After 26 years of service as the wildlife biologist for Tooele County, Tom Becker will retire at the end of this year.
Becker has had an eventful career helping wildlife in the county, from introducing bighorn sheep to the Stansbury Mountains in 2005 to relocating a mountain lion after it was seen in Overlake last year.
“There are a lot of folks that want my job,” Becker said. “I don’t know if a lot of folks can afford to have my job. It’s not the highest paying job, but it’s been a great career. I didn’t get into this for money, it was just something I really wanted to do.”
Becker’s interest in animals began at a young age. As a boy growing up on the East Coast, he and his brother loved to catch wildlife in their area.
“My brother and I used to hang out around the swamps and the fields and catch whatever we could,” he said. “And then, of course, ‘Wild Kingdom’ started on TV and I said, ‘That looks pretty cool; that’d be fun to do.’ That’s kind of how I ended up heading this way.”
His career choice solidified after he spent a summer working in a factory with his father. The factory produced medical products. Becker mostly built vaccination guns for hospitals and schools. He also helped build a stronger version of the vaccination gun for use on zoo animals.
That summer was hot, and the factory had no air conditioning. Becker yearned to be outdoors.
“It convinced me that I needed to go to school,” he said. “I knew for sure I needed to get my degree so I could do what I wanted to do and be outdoors.”
Becker completed his general coursework at a local community college and then transferred to Utah State University to get a bachelor’s in wildlife science. The university caught his eye because of the quality of its wildlife program and its affordable tuition.
“Utah State had a very good wildlife program,” he said. “In all honesty, at the time … there weren’t a lot of schools that had a good wildlife program, or even a wildlife program at all, and the tuition was very cheap. I could actually go to USU as a non-resident for cheaper than staying in-state.”
After his university graduation, Becker went home to New Jersey and started looking for a job. He mailed resumes and letters to potential employers all over the western United States, but results didn’t come quickly.
He was about to accept a volunteer position with a fisheries project on an Apache reservation in Arizona when he got a call from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Becker recalled that conversation vividly:
“The manager at Flaming Gorge called me and asked if I was still available. I said, ‘Oh yeah, I need a job,’ and asked if it was paid, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll pay you.’ … He asked, ‘When can you be out here?’ I said, ‘My vehicle’s packed and I’m ready to go. I could be there on Monday.’ He said, ‘Oh, you don’t have to be here that fast,’ and I said, ‘Well, I was planning on going down to Arizona.’”
That phone call signaled the beginning of a lifelong career with the DWR.
Reflecting on the serendipity that led him back to Utah, Becker remarked, “It’s all worked out. I couldn’t have asked for a better turnout.”
Becker’s first day at Flaming Gorge was May 3, 1982. He started as a fisheries tech, and the job was everything he’d hoped for.
His duties included helping to net and mark fish according to what year they were planted in the reservoir, so the DWR could track how quickly the fish grew, how many were in the reservoir, and when they were caught.
“A lot of my job was getting information from the fishermen on Green River and Flaming Gorge Reservoir, so I would float the river and I would talk to them to try and see what they were catching,” Becker said. “That was a really fun job. … I learned to fly fish on the Green River.”
After a year at Flaming Gorge, Becker moved to Desert Lake, where he worked with waterfowl for two years. Through subsequent positions with the DWR, he also gained experience working with deer, prairie dogs, and mountain lions.
In 1988, he was promoted to assistant superintendent of the Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area, which includes a variety of animals. Four years later in 1992, Becker was promoted to wildlife biologist, working primarily in Tooele County. In 2008, his job title expanded to include assistant wildlife manager of the DWR central region.
“I’ve done some fun things,” Becker said. “I think my favorite thing that we don’t do anymore, and it’s obviously for safety reasons, is darting (shooting tranquilizer darts) from the helicopter. That, to me, was my highlight.”
Another thing he’ll miss about the DWR is working with his team and members of the public.
“The people are what I’m going to miss more than anything,” Becker said. “I’ve worked with some of the funnest group of dedicated people you could ever meet. … It’s not all glamorous; it’s not all darting from a helicopter. There’s a lot of dirty work, and you have to be dedicated enough to want to do a good job. Most all the time, we enjoy what we do and we enjoy working together.”
Dennis Southerland, former wildlife biologist, worked with Becker in the central region for 25 years. The two spent a lot of time together, from installing guzzlers — man-made water sources designed for wildlife — in Tooele County’s West Desert, to counting elk and pronghorn.
“I’ve been through a lot of good and bad things with Tom,” Southerland said. “We’ve done so many things. I’ve counted elk with him, we trapped turkeys together. … You do a lot of things with a guy when you work with him for 25 years.”
Becker was always enjoyable to be around, and a good boss.
“He always had a good attitude and he’s really friendly; he makes everyone feel at home,” Southerland said. “He’s such a good guy to work with. He was technically my immediate supervisor, but I always considered him more of a friend than a supervisor.”
One time, when Southerland was out counting greater sage-grouse at their strutting grounds in Tooele County, his truck got stuck all the way up to the axles in mud.
“I had to walk two miles to get cell coverage, but Tom was right there to help me out,” he said, “although he had to take some pictures of me first.”
Southerland retired from the DWR last year. After Becker has officially retired, Southerland plans to invite him to go ice fishing. Southerland also hopes to convince Becker to accompany him as he hikes the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail next summer.
“Maybe I can talk Tom into coming with me for a few miles,” Southerland said.
Jenny Zickgraf-Fausett, central region office manager, has known Becker for 28 years.
“Tom is an exemplary employee,” she said in an email. “(He) loves wildlife and the (Division of Wildlife) Resource. (He is a) fine human being and a close friend.”
With the start of his retirement looming closer, Becker has been busy thinking about what he wants to do next.
“Now I’ve got to figure what I want to be when I grow up,” he said. “I’ve always had an interest in photography. … I want to do more fishing and camping and photography for sure, and a little bit of travel. I went to Africa once and I want to go back, and there are other places I want to visit, other countries.”
Becker is also considering the possibility of retiring in a new place, although he doesn’t have any immediate plans to move. He’s enjoyed living in Tooele, in part because it’s roughly in between Yellowstone National Park and the “Mighty Five” national parks in southern Utah.
“As far as photography goes, it’s kind of in the middle of everything, and even some of the more scenic stuff that’s not in the national parks,” he said. “We have some of the greatest scenery in the country right here, and I haven’t seen it all. I’ve seen a lot of it, but I haven’t seen it all.”
It’s still unclear who will replace Becker when he retires. Originally, the DWR had planned to announce a new biologist by the end of this year, but the announcement will likely be postponed due to the holiday season. However, there has been a lot of interest in the opening.
“There are a lot of guys that just graduated with their masters, or who are in the field working for us in other capacities who are interested in moving up,” Becker said. “I’m sure we’ll find somebody who will do a great job.”
Becker expressed deep gratitude to everyone he worked with as a representative of the DWR. In particular, he was thankful for the support of local landowners and sportsmen groups.
“We’ve really fixed a lot of issues over the years and built some great relationships between the division and the local folks,” he said. “I really appreciate everybody’s understanding and the compromises that had to be made, the projects we’ve done and hopefully will continue to do. It’s been wonderful; I think the Tooele area’s in good shape.”