Featured Scientist

  • January 12, 2022
scientist holding fisher

Swanson while conducting research on fishers in the Sierra Nevada.

scientist holding fisher
With a deer fawn found in a residential area. The fawn was reunited with its mother.

scientist working mule deer capture
Swanson (middle) with CDFW staff during a mule deer capture near Lone Pine.

As CDFW’s unit biologist for San Luis Obispo County, Brandon Swanson is responsible for managing wildlife populations locally and responding to the public’s wildlife-related needs. His job can involve supporting safe human-wildlife interactions, increasing public awareness on wildlife issues, and managing CDFW-owned lands such as the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve and San Luis Obispo Wildlife Area. Swanson earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science from Portland State University where he also minored in geographic information systems (GIS). He began his professional career in 2016 with the U.S. Forest Service and joined CDFW in 2018 as a scientific aid. He was promoted to his current position as wildlife biologist in 2020.

What was the genesis of your career in wildlife biology?

My grandparents had a farm, so early on I got to see some of the wildlife issues that they dealt with – for example, protecting against livestock loss and agricultural damage. I did a lot of back-country camping and spent plenty of time in the wild. I was also a Boy Scout all the way through Eagle Scouts.

In school, science was always the subject I loved the most. I wandered away from science in my first few years of college and studied journalism and fine art. I ended up returning to science as a career because I saw a need for people to do the work and I felt it was the best way for me to make a positive impact.

Why did you want to be a biologist in San Luis Obispo County?

I’ve always loved weasels. They’ve always been one of my favorite families of animals. On the Central Coast we have a good number of badgers and long-tailed weasels.

I also wanted the opportunity to work with some of the charismatic megafauna like tule elk and pronghorn. They are amazing animals. Elk are an incredible story of coming back from the brink of extinction. I saw an opportunity to make a positive impact there.

What does your job consist of on a day-to-day basis?

Any issue that involves wildlife in San Luis Obispo County is my responsibility. I respond to human/wildlife issues like when a bear wanders into a more populated area. In those situations, we balance public safety with the welfare of the animal, and we work to get the animal back to its habitat. I also manage lands that are under CDFW’s responsibility. For example, right now we’re developing a water plan for the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve. Additionally, I work with different partners and agencies on collaborations and research. I’m currently working on various research projects with California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

You started your current job during the pandemic. What was that like?

It’s been weird. I haven’t met a lot of my colleagues in person. But I think I made the transition well.

Fieldwork was very limited at first, so that was a challenge. For example, we have a limited number of vehicles, and everyone had to have their own vehicle. It made things difficult logistically. We also had to take a lot of extra safety precautions, so there was additional emphasis on protocol. I also wanted to make sure I was representing the department well by taking all the necessary precautions. It’s been interesting.

Is there any aspect of your job that might surprise people?

My job involves a lot more screen time than you’d think. There are a lot of meetings, and there’s a lot of reading and data analysis. It’s not all cowboying around with wildlife. I wish it was sometimes, but there’s more to it. With more responsibility comes less field time. That’s just the way it is. It’s the bargain you have to make with yourself. The more responsibility you have, the more impact you can have.

What advice do you have for young people who are interested in a wildlife career?

Do as much volunteering as you can. Get a wide breadth of experience. Build up your skill base on practical things like being able to fix a fence or run a chain saw. Those practical skills are often overlooked. In this job, you’re not just doing science. You’re also doing labor outdoors, so you need to have some of those practical skills.

For me, studying GIS in college was extremely helpful. When I’m communicating with the public, using data can be a compelling way to get a point across. Being able to take data and make it make sense for people is invaluable.

A career in environmental science is not easy. It’s a crowded field. You just have to persist and stick it out. It’s hard some days. There are some days in the field where you’re wet and miserable and everything is awful. But looking back, those days can end up being your best memories. And any day that you get to see wildlife makes it all worth it.

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