Brandon Garcia serves as a biological science technician in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Through the early years of high school, Brandon Garcia had not taken his education as seriously as his parents wanted. He wasn't doing badly, but he admits his mindset wasn't on pursuing any kind of further education after graduation.
But his parents, neither of whom attended college, made it abundantly clear after his sophomore year in high school that any success he planned to have in his life was going to be predicated on attending, and graduating from, college. They also strongly suggested he change his stance on the subject and start taking school much more seriously.
The message hit home for Garcia, who quit the Sachse High School football team, got involved in several clubs, became a class officer and improved his grade-point average and class ranking by the time he graduated. Now that he looks back, it's clear what his parents had in mind.
"Being that neither my father nor my mother attended college after graduating high school, they both instilled in me that not only is education important for improving oneself but also it's an important feat for a Hispanic person like myself to attend college and make something of myself," Garcia said.
After earning his degree from Texas Tech University, Garcia has turned his educational focus and love of outdoors into a career with the National Parks Service. As a biological science technician in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he helps protect and preserve the wildlife in the park and make sure all visitors have a safe and enjoyable experience.
"Every day is a learning experience; the work is never dull and I am always learning something new each day and each season I work in the park," said Garcia, who has worked for the park since shortly after graduating from Texas Tech in 2015. "I get to work with wildlife and hike everywhere in the park, and we get visitors from all over the world with diverse backgrounds. I get to converse with them, tell them about my job and some history about the park while they get a front-row sea,t seeing it for themselves."
Combining education and outdoors
Sachse is a suburb on the northeast corner of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, a community wedged in between Plano and Rockwall. It has plenty of opportunity for outdoor experiences, sitting just west of the northern part of Lake Ray Hubbard and just southwest of Lake Lavon.
Yet, growing up, Garcia was not heavily into hunting or fishing like many of his current National Parks Service co-workers. He occasionally went fishing with his grandfather and hunted once or twice, but never hiked or camped. His interest in the outdoors was spurred by watching Animal Planet, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.
So, as he entered college, pursuing a career in the outdoors never really crossed his mind. Instead, he pursued a career in dentistry. Then, an innocent walk through the Student Union Building West Plaza changed the direction of his life.
"I came across the Society for Conservation Biology/Wildlife and Fisheries club, which now is an official chapter of the wildlife society, hence the new club name, The Wildlife Society at Texas Tech," Garcia said. "I talked to some members about their organization and, soon after, I decided to join the club. Then, I spoke to a professor in College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources (CASNR). After that meeting with the professor about what degrees and job opportunities are out there in the field, I was sold and decided to switch my degree to wildlife biology."
Robert Cox, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources Management, remembers Garcia's enthusiasm and desire to be engaged in academic and research topics both inside and outside the classroom.
"It was clear from the beginning that he could have a great future in wildlife conservation and management if he wanted to pursue it," Cox said. "To see his success now is fantastic, and it isn't a surprise."
Garcia earned his bachelor's degree in wildlife biology from the Department of Natural Resources Management and, shortly after graduation, earned an internship with the National Parks Service working in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In between, he performed field work, volunteered and served internships with graduate and doctoral students, helping solidify his appreciation of the outdoors.
"The work actually being done by individuals who are having an impact may seem small at first glance, but it plays a larger role in the overall health of the environment," Garcia said. "From there, it's just been a roller coaster in doing all kinds of seasonal work, from working with waterfowl in Texas, wolf and deer in Minnesota, to bears and elk in the Smokies. From where I was in college to where I am at now, both professionally and personally, I have grown so much, and I am looking forward to what is to come in the future for me, my passion for the outdoors and working in the natural resources."
Garcia works on the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains, which split the North Carolina-Tennessee border between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina. As a biological science technician, he has numerous duties depending on the season.
His main involves working with elk, specifically calving season. Peak calving season, he says, is around the first two weeks of June with other births happening sporadically throughout the summer. Every week, he and another park employee check on the survival of elk calves after successfully capturing and outfitting them with a tracking collar.
Throughout the summer, they also collaborate with colleagues on the Tennessee side of the park with any bear management issues that arise. That involves hiking all throughout the park to install bear warning and closed signs at campsites or trails while also maintaining all bear cable systems in the backcountry. Campers and hikers can fasten their backpacks to these cables and hoist them in the air out of reach of the bears.
Come fall, Garcia and other park employees monitor elk during breeding season, helping volunteers and law enforcement who direct traffic and, when needed, scare the elks away from the roads. Their main goal is to keep the elk at bay and prevent them from charging vehicles or visitors who may get too close or might be in the way when a bull chases off another.
"When monitoring the elk, we try to safely maintain viewing opportunities and educate visitors about elk in the Great Smoky Mountains," Garcia said. "During all of this we are actively baiting feral pigs that are an invasive species to the park in hopes we can control the population while conducting active research on them."
Garcia said the most rewarding part of his job is that every day and every season provides a new learning experience. Not only is he involved in wildlife management, but he also participates in search and rescue operations for lost park visitors while maintaining his certification in wildland firefighting.
"Educating the visitors is one of the most rewarding aspect of my work here in the park," Garcia said.
