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Love of Fishing was the Path to Science Career

Published on September 28, 2020

As a kid he spent a lot of time outside in nature fishing with his family. His uncle, an aquatic biologist, explained to him he could study the river for a living. Ever since then Zach Morris had a goal of turning his love of fishing into a career. 

Missouri’s natural beauty

Morris grew up in Nixa, Missouri exploring the unique places of his home state that allotted him great resources to study wildlife. The days spent fishing with his uncle in the beautiful Missouri rivers taught Morris about ecology and what could endanger fish populations in the river. These outings turned into conversations about a wildlife biology education. His uncle didn't just teach him how to fish, but taught him and his sister about the fish, what the fish ate, and how to create healthy fish populations by making sure that the water quality is good enough to support the food they need.

Ecology is a very broad topic, Morris said, that includes wildlife management, protecting, conserving and possibly restoring threatened and endangered species. There’s also a focus on game species, providing good hunting and fishing opportunities. 

“There are two sides of it,” he explained. “There’s the wildlife management folks who work for land trusts or government agencies that hold conservation grounds and try to manage it to enhance wildlife populations. The other is the research side, asking how do we improve and protect our natural resources, including fish and wildlife resources?” 

He chose to earn a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology from Missouri State University (MSU) studying aquatics and a master’s degree in natural resource science and management with a concentration in fisheries and wildlife from the University of Missouri (MU). 

Education becomes a career

The education and training he received at MSU and MU has been invaluable to his career. The most valuable experience for Morris was learning communication and writing skills and advocating for himself along with giving him tools to coordinate with agencies in his work. 

It’s rewarding to get a plan approved, he said, or when we go back and forth with agency regulators about what types of activities we'd like to do for habitat restoration. The process of researching and learning complicated technical communication was the “most valuable thing that I got from writing a thesis,” he said. He learned how to start a project from scratch along with advocating for the work and research that he wanted to do.  

Morris is currently the lead biologist for Mitico, an environment services company that assists in mitigation of environmental impacts. “Mitigation essentially provides an environmental offset for impacts that development creates, for example, if you have to fill in a wetland to build a parking lot. The authority under the Clean Water Act says you can't do that without offsetting it, so developers come to our company and pay us to restore wetland or stream habitats to offset their development impact,” he said. 

Under the Clean Water Act, Morris performs mitigation by creating and writing a plan and then working to get that plan approved and permitted by various agencies that are involved in the mitigation program. This includes finding a site by trying to work with private landowners or working with their partners to acquire the site and working with an engineer to develop a plan for the restoration elements. 

A lot of his time is spent writing management plans and restoration plans, but then he has to get those plans approved by several agencies. His ability to communicate to scientists and regulators the work he and his team want to do, answer questions, respond to comments, and make changes based on what those agencies want to see is something he wouldn't have been able to do nearly as effectively without the training he received in graduate school working on a complex topics, he said. 

“It’s really satisfying when the project approval letter comes through and knowing I'm able to come up with a good plan and present it to these agencies, improve it along the way and make sure that it's going to be the best restoration project that it can be,” he said.  

They have a team of biologists that helps with that habitat work on the ground. The fun part for Morris is the planning that will maximize the ecological value, he said. “That’s the most rewarding part, to see the restoration work be completed, building wildlife habitat on the ground, and then coming back and seeing a species that wasn't there before and knowing that the work that I did helped restore that species is extremely rewarding. Along with that, getting to see a tangible piece of the results of my work is really satisfying. It’s my favorite part of this job,” he said. 

Advocating for policy

Morris is a member of the Missouri Science and Technology Policy Initiative (MOST) Advisory Board. He has connected with the policy world by working on conservation policy with the Conservation Federation of Missouri (CFM) as the second vice president and the chair of the legislative committee. He also does advocacy work for conservation policies in Missouri through the CFM. Fortunately, he said, Mitico gives him the flexibility to work in Jefferson City at the capitol to speak with legislators regarding conservation. 

People don't realize the history of the Missouri Department of Conservation and the amount of conservation related issues that might come up in the legislature, he said. “With my perspective working as a scientist in the private sector and my familiarity with conservation and natural resource policy issues, I can bring some light on what may be somewhat overlooked on important issues in our legislature,” Morris said.

“Expert testimony is very important to the legislation process. Our conservation department has its authority rooted in the Missouri Constitution rather than being set up by state statute,” he said. 

Lawmakers could come up with ideas or regulations that may be in conflict with what is already in the wildlife code, and that authority is established by the constitution. It’s important to keep legislators informed of how public stakeholders of our natural resources feel about natural resource management and about what the science says about what might be the best way to manage certain resources.

“A key to the decision making process is having that information available, Morris said. The CFM advocates for a lot of things but in particular, our constituency, who are made up of people who appreciate the outdoors in Missouri.” 

He said giving his testimony to the legislature is “almost double duty.” As a scientist he can speak to the legislators about why the resources are managed the way they are, and as an advocate he can speak about why the resources are important to the public, and why changes should or shouldn't happen based on those perspectives.

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