Pay attention, high schoolers and parents. Students who love the outdoors and plan to continue their education after graduation will have a new option for a college degree rooted in the outdoors at Auburn University in 2019.
The undergraduate degree will be in wildlife enterprise management with training in wildlife sciences, business and hospitality. Auburn professors Steve Ditchkoff and Mark Smith collaborated on developing the major in an effort to fill a need in the outdoors community that doesn’t require a wildlife biologist degree.
Heather Crozier, director of development at the Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, unveiled the program to outdoor writers recently at the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association Conference in Florence, South Carolina.
Outdoor recreation generates about a $14 billion impact on the Alabama economy and about $887 billion nationwide. Outdoors-related businesses and companies support 135,000 jobs in Alabama.
“Our faculty did some surveys, and they found that in a 250-mile radius of Auburn that there are 1,000 businesses that are wildlife enterprise-related,” Crozier said. “This major will give us a unique skillset for that industry. The students will also get a minor in business so they will understand basic business principles.”
Crozier said the new degree program will utilize the facilities connected to Auburn.
The Deer Lab is a 400-plus-acre facility near Auburn at Camp Hill where researchers study the genetics and physiology of white-tailed deer. The Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center near Andalusia gives students hands-on instruction in forestry, wildlife and natural resources management.
The Kreher Preserve and Nature Center on the outskirts of Auburn provides an outdoors venue for a variety of nature programs.
Crozier said only one other college, Kansas State, offers a similar degree with about 100 students in that program annually.
“When our students graduate with a wildlife enterprise management degree, we hope they will apply the principles of wildlife enterprise, understand and apply the ecological principles in conservation biology and eco-tourism and be a well-rounded student in hospitality and understand customer service in food and beverage production and lodging,” Crozier said.
“They will have the skillset to be able to run a business as well as be able to effectively market and advertise the wildlife- and outdoor-based enterprise.”
This curriculum will have a wildlife core, with about 60 percent of the courses in wildlife sciences and about 40 percent in business and hospitality.
“Most of our students who go to work for fish and wildlife departments are wildlife sciences majors and end up being wildlife biologists,” Crozier said. “The students in the new program will not be wildlife biologists.”
Crozier said the graduates in the new degree can pursue jobs at hunting lodges, shooting facilities, fishing resorts as well as guide services and outdoor sport/adventure promotions.
“Dr. Ditchkoff and Dr. Smith were talking with people in the industry, and they kept hearing, ‘We need students who understand business, who understand customer expectations and who know about wildlife,’” she said.
“What they learned was several of the outfitters they talked to were going to colleges and universities and recruiting wildlife students and teaching them about hospitality and business. Or, they were recruiting hospitality and business students and teaching them about wildlife.
“The industry said it would really be nice if you could develop this specific product. We feel like there is a market for it. They started exploring and realized how many outdoor-enterprise businesses there were in that 250-mile radius of Auburn. They realized, hey, there really is a niche for this type of degree.
“With Kansas State being the only other place that offered a similar program, we just felt like we could fill that need.”
Pam Swanner of Alabama Black Belt Adventures agrees wholeheartedly.
“The Black Belt region has a rich history in the traditions of hunting and fishing,” Swanner said. “It’s a natural fit that Auburn would create a unique degree program to provide a skilled workforce trained in land management, business and hospitality.
“At Auburn’s back door are more than 50 outfitters that can provide opportunities for student internships.
“Alabama Black Belt Adventures is partnering with AU’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences to assist in organizing internship placement in the Black Belt region.
“We’re also introducing the faculty to the industry’s many product companies and other organizations that have an interest in supporting such a worthwhile program with scholarship funds to ensure a prosperous future for our industry.”
Crozier said if you venture outside that 250-mile radius, the possibilities become considerably greater. She said 40 students currently enrolled at Auburn are waiting to pursue the new degree, and she expects the program will eventually graduate between 100 and 150 annually.
“Just think about international,” she said. “It’s amazing how many opportunities are out there.
“We expect these students to not only go to work for hunting lodges, fishing lodges and shooting facilities, but also do safaris in Africa, outdoor adventures anywhere in the world or become representatives for outdoors companies. This is an extremely broad major that does not limit our students to a specific area.
“We’re expecting the demand for this major to blossom and really increase.”
Crozier said an internship is not a part of the curriculum, but it is highly suggested so that the students who go into this major will get some industry experience.
“Dr. Ditchkoff and Dr. Smith are putting together a list of industry contacts who are looking for interns,” she said. “It will be up to the student to go find their internship. If we have a company or business that wants to interview students, we will provide a place to do that and line the students up to interview.”
Crozier said the faculty plans to reach out to the outdoors industry to identify what might be a current need or emerging need that could become an area of focus or to adjust the curriculum.
“Being a brand new program, we do have some needs. We need to be able to create partnerships with industry so that our students have places and opportunities to intern,” she said.
“We’re looking for corporate sponsorships. Academic scholarships attract your best and brightest students. We need mentors, speakers for classes, places to take students for field tours, travel stipends for our students and faculty.”
Prospective students and parents can visit sfws.auburn.edu for more information or call recruiter Wendy Franklin in the student services office at 334-844-1001.