Wildlife Forensic Scientist

Wildlife forensic scientist at work in a lab
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Wildlife forensic scientists analyze biological samples that have been collected as evidence.

Duties

The primary duty of a wildlife forensic scientist is to conduct laboratory analysis of samples collected as evidence in cases that involve wildlife. This lab analysis may include evaluation of samples involved in cases of poaching, smuggling, animal cruelty, bioterrorism, oil spills, or other ecological disasters.

After analyzing the evidence and writing a report, a forensic scientist may be called to testify in a court as an expert witness.

Wildlife forensic scientists must be prepared to develop new techniques and approaches when they are asked to examine unusual or unique samples. They must also comply with many established guidelines and regulations that govern the proper testing and handling of samples.

Wildlife forensic scientists work in conjunction with wildlife inspectors, fish and game wardens, police officers, and others who collect evidence in cases involving wildlife. While they generally leave collection of samples in the field to the previously mentioned professionals, a wildlife forensic scientist may be called out to assist field work on occasion. Most of their work, however, is conducted in a laboratory setting. A standard 40 hour work week allows forensic scientists to keep regular office hours.

Career Options

Wildlife forensic scientists may find work with a variety of employers including federal, state, and local government agencies.

The techniques utilized during wildlife forensic work are also readily transferable to other related areas, such as human forensic science or other careers involving laboratory analysis.

Education & Training

A background in forensic science, biology, chemistry, biochemistry, animal science, or a related field is preferable for those seeking positions in this field. A Bachelor of Science degree is the minimum educational requirement for careers in forensic science, and many wildlife forensic scientists have earned more advanced degrees (Masters or PhD). As with most career paths, individuals with advanced education and training have access to the best job prospects.

Wildlife forensic scientists should also have excellent analytical skills, a good working knowledge of how to use lab equipment, and experience with computer-based technology. An impressive assortment of laboratory equipment is necessary for specimen analysis, and the forensic scientist must know the proper use of each machine and the extent of its capabilities.

The Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (SWFS) offers professional certification to wildlife forensic scientists who meet the group’s certification criteria. Applicants must have a B.S. in a relevant field and at least one year of casework experience to qualify for the SWFS certification process. Additionally, the applicant must pass a proficiency exam, complete a performance evaluation, and provide a letter of recommendation from a supervisor in the field.

Salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide specific salary information on wildlife forensic scientists, but it does collect data for the more general category of forensic science technicians. During the survey conducted in 2014, the median salary for forensic science technicians was $55,360 per year ($26.61 per hour). The lowest paid ten percent of all forensic science technicians earned less than $33,610 per year, while the highest paid ten percent of all forensic science technicians earned more than $91,400 per year.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, federal employees in wildlife forensic science positions are compensated on the basis of the federal pay scale. These salaries are comparable to the data provided by the BLS in its general forensic science technician category.

New hires begin their federal careers at the GS-7 pay grade (which ranged from $35,000 to $45,000 per year in 2016) and experienced senior level scientists can reach the GS-13 pay grade (ranging from $73,846 to $95,998 annually in 2016).

Federal employees receive many additional benefits in addition to basic salary including vacation and sick days, paid holidays, access to federal retirement plan options, and access to a variety of health insurance plans.

Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the growth for forensic science technician careers will increase at a rate of 27 percent over the decade from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all positions in the most recent BLS study. Candidates with advanced experience and education will enjoy the strongest job prospects in the field of wildlife forensic science.

The illegal wildlife trade will continue to drive the need for qualified wildlife forensic scientists to evaluate seized samples and appear in court cases as expert witnesses.