There have been some scary moments, however and Garcia also has had close encounters with danger.
During his time as an intern with the park, he used his training to scare away a bear that had come too close to tourists in a car, coming within just a few yards of being face-to-face with the monstrous creature. Instead of running, he made himself as big as possible, yelled and waved his hands and chased the bear away with a paintball gun, preventing the beast from charging or injuring any of the tourists.
"It was definitely scary," Garcia told the Asheville Citizen-Times. "Anyone who tells you different is probably lying."
Having to protect some park visitors who, despite having the rules explained to them and being warned, still try to get too close to bears or elks or other form of wildlife, and put themselves and others in harm's way, is the hardest part of the job, Garcia said. He praised the majority of park visitors for following the rules but said a few bad apples can hurt everyone's experience.
"When visitors do that and a bear gets a food reward from a visitor," Garcia said, "the bear will more than likely go back to the area where it was fed and not only try to get food from other visitors, but there is a high chance that bear may become aggressive toward visitors trying to get food from them."
He said the wildlife division handles each bear encounter individually and will trap the bear, check it over and then either release the bear back where it was captured or relocate it to a different area of the park that is safer and where the bear is unlikely to repeat the behavior. In some cases, if a bear becomes too aggressive toward visitors or has repeatedly gotten into backpacks in a certain area, then the bear possibly could be euthanized, depending on the management team's decision.
When it comes to preventing close elk encounters, park management will try to discourage the elk from taking food from or letting people pet them by using adverse tactics the elk do not like, making it uncomfortable to approach visitors.
In his short time with the National Parks Service, Garcia has had several memorable moments:
The first time he successfully trapped a bear from a culvert. He had seen his co-workers set the trap and capture a bear from a culvert before, but this was the first time he had gone out and done it himself.
Having to hike through rhododendron thickets and climb a huge rock that had a natural water slide with the fisheries crew in order to electro-shock a stream for native brook trout to collect ecological data. It is adventures like this, he says, that really bond the parks crew.
Successfully tracking a cow elk to confirm it had given birth, then coming back the following day to look for it. When they found, captured and put a tracking collar on it, the calf began to squeal, and this brought several elk cows who surrounded the park workers. Only after successfully getting out of the situation did the park workers appreciate just how close they came to being trampled by an elk herd.
His most memorable moment, however, did not involve wildlife management, but instead a search and rescue mission in the Swag and Purchase Knob area on the east side of the park that lasted several days.
"I had been out every day of the search, and on the fifth day, after the initial search
of the day took place, we had come back to incident command to rest and possibly head
back out," Garcia said. "I let my crew know I was done for the day and was heading
home since I was somewhat worn out and another person in wildlife was taking my place
the next day if we were unsuccessful that day. Luckily, as I was heading home, I got
a text that they had a viable lead on the individual and were heading out to confirm
The teams that had gone out were able to find the individual alive and were bringing him back."
Establishing the foundation
It's quite a circuitous route from Sachse to Texas Tech to the Smoky Mountains, and it wasn't always a straight path for Garcia. But it is a path that has led him to where he wants to be – outdoors.
He credited his time at Texas Tech with helping set him on that path to a rewarding career by providing him with outreach and educational opportunities available throughout CASNR.
"Anytime I had questions about my field and any advice I sought, the faculty and graduate students were always there," Garcia said.
Garcia credited Cox, who became his adviser, with not only directing him toward a degree in wildlife biology but becoming a mentor who was available regularly to talk about school, life or whatever else came up. He credited associate professor Kerry Griffis-Kyle and former assistant professor Robin Verble-Pearson with having a big impact on his education.
Fellow student Masi Serna, who earned her bachelor's degree from Texas Tech in 2013 in environmental conservation of natural resources an is now and educator with the East Foundation, helped guide him in the first year after he changed majors.
"Another way Texas Tech helped me prepare for my career was the fact we had organizations I was able to join and become an active member in, as well as individuals from a variety of professions in the field who would come out and speak to us about their job and how they got there," Garcia said.
Increasing Hispanic outdoor participation
Knowing he wasn't much of an outdoorsy person growing up, Garcia is well aware of the low number of Hispanics either in or pursuing careers in the outdoors. Garcia believes this could be solved if the park provided more outreach, such as inviting organizations from diverse backgrounds and from all ages to come to the park and see what people like him do on a daily basis.
"I know from firsthand experience that the outdoors was not an everyday thing," Garcia said. "I think just having a taste of the outdoors can shed a new light for an individual. It does not have to be what I do particularly, but just any outdoor activity will entice something to someone. It definitely left its mark on me, and I don't see myself turning back."
While numbers are low, he said he has noticed a change for the better with an increase in both gender and racial diversity in the field. He has begun taking a more active role in promoting diversity in the outdoors, not only for Hispanics but for people of all ethnicities.
As far as the what the future holds for him, Garcia said that once he secures a full-time job as a wildlife biologist, he would like to pursue a doctoral degree in a related field. He also would like to pursue a job with the government and have a hand in helping shape policies for wildlife and the environment.
"To me, at least, that is where one can make a notable difference for the environment," Garcia said.