July 12, 2021

VINCENNES, Ind. – Armadillos and bobcats and black bears, Oh My! These are not animals you expect to see in Indiana. Yet, it is not out of the question that Hoosiers may come across one of these creatures.

Just ask Vincennes University College of Technology Dean Ty Freed, who found a dead armadillo on his property in Daviess County last year. There was a confirmed black bear sighting in northeast Vanderburgh County last month. There is a growing bobcat population in Indiana, according to former VU Conservation Law Enforcement Program Chair and 30-year Indiana conservation officer Bill Browne.

A dead armadillo in Daviess County

There have been at least 26 armadillo sightings in Indiana, according to VU College of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Dean Curt Coffman. In the United States, armadillos typically live in humid subtropical climates found in states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida. Due to warmer winters, they are expanding their range and migrating to northern states.

Black bear populations are expanding, and they may pass through Indiana from established populations in adjacent states. Until 2015 when a black bear entered Indiana from Michigan, there had not been a confirmed report of one in the state since 1871. There have been four confirmed black bear sightings in the state in recent years.

Wait. Was that really a bear?

So who confirms a black bear sighting? It is the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. 

District wildlife biologists will study photos and look for bear tracks and other evidence before making a confirmation.

District biologists often work out of Indiana's Fish & Wildlife Areas, such as Sugar Ridge Fish & Wildlife Area in Winslow, where VU Biology alum Hillary Bulcher is the property manager. She manages more than 14,000 acres of state-owned public property for wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing, photography, nature hiking, kayaking, trapping, mushroom/berry gathering, and more. In addition, she manages archery, shotgun, and rifle/pistol shooting ranges at Sugar Ridge.

It is always a busy time within the DNR. It recently issued a request recommending that Hoosiers statewide remove their bird feeders and birdbaths while the state investigates why songbirds are getting sick and dying.

According to Coffman, "Feeders and birdbaths are communal areas for birds, making it easy for diseases to spread. Think of it as social distancing for birds. Eliminating this behavior will hopefully reduce the spread of any pathogen and allow DNR biologists to understand what is going on."

VU has a strong connection to the agency. Up to 50 percent of the DNR’s Law Enforcement School graduates are VU alumni. In addition, internships with the DNR are offered to VU students through a popular partnership that pairs students with conservation officers. Students receive college credit and serve as counselors for Indiana Conservation Officer Organization summer youth camps. VU Conservation Law Enforcement majors have the advantage of learning from professionals in the field. Several other VU alumni have also been hired by the DNR's Division of Forestry and Division of Fish & Wildlife.

DNR Property Manager Hillary Bulcher holding an alligator gar fish

"The mission of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources is to protect, enhance, preserve, and wisely use natural, cultural, and recreational resources for the benefit of Indiana's citizens through professional leadership, management, and education," Bulcher said. "It takes all kinds of people with different skills and interests to accomplish that mission. There’s a huge variety of careers that are related to natural resources. Within the Indiana DNR, there are more directly outdoor/nature-related divisions such as Fish & Wildlife (where I am), Forestry, Entomology & Plant Pathology, Nature Preserves, Outdoor Recreation, and State Parks. There are also divisions such as Communications, Engineering, Historical Preservation & Archaeology, Land Acquisition, Law Enforcement, Oil & Gas, Reclamation, and Water. Our natural resources are there for all people to enjoy, and they are an important part of physical and mental health for everyone."

Numerous exciting opportunities are available to individuals interested in rewarding and impactful careers by enrolling in VU degree programs such as Conservation Law EnforcementZoology and Marine BiologyNatural Resources and Environmental ScienceForestry and ConservationBiology and Horticulture.

Learning experiences outside the classroom

At VU, students immerse themselves in real-world settings and incredible adventures. They get out of the classroom and learn by doing.

VU Zoology and Marine Biology students during a trip to the Virgin Islands

Students get behind the wheel of a patrol boat on the Wabash River - which is adjacent to the Vincennes Campus – where they are introduced to boat crewman skills while learning about marine enforcement and response. They also set up and monitor trail cameras to observe wildlife and develop management plans for Robeson Hills, a 545-acre outdoor laboratory and environmental education site in Illinois managed by VU that includes a nature preserve. Students go out in the field removing invasive plants in parks and have an opportunity to explore a cypress swamp with VU alum and District Forester Travis Dunn. They also spend time in the great outdoors conducting bat studies. Students study rivers, lakes, and fish by electrofishing and ecological sampling. They also can earn SCUBA certification plus monitor a 150-gallon saltwater fish tank while studying marine biology. Zoology and Marine Biology students have also taken trips to the Amazon rainforest, Virgin Islands, San Diego, and Monterey Bay, California.

VU students electrofishing with College of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Dean Curt Coffman (center)

VU Horticulture major Duane Hull of Olney, Illinois, has participated in various field excursions, including identifying plants in a nature preserve and visiting an apple orchard. It is hard to get more hands-on than the work he did alongside other students in a VU greenhouse growing plants and flowers for Earth Day.

Hull feels real experiences outside of a textbook or a classroom are positioning him for career success.

"It’s amazing because I’m a learn-by-doing sort of person," he said.

VU student Duane Hull

Those skills have been helpful in his current summer internship. Hull is conducting natural resource conservation-related work as a Knox County Soil and Water Conservation District intern.

As a part of her college studies, Bulcher recalls learning to measure trees at Robeson Hills and tagging monarch butterflies for research. She worked on projects that monitored the health of beech trees and identified Kentucky coffeetrees locations for a genetic study. She also participated in an ongoing stream survey where students took measurements of stream parameters.

She utilizes skills she learned as a VU student in her role as a DNR property manager, including overseeing wildlife surveys, volunteer work, workshops, and daily operations such as habitat work and equipment, facilities, and grounds maintenance.

"I still use the skills such as measuring tree DBH (diameter at breast height) to make sure we are within bat guidelines," Bulcher said. "I use a GPS to mark property boundaries, map fields, and trails, and mark locations of things that need to be done on the property very frequently in my current work. I was first introduced to these skills at VU, and they are still useful to me."

Bulcher added, "I think the most important indirect “skill” I acquired through the fieldwork at VU was general preparedness for fieldwork. Such as what’s the weather going to be like, what supplies will I need, and are there any potential hazards or safety concerns with the job or site conditions. I have to consider all of these things on a daily basis, if not for me, then for my team who could be at three different locations, all doing different jobs, being exposed to different weather and potential hazards, and needing different equipment and supplies."

VU Conservation Law Enforcement students setting up trail cameras at Robeson Hills

Brian Bailey is an Indiana Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, VU Conservation Law Enforcement instructor, and VU alumnus. He also knows firsthand what it takes to pursue a career that benefits the environment, animals, and citizens.

"The more information a student can gather and the more of an expert they can become in any of those fields is very important when applying to be a conservation officer," Bailey said.

With more than 180 degree programs to choose from, VU offers a wide range of bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees, and certificates taught by expert faculty. Check out VU’s College of Science, Engineering and Mathematics and College of Business and Public Service for a variety of exciting career paths.