Wildlife Ecologist Combines Career with Passion for Working with People & Agriculture
Many people dream of finding a way to combine their passions into a meaningful and enjoyable career. Among those who attempt this feat, some are successful while others fail. But for some like wildlife ecologist Kent Reeves, it just works out that way.
“Being an outdoorsman has always been my passion,” says Reeves. “And, I’ve always said follow your passion. Do something you’re going to enjoy so that it doesn’t feel like work. I think that’s the main thing.”
Reeves, now a private consultant on wildlife and rangeland ecology through his firm The Whole Picture Consulting, LLC, got his start after college working in the outdoors through wildlife research and packing. He often jests he’s received two educations, one from a university and the other from the back of a horse.
This dual education started in the early 1970s when Reeves left central California for the state’s northern coast to study wildlife ecology and natural resource management at Humboldt State University in Arcata. Living on a ranch while attending school, he was around cattle and horses on a daily basis. He also grew around those things. During college, he also started riding rodeo, picked up photography as a hobby, and later, would fall in love with and become an active participant in the packing and outfitting world after helping out some friends on a deer hunting pack trip one fall.
In time, Reeves would also discover he had a talent and passion for working with people.
“My major professor, Archie Mossman, recognized right away one of my main strengths was my ability to get along with a broad base of people,” says Reeves. “But back then, the only jobs for that kind of thing were in a public relations or communications capacity with a wildlife agency. That didn’t appeal to me, so I started out doing research instead. I had no idea I was going to eventually end up doing so much work with people.”
Reeves’ wildlife research experience over the years has been diverse including, among many other adventures, examining the diet and life of river otters, hunting and tranquilizing mountain lions to place radio collars on them, studying alligators and panthers in the Florida Everglades, and conducting studies on spotted owls and goshawks for the U.S. Forest Service.
“Holding a tranquilized mountain lion in your lap is pretty wild,” says Reeves. “Capturing large alligators in the Florida Everglades was even more so. We didn’t tranquilize those guys. You had to physically restrain them.”
Reeves notes his experience in packing and outfitting also helped him in his wildlife ecology work.
“It helped me understand more about nature in a different perspective and the relationships between people and the land,” says Reeves. “For example, the fact that packing with horses and mules is still part of our National Parks and Forests for access, especially with Wilderness Areas.”
On a side note, Reeves says he hopes to experiment with using electric fencing with horses and mules in the backcountry as a way to manage grazing. He’s currently pursuing discussions with both outfitters and the U.S. Forest Service to make that possible.
In 1979, Mossman introduced Reeves to Allan Savory, well-known progenitor of the holistic management philosophy. Then in the 1980s, he volunteered to work and learn with Savory’s staff in New Mexico. This led to a job on a New Mexico ranch where they were attempting to practice holistic management in the early days.
“I was working as a cowboy at the ranch,” says Reeves. “We were working in the context of biological planned grazing on a 27,000-acre land base broken up into cells. I got to be trained with the staff and then practice the concepts on a working ranch.”
Holistic thinking, Reeves notes, just made sense to him scientifically from an ecologist’s perspective.
“It’s about understanding the relationships of the animals and people to the land and to one another,” says Reeves.
Reeves worked full time for Holistic Management International in 1992. However, he’d eventually again return to wildlife ecology working as a consultant until 1997 and then as a wildlife biologist for East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) in Oakland, CA from 1997 to 2007. At EBMUD, Reeves did some interesting things, including using electric fencing to protect fish hatchery raceways from raccoons, otters, and minks.
Among those most successful of his experiences at EBMUD, though, Reeves points out was helping to implement the Lower Mokelumne River Watershed Stewardship Plan that started in 1998 and culminated in a Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement in 2006. This plan was the first of its kind in California. Local agricultural producers were instrumental in the plan's development, noted Reeves.
“It’s still there and has kept going since I’ve gone,” says Reeves. “That’s another way to measure success if whatever you develop doesn’t go away because you do.”
After EBMUD, Reeves served in two more formal roles in natural resource management. In 2012, he started his own consulting business which he currently runs today. While he still does quite a bit of wildlife work and the occasional pack trip, Reeves’ work now focuses more on people, and more specifically, farmers and ranchers, and their relationships with wildlife and the landscapes they manage.
“Now I devote a lot of my energy to the Rancher-to-Rancher Network,” says Reeves.
The Rancher-to-Rancher Project (R2R), Reeves explains, was started by himself and Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition, along with ranchers Joe Morris, Richard King, and Rob Rutherford. The project is supported by 11th Hour Project, Regenerative Agriculture, the TomKat Ranch Education Foundation, and the Paicines Ranch.
R2R's goal, Reeves describes, is to act as a communication network and forum for sharing ideas between those in the California ranching community. What makes R2R different, he says, is this project gets back to the importance of listening, networking, and communicating.
Ranchers who participate in R2R create demonstration sites on their property to answer questions they have. These questions might include how to increase native grass populations on a site or what’s the best way to mitigate a ground squirrel overpopulation problem. The ranchers then host a learning day for their demo sites. In the beginning, Reeves notes, these learning days were by invitation only from one rancher to another to help attendees feel more comfortable to ask questions and talk.
“The idea of the learning day is to open up the discussion so that while you are learning yourself, you are also learning from others who get to see it and they might have a different perspective,” says Reeves. “We come in not as the expert, but as a partner in the process.”
Currently, R2R is only open to California ranchers. Those interested in the project can learn more on the Soil Carbon Coalition website.
Going forward, Reeves plans to continue looking for ways to improve, diversify, and possibly even grow the R2R Network. Most importantly, though, Reeves says he wants to keep helping ranchers better understand ecosystem processes and functions.
“I’ll always be trying to find ways to do that better and get more people involved,” says Reeves. “It may seem slow, but it’s still one more rancher each time.”
Learn more about Reeves and his work on his website, Cowboy Conservation.