Illinois Department of Natural Resources
May 2020
May 1, 2020

Meet the Staff: Ben Williams, IDNR Urban Waterfowl Project Manager

By Benjamin Williams

Photos courtesy of the author.

My name is Ben Williams and I’m the new Urban Waterfowl Project Manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. In this role I help manage urban waterfowl populations and provide assistance to the public in dealing with urban waterfowl conflicts (primarily Canada geese). At the state level, I take part in aerial and ground waterfowl counts, assist with setting waterfowl hunting regulations and seasons, and help with overall waterfowl research, management, and planning across Illinois. Besides waterfowl, I also am responsible for permitting, surveying and management of many other migratory bird species. I also serve as the Illinois State Representative on the Mississippi Flyway Non-Game Technical Section.

One question that I frequently get asked by the public, especially youngsters interested in a career in natural resource management, is what technical training is required to hold a position such as mine.

A biologist holds up a live drake wood-duck in one hand and a live hen wood-duck in another. In the background is a laboratory where the biologist is conducting research.

Originally from Minnesota, I completed my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Minnesota, Crookston where I double majored in wildlife management and natural resources management. While in Crookston, I spent summers working for the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in North Dakota and the U.S. Forest Service in Wisconsin. After graduating, I took a position with the National Audubon Society in Fargo, North Dakota before moving to Illinois in 2015 to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign studying waterfowl. Following my graduate studies, I continued researching waterfowl and shorebirds with the Illinois Natural History Survey. In August of 2019 I was hired by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning more about this state’s natural resources and contributing to the Wetlands and Waterfowl Program.

I’m also asked by young professionals if I have any advice for budding biologists. Although each individual is different, here are some general tips to succeed in building a career centered around natural resources and wildlife. This is by no means a comprehensive list, so be sure to talk with anyone and everyone and get as much advice as you can.

Explore. Read. Learn. Most people with an interest in natural resources or wildlife careers already have a love of the outdoors. Foster that. Get outside and explore someplace new. Pay attention to things in the natural world. Read books and magazines. Check out your local newspaper’s outdoor page or listen to a podcast. And when it comes to finding the right college program, find a good fit for you. There are many schools throughout the country with wonderful natural resources programs, so figure out where you can learn best. Coming from a large high school, I appreciated the small, close community of the University of Minnesota, Crookston (UMC). The faculty and staff at UMC provided all the classes and experiences that laid the foundation for my career in this field. Never stop exploring, reading or learning.

A biologist in camouflage gear holds a live duck  while kneeling in waders in a wetland. The biologist is surrounded by water. Trees appear in the far background.

Get in The Game. As soon as you can, start volunteering and working in the field. This can be as simple as joining clubs, going on field trips, and building your skillsets. Take advantage of clubs as they are a great way to meet people with similar outdoor interests and can be opportunities to learn new skills. The more you learn, the more marketable you’ll be for summer jobs and internships. At UMC we were encouraged to begin working seasonal jobs in the summers and were required to complete at least one internship before graduating. This helped students get their foot in the door with agencies and was an excellent way to jumpstart a career after college.

Be Mobile. There are many different seasonal, temporary and permanent jobs available all over the country and I encourage you to be willing to travel to new places and work with new people. You can work in new states, new ecosystems and with new agencies. You’ll be able to expand your network, gain new skills and build your resume. Sometimes people have a location where they want to end up but forget that their career path may not be linear. Often, people will move to many different locations, gathering skills and experiences, until the opportunity arises to move back home or somewhere that they really want to work. You may even find the right job or situation in a place you never expected. I’ve worked across four different states with three different agencies, two universities and a non-profit organization. All those stops have better prepared me for the job I have today. Don’t be afraid to go somewhere new.

Find Your Passion. The more you try different things, the closer you’ll be to figuring out what you want to do with your career. For me, I learned early on I had a passion for waterfowl and that has directed my career ever since. There are plenty of different aspects to natural resources, including wildlife, fisheries, forestry, land management, science and research, law enforcement, and so many more. Don’t be afraid to try a few different seasonal positions to figure out what you’re passionate about. Find something that makes you excited to go into work every day and makes you feel like you’re making a difference.

Ben Williams is from Excelsior, Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota Crookston with a Bachelor’s of Science in Wildlife Management. He worked for Audubon Dakota, a branch of the National Audubon Society, doing bird conservation work throughout the Dakotas until 2015 when he began his Wabash River waterfowl research with the Illinois Natural History Survey and the University of Illinois as part of his Master’s of Science in Natural Resources and Environmental Science. He currently serves as the Urban Waterfowl Project Manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. An avid hunter, fisherman, camper and outdoorsman, he spends his free time exploring and enjoying nature.