After years of a diminishing program, The Wildlife Society at Davis College is now a national power and national champion.
The monthly meetings are only a small part of Texas Tech's TWS chapter. The calendar for the group is littered with experiences. During the last two years, the group has participated in multiple deer captures, a bighorn capture and a turkey capture, all working hands-on with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) or similar organizations along the way.
An annual state conference and events on campus give students the chance to present their research and posters. Fundraisers like the annual wild game dinner, where students and sponsors put on a pot-luck style meal with meats ranging from elk and pronghorn to mealworms, are student-led and help pay for travel and other expenses.
And they excel at all of it.
“They're really outstanding,” said Shawn Gray, a Texas Tech alumnus and the mule deer and pronghorn program leader at TPWD who was on campus earlier this semester to speak to students.
Gray has done hands-on work with many TWS students in recent years, including the club on TPWD research projects all over Texas.
This wasn't always the case for TWS at Texas Tech.
Gray graduated from Texas Tech in 1999 and said the program had fallen into disarray a couple of years after he left.
As recently as 2015, TWS meetings were an afterthought, drawing 10 students on a good night, and that was the standard for most of the 2000s.
“When I was here, we usually had about 10 active members,” remembered Jena Moon, the upper gulf coast zone biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who graduated from Texas Tech with a bachelor's degree in 2002 and went on to earn a master's degree from Texas Tech in 2004. “There were more on the roll, of course, but probably only 10 or so actually stayed involved in the program.
“If you wanted to get exposed to things it wasn't necessarily through the club. I feel like I got a lot of field exposure by reaching out to professors and expressing interest, and then they would help line things up. But it's nothing like it is now where the club offers these chances to go on captures as a group.”
Grisham, an associate professor in the Davis College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, earned his doctorate at Texas Tech in 2012 and focuses his research on game and non-game bird species in the context of a changing climate.
Conway, the Bricker Endowed Chair in Wildlife Management and chair of the Department of Natural Resources Management, also earned his doctorate from Texas Tech and returned to Lubbock following a 12-year stint as a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University.
Arriving at Texas Tech at around the same time, both saw the need to rebuild The Wildlife Society and decided to take it on.
“The secret, if you really want to rebuild a program the way we have, is you have to have engaged faculty who want to contribute,” Grisham said. “If you don't have that it'll fall apart.”
Grisham and Conway are certainly engaged.
“It was just a very supportive and comfortable environment, and they both strove to make it that way,” said Charlotte Wilson, a former Texas Tech TWS officer who now works for Quail Forever. “I think my biggest takeaway is that they actually care about their students. They're going to do everything they can to prepare you for the workforce and for getting a job.”
Wilson came to Texas Tech in 2015 and was part of TWS when Conway and Grisham took it over. In her view, the two professors formed the foundation on which the chapter's success is built.
“Grisham and Conway were always at those meetings, always there,” she said. “I remember one of my first meetings, Grisham announced that he was getting funding for a technician job. And I ended up getting my first technician job from going to those meetings and getting to know people.
“I mostly met with Dr. Conway at first because he was my adviser. So anytime I had any questions about the club or anything else, I would typically go to him. And I remember our first alumni fundraiser was at Grisham's house, in his backyard. They were very involved in helping us get it off the ground.”
It didn't take long for the program to get back on its feet.
Micah Rainey, a former TWS officer who is now a student at Texas Tech's School of Veterinary Medicine in Amarillo, was part of the group that helped take the program to an even higher level.
One of the key elements to the program's resurgence was a student-led push for fundraisers, and Rainey credits Grisham and Conway with showing them how to do it.
“Learning how to fundraise really came from Dr. Grisham and Dr. Conway,” she explained. “When they started with TWS they started the game dinner tradition. Each year after that we really worked on building it up. When I came in as an officer we were doing the fourth or fifth annual game dinner, so we had built it from a small little thing to this huge event.”
As students took ownership and learned how to manage the chapter, fundraisers went from being held in Grisham's backyard to needing spaces like the National Ranching Heritage Center, the American Windmill Museum and the Dairy Barn to house them.
In short order, the club was not only back on its feet but was being recognized for producing quality students, and the money raised was creating opportunities for those students to attend more conferences and hands-on wildlife captures.
“The reality is we were building a culture,” Conway explained. “And it has to start from the students. You can't have that from the top down.”
With guidance from Grisham and Conway, the students of Texas Tech's TWS chapter developed a reputation as reliable, knowledgeable and well-trained wildlife professionals, earning them invitations to work with some of the top wildlife figures in the country.
“Our students were able to volunteer for multiple mule deer captures in collaboration with Shawn Gray, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Borderlands Research Institute,” Rainey said. “Those opportunities allowed many of our members to get hands-on experiences with wildlife for the first time in their careers.”
As Moon explained, the students' work speaks for itself.
“We keep coming back and working with them because of the quality of the students and the quality of work they turn out,” Moon said. “We know we can go back to them and get a great product every time.”
“We never had a problem with them whatsoever,” he said. “The students do a great job and several of them are already working for TPWD.”
Recognition came from The Wildlife Society at a wider level as well.
An international nonprofit promoting wildlife stewardship through science and education, TWS has 10 student chapters across Texas and nearly 150 nationwide.
At the Texas TWS conference each year the top student chapter and the top student member of the statewide organization are recognized.
Rainey started a tradition of Texas Tech students being named Texas Chapter Student of the Year in 2020.
“I had kind of forgotten about that,” Rainey said with a laugh, before explaining that she was more focused on the performance of the Texas Tech student group at the event. “I was just so excited and so proud to see the hours of work leading up to that conference paying off with our members showing their professionalism and ability to network. I remember a lot of talk about how our students came in and knew what to do. The members were working hard, the officer team was really working hard.
“Dr. Grisham and Dr. Conway were really teaching us about professionalism and how to network. And honestly, that's one of my favorite things about the whole experience.”
Sophie Morris followed that up as Student of the Year in 2021, and in 2022 Lainey Taylor made it three in a row.
The 2022 Texas Tech TWS chapter took the recognition up another notch. At the state conference the students from Texas Tech were named State Chapter of the Year, but they weren't done there.
They went on to capture the National Chapter of the Year award at The Wildlife Society national conference in Spokane, Washington, in November.
For Rainey, the announcement validated the work she and others had spent years doing.
“I'm not going to lie to you, when I saw that being announced I cried some happy tears,” she said. “I am so excited about the fact Texas Tech is becoming one of the top wildlife programs in the nation.”
The awards also are a testament to the dedication of Grisham and Conway, though they refuse to take much credit for it.
“The students have to have that pride, that sense of accomplishment in what they're doing,” Grisham said. “We just want to support them and provide a vision and they kind of do the rest.”
“What the students do from year to year, they build on what came before and it becomes tradition,” Conway explained. “It becomes our culture and it becomes the norm.
“We just help facilitate that.”