral communication skills is important.

John Neill
John Neill often conducts research trips on Great Salt Lake.

What would you suggest for people considering a career as wildlife biologist?

Get involved with some aspect of wildlife resources to see if it is right for you. Walk out the door and go fishing or hunting. Participate in one of the many Watchable Wildlife possibilities that the Division of Wildlife Resources provides throughout the year. Visit the Great Salt Lake Nature Center or any other outdoor education center. Ask about volunteer possibilities at these nature centers or any of the nongovernmental organizations that work closely with wildlife. The Division of Wildlife Resources also has volunteer opportunities to pursue and offers many seasonal, temporary wildlife jobs for those eager to give it a test run. Whichever way you choose, get some experience with wildlife biology to see if you want to pursue it as a career.

Why did you become a wildlife biologist?

Ever since I was a kid going on camping trips to Yellowstone National Park, Arches National Park, or just in my backyard, I have had a fascination with the inner workings of the natural world. I knew then, I wanted to work outdoors and experience the incredible array of plants and animals within their individual landscapes.

In college I majored in environmental studies combined with geology. Although my education did not focus on wildlife, I applied for and accepted a seasonal position with the Division of Wildlife Resources. My experience assisting the avian biologist with the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program piqued my interest in birds and the Great Salt Lake, so I returned to school and completed a degree in biology. Eventually the position my former boss held, and the one I am currently in, opened up. Being a wildlife biologist provides me the opportunity to observe wildlife in their natural environment, something I truly enjoy.


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