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FORT MORGAN, Colo. — Dan Cacho walks through thigh-high weeds along the South Platte River, shiny badge on his chest and handgun on his hip as he watches for hunters.

It's a long way from Cleveland for this self-described big-city boy, who is nearing the end of 10 months of training and will soon become one of six new district managers with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

"It's the best thing that's happened to me," Cacho, 25, said during a recent ride-along with a veteran in the division.

These days, however, his passion is shared by fewer and fewer people.

Wildlife agencies across the country are struggling with a combination of rising retirements and declining interest in their jobs among young people seemingly disconnected from hunting, fishing and rural life.

According to the latest statistics available from the federal Government Accountability Office, by 2007 the Interior Department will lose 61 percent of its program managers, the Environmental Protection Agency will lose 45 percent of its toxicologists, and the Forest Service will lose 49 percent of its foresters and 61 percent of its entomologists at a time when Western forests are being ravaged by bark beetles.

The declines come as natural resource managers are juggling more and frequently conflicting demands, including more wilderness vs. more trails for off-road vehicles and a push for greater gas and oil development vs. the preservation of wildlife habitat.

"We now have more people and greater opportunity for human interaction with wildlife. We need the brain power to examine and manage that," said Ryan Colker, programs director for the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation, which includes scientific, education and professional groups.

When he was hired in 1983, Dave Windsor, head of training for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, was one of about 1,200 applicants. The number now is about half that, said Windsor, president of the international Association of Natural Resources Enforcement Trainers.

"I don't think it's a crisis," Windsor said of the decline. "But I think it's a concern."

Universities and other organizations are searching for ways to spark interest. Enrollment in the fish and wildlife program at Colorado State University has decreased 25 percent since 2001. There were 313 students last fall.

"It really is a paradox, with students caring more about the environment, and yet there's a drop," said Joyce Berry, dean of CSU's Warner College of Natural Resources.

She chalks it up in part to less interest in government jobs because of slumping agency budgets and salaries, but she said a cultural shift also is at work.

"More people used to come from rural areas and had fishing and hunting backgrounds. Now, it's much more urban," she said.

What hooked Cacho, a graduate of Hiram College in Ohio, was a trip out West and working a summer as a ranger in Yellowstone National Park. He and five others in the wildlife division's training program will find out this month where they will work in Colorado.

"It's just been jam-packed with the training," said Cacho, whose education included wilderness survival techniques. "It's a whole different world out here. I love it a lot."

I asked a CO about the requirements of the job and they need a degree in an earth science and criminal justice. How realistic is that? Unless that is really what you wanted to do, I don't see many people getting those 2 degrees at the same time. I guess that is the reason why there are so few CO here is New Jersey.
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