Terri Weist is an environmental scientist who works out of the CDFW North Central Region office in Rancho Cordova. She is responsible for managing five wildlife areas located in Plumas and Sierra counties (Hallelujah Junction, Antelope Valley-Smithneck, Warner Valley, Crocker Meadows and Chilcoot) and conducting population studies on elk and deer in the North Central Region.
Weist got her first Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology from California State University, Long Beach and her second Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Management at Humboldt State University. After working as a seasonal aid for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife sampling bottomfish in Eureka, she pursued a Master’s of Science degree in Wildlife Management from Humboldt State University. The emphasis of her master’s thesis was studying habitat use by mule deer near Mt. Shasta.
She was hired permanently by CDFW in 1991. Her work has included surveying deer, elk and pronghorn from both fixed wing airplanes and helicopters, capturing deer, elk and bears (including entering bear dens to count the young and collar the females) and helping with Canada goose captures. The purpose of the captures is to monitor movement, populations and survival of the various species.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?
I grew up in southern California where people were abundant but wildlife was not. Experiencing nature was not readily available to me. But I was drawn to nature for that very reason. Nature was a mystery to me and I needed to learn more about wildlife and the environment.
What got you interested in working with wildlife?
My interest was inspired by the environmental revolution of the 1970s and the wildlife shows I watched as a young girl growing up -- particularly the show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” which was very popular at the time. I remembered watching (host) Marlin Perkins and thinking I wanted to do his job when I grew up! And I came pretty darn close.
Who or what brought you to CDFW? What inspires you to stay?
Opportunities to work with wild animals are rather limited to resource agencies, non-profit organizations or zoos. Once I went to graduate school and worked at a few seasonal jobs with CDFW, I realized that I found my niche. My inspiration to stay comes from the moments in my job when I’m helping wildlife, learning something new every day and the camaraderie I have with my colleagues.
What is the most rewarding project that you’ve worked on for CDFW?
When I was a graduate student at Humboldt State University, I studied mule deer in Northern California for my master’s thesis. This project was developed by Tim Burton, a longtime CDFW biologist in Siskiyou County. That project opened the door for me and prepared me for my life’s journey with CDFW.
If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?
I would love to conduct a study to determine fecundity (the ability to produce abundant healthy growth or offspring) and fawn recruitment (the young living long enough to become adults) on our migratory deer populations. This effort would help determine major causes of mortality, predation rates, disease and other factors that affect abundance of this important wildlife resource.
What is the best thing about being a wildlife scientist?
It’s interesting that when I tell people what I do, I often hear that they had wanted to pursue this career too or what a great job to have. I feel great pride in what I do and it can be quite exciting at times.
Any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?
First, be patient. It took me a long time and lots of seasonal jobs to get here. Take any job to get into the field -- don’t limit yourself. My first jobs were in fisheries, which helped me meet people and learn about the department. Learn to write well. Get an advanced degree because it helps advance critical thinking skills.
Is there a preconception about scientists you would like to dispel?
I prefer the term “biologist” over “scientist” for that very reason. Biologists study living organisms, their distribution and relationship to the species around them. The term is more descriptive of what we do.
What is it about the work you do that you’d most like us to know?
I think the scientific terminology often gets in the way of communicating with the average person. People can be intimidated by the jargon or suspicious of the message simply because we don’t explain it in terms that they understand. Conversely, people sometimes think we know everything about everything, which is so far from the truth. For example, why don’t I know how many bears live in Plumas County? While scientists strive for precision and accuracy, we do not have the resources (time or money) to get the answers we all want to know. Managing natural resources is more about managing people than wildlife since we have little to no control of the factors that drive populations (habitat, disease and predation).
What is the most challenging aspect of your career as an environmental scientist?
If I’m honest, it’s trying to educate the public regarding nuisance wildlife and convince them that they have to change their behavior to live with, not against, wildlife.
What is your favorite species to interact with or study?
Mule deer, because that was the animal I studied for two years for my master’s thesis and I still enjoy learning more about them.
What is a typical day like for you at work?
Some days I am in the office, responding to emails, answering phone calls from the public, updating data files, catching up on all the paperwork that piles up or responding to wildlife issues (such as nuisance complaints or dead animals). Other days, I’m in the field collecting data on a particular project or attending to our wildlife area needs (fencing, maintenance, etc.). On really good days, I get to capture and radio collar deer or elk to continue learning more about the species that we, as a department, are responsible for maintaining for future generations.