“It’s hard to say we’re the leaders in wildlife and habitat conservation if we don’t keep pace with the latest understanding of how the natural world works” says Noah Kahn, performance manager for the National Wildlife Refuge System.

That is one reason a change was made to include conservation biology in the education requirements for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees entering the 0485 wildlife refuge management job series, according to Kahn.

The change—made by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in consultation with the Service—was announced in a late–January Director’s memo to all employees.

“The previous requirement for nine semester hours of botany is now reduced to three semester hours of botany, and a new requirement for three semester hours of conservation biology has been added,” the memo stated. “This change has no effect on current 0485 employees and does not require existing refuge managers to receive additional training.”

Approximately 600 employees are in the 0485 series, Kahn says—most of them refuge managers or wildlife refuge specialists.

“Conservation biology as a discipline really became mainstream and widely accepted 15–20 years ago, but our education requirements haven’t changed in over 20 years,” Kahn says. “I think that this progressive change recognizes that if national wildlife refuges are going to live up to their potential to conserve species across large landscapes, then it’s important to have people trained in that sort of thinking.”

The field of conservation biology integrates numerous individual academic disciplines: wildlife biology, population genetics and ecology, natural resource management and even economics. It combines those subjects and brings their synthesis to bear when protecting species, habitats, ecosystems and global biodiversity. Conservation biology takes “a more holistic view of wildlife conservation,” Kahn says.

Michael Soule, a University of California, Santa Cruz, professor emeritus who is considered the father of conservation biology, recently compared his field to cancer biology. In an interview with Izilwane, a nonprofit organization that focuses on how humans affect biodiversity loss, Soule said:

“A physician or public health professional will say that cancer biology is all of the fields that might be relevant for curing cancer. It involves epidemiology, pharmacology, surgery, anesthesia, molecular biology, biochemistry and counseling. There are social sciences involved as well as biological and medical sciences … The same thing applies to conservation biology—it comprises research and theories from many fields.”

The Service’s 0485 series education requirement change “will probably help give an extra jolt to a movement that is already underway in many areas, which is a steady shift in refuge management toward considerations of broader suites of critters, landscape–level conservation and restoration of natural processes, where possible,” Kahn says.

“Rather than thinking at the patch size,” Kahn says, conservation biology considers landscape–level habitat connectivity “essential, not just as a nice thing to do but as essential, if we want to keep our refuges healthy for the future.” Larry Williams, chief of the Refuge System Division of Budget, Performance and Workforce, acknowledges there has been debate and confusion over the change. “A small minority of people saw this as lowering the bar on education requirements for refuge managers” he says, but that initial concern has been worked through.

“We simply wanted to update the requirements to include this modern branch of biology that focuses on conserving species and populations in a fragmented landscape. Knowing how to best deliver conservation in a fragmented landscape is increasingly important to refuge managers.” There also has been confusion about what specific college courses fulfill the conservation biology requirement.

The division is working with the regions to agree on which courses meet the new requirement.

The intent over the long term, says Kahn, “is to shape our workforce in a more progressive direction.”

For answers to frequently asked questions about the education requirement change, go to: http://www.fws.gov/refuges/about/careers.html. For information about Michael Soule and conservation biology in general, go to http://www.michaelsoule.com/.