Why Experiential Education Matters
Growing up, I was always passionate about wild animals, particularly mammalian carnivores, and took every moment to expand my knowledge and understanding of these creatures. This drive and passion led me to conducting population surveys for Eastern coyote and fisher during high school with support from the Gulf of Maine Institute and USFWS Parker River National Wildlife Refuge while in high school.
The observations from this study showcased how vital these carnivores were to maintaining a balanced ecosystem, yet they were faced with a great deal of negative perceptions by the human communities they lived alongside. My work on this project taught me early on the importance of environmental education and greatly strengthened my resolve to continue pursuing a career in wildlife conservation.
I graduated from Newburyport High School in 2017 and went to the University of Montana for its highly ranked wildlife biology program, the number one program in all of North America. As an undergraduate, I actively sought out additional opportunities to gain experience from faculty, graduate students, and the Student Chapter of the Wildlife Society. Combined with my experiences in high school from GOMI, this led me to being qualified for field technician jobs earlier than most of my peers. During the summers, I worked as a technician on projects for assessing populations of American black bears in Kentucky for University of Tennessee Knoxville and Canada lynx in Glacier National Park for Washington State University.
These experiences greatly developed my field skills in different environments while interacting with different human communities. In my junior year, I was awarded the Franke Sustainability Fellowship to participate in a field-intensive study abroad in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, living and working in the field and collaborating with local communities on conservation projects while earning academic credits.
Upon graduation, I continued working as a field technician on various projects. During summer 2021, I was a cougar kill site technician for a project with Utah State University in the Manti Mountains, and in 2022, a pronghorn habitat and vegetation sampling analysis technician for a project with the University of Montana in the central prairie. I am currently working as a furbearer technician for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in the Adirondack Mountains, conducting population surveys of fishers, weasels, and currently bobcats.
My work experience and education have intensified my passion for carnivore conservation. Large carnivores have been disappearing rapidly across much of their range, highlighting a global biodiversity crisis of great magnitude. These animals are key to maintaining healthy ecosystems by regulating prey populations and preventing herbivore habitat degradation, as well as combatting diseases and a multitude of other benefits for human and animal communities. My goal as a wildlife biologist is to reverse the catastrophic population decline of large predators through public education, government collaboration and rewilding projects aimed at reestablishing their former ranges.
While large carnivores once had extremely wide historic ranges, conserving and recovering their populations has become increasingly difficult. These are controversial species due to being perceived threats to livestock and human lives, which can cause rewilding efforts in several areas to be met with steep opposition. As time passes, wildlife conservation and restoration projects face another challenge from the public mind.
To quote Ross Barnett’s The Missing Lynx, “A child thinks that what they grow up with is the way things should be. Any extinctions that happen during their lifetime are deemed an unnatural tragedy. That person’s children will grow up never knowing the extinct species and its absence will be the new normal. Each generation of conservationists must fight against a recalibration of the norm”. As the human population grows and becomes increasingly urbanized, children have fewer opportunities to connect with the natural world and its species.
Fortunately, through my connections with GOMI, I was able to have experiences that strengthened my passion for wildlife and pushed me to pursue a career in conservation. To me, this highlights the importance of personal encounters with wildlife as a child to foster a greater sense of admiration and understanding of nature and ecology. Predators are often misunderstood by the public and difficult to observe due to their secretive nature. However, thanks to remote camera trap technology, it is possible to have a more reliable view of these animals’ lives in a more affordable manner, and it reveals a great deal more than the violence popular media almost exclusively portrays. By having a greater sense of understanding for how these animals live day-to-day, people can have a higher appreciation for their presence on the landscape and understand the importance of sharing the landscape with them. This can be further strengthened with a larger incorporation of ecology into early science curriculums and the use of camera traps within the classroom.
I am currently collaborating with GOMI to establish the use of student monitored camera traps on school grounds for science classes to showcase how effective experiential learning can be even at a young age to broaden understanding and increase student engagement in the sciences. Children have an innate curiosity, and if we are to promote coexistence with wildlife and balanced ecosystems, we must support that desire, not squander it. In this current time of immense biodiversity loss, these actions are more critical than ever before.
Dominic was a member of the Newburyport High School Gulf of Maine Institute (GOMI) Team from 2013-2017 where he developed and led a coyote monitoring project at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. He graduated from the University of Montana's Wildlife Biology Program in 2021 and has worked on several wildlife research projects across North America and studied abroad in Botswana's Okavango Delta. He is currently working as an Associate Wildlife Biologist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation doing carnivore work in the Adirondack Mountains.