Former Sul Ross Student Takes Wildlife Management Insight Home to Japan

BRI graduate researchers used a helicopter to retrieve GPS collars equipped for bighorn sheep in Big Bend Ranch State Park, as the sheep were located far from any roads. “Naturally, my adrenaline surged as the helicopter flew over the breathtaking landscape,” Masa recalls. He is pictured second from right.  Photo courtesy of Masahiro Ohnishi, 2013.

International student Dr. Masahiro (Masa) Ohnishi had no idea how attending Sul Ross State University (SRSU) in Alpine, Texas would affect the trajectory of his career. In the small, West Texas town he was introduced to the hunting culture of Texas, where sport and wildlife management intermingle. This eye-opening experience led to post-graduate work at SRSU and in South Texas, then a return to Japan with new insight for a lead conservation policy role. 

In Japan, it is difficult to obtain hunting and firearms licenses, so until Masa came to Texas, he had never fired a gun or considered hunting. Hunting was once an integral component of his country’s history, but interest has faded in modern Japan. While a love of nature is fundamental to their culture, modern agriculture has shielded the growing urban population from a lifestyle connected to hunting. 

At Sul Ross, the birthplace of collegiate rodeo, many students are raised in rural and agricultural families. They grew up hunting alongside their ranching and farming heritage. Here, hunting and wildlife management are so intrinsically tied that many people take their relationship for granted.

“Some work in academia, some work for state or federal agencies, and some work for non-profit organizations. When the picture was taken, I knew we were choosing different career paths. However, I believe that we all appreciate spending time with individuals from diverse backgrounds.” Photo courtesy of Masahiro Ohnishi, 2013.

While pursuing classes at Sul Ross State University, Masa was captivated by his friends’ relationships with the outdoors. They invited him hunting; he took conservation and hunting education classes. All this deepened his appreciation for the way the disciplines of hunting and conservation could support each other. Masa took notes, then dove in deeper.

“I learned that the best scientific method may not always be the most effective tool in this field, Masa says. “Managing land often involves effective communication with people who are deeply influenced by cultural backgrounds and decision-making based on family traditions across generations.”

Dr. Ohnishi has a reunion with former Borderlands Research Institute colleagues.
L-R: Dr. Louis Harveson, Dr. Bonnie Warnock, Masahiro Ohnishi, Dr. Justin French and Dr. Carlos Gonzalez. Photo courtesy BRI.

Current day wildlife management in Texas, based in science and supported by strong intra-governmental relationships, was born from necessity. Texans faced the harsh repercussions of unregulated hunting in the early 20th century. Game animals that provided food for many were disappearing: the native white-tailed deer population was all but wiped out, the native elk population was extirpated, and desert bighorn sheep and black bears could no longer be found within the borders of the state. Even the oyster trade along the Gulf Coast suffered due to overharvesting. Intelligent wildlife management became a necessity  — something had to be done.

This crisis was happening all across the nation, so the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation  was born. Wildlife would be managed as a resource, stewarded for the benefit of a healthy ecosystem in addition to the needs of mankind.

A science was built around seven fundamental conservation principles, the first of which stated that wildlife resources are a public trust. The other six principles are as follows: markets for game are eliminated, allocation of wildlife is by law, wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose, wildlife is considered an international resource, science is the proper tool to discharge wildlife policy, and democracy of hunting is standard.

“In Japan, we don’t have these principles yet,” Masa notes.

Masa began to see that a special kind of science communications, unique to the United States, helped lay a strong foundation for this style of wildlife management. He credits the ease with which Americans practice public speaking as being a net positive for academia, helping the mainstream to more readily engage in academic research. Science communicators like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have undoubtedly made an impact on the popular interest in scientific subjects. 

After obtaining a degree in Natural Resource Management from Sul Ross, Masa pursued a master’s in Range and Wildlife Management at Borderlands Research Institute (BRI), a premier wildlife research organization located at Sul Ross.

There Masa learned about the two-term presidency of Teddy Roosevelt from 1901 to 1909, when more than 230 million acres of land were preserved as national parks and forests, federal bird preserves, game preserves and national monuments. Roosevelt helped codify the notion that conservation forms the foundation of healthy wildlife populations. 

All of this continued to shape Masa’s views as he entered the PhD program at Texas A&M University–Kingsville’s Cesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in South Texas to study antler traits in white-tailed deer and hone his skills as a wildlife biologist. 

With a doctorate degree in hand and after a dozen years of studying wildlife and natural resource management in the U.S., Masa found his way back home to Tokyo with a new perspective he was eager to share.

He is currently employed as Chief Research Scientist with the Wildlife Management Office, where he focuses on sika deer and bear projects, leveraging technical skills in GIS data, harvest data, camera data and drone data gained from his university work in Texas.

“Human-bear conflicts are a current issue in Japan. My team is working to understand how we can mitigate these conflicts and reduce the unnecessary culling of bears. We use GPS collars to study habitat selection and cameras for population estimates.” Photo courtesy of Dr. Masahiro Ohnishi, 2023.

The differences between the United States and Japan are many, from landmass and climate to culture, history and more. Masa sees value in applying some of the practices he learned from Texas wildlife management to issues facing Japanese wildlife.

Currently, he is helping to establish bear and sika deer management policy in a specific area.

“Policy needs to include conservation practices that are based in science,” he continued. “I take pride in contributing to policy decision-making by applying the scientific outcomes generated by my team through modern techniques.”

Overpopulations of sika deer were causing crop damage and putting too much pressure on natural ecosystems. Management has included culling the populations through hunting, which seems to be helping. However, it has been difficult to enlist capable hunters in a nation where the sport has lost its appeal to younger generations. Masa sees this as an opportunity to encourage a new outlook regarding hunting among younger people in Japan.

“If you lose even one generation of hunting, that costs a lot,” he says, “Who is going to teach the grandchildren?” 

Masa believes that hunting, as both a management tool and cultural practice, plays a crucial role in connecting people with nature and fostering appreciation for wildlife. 

“This lesson is particularly valuable in my current career, where collaboration with various organizations is essential for achieving ideal conservation goals,” he said.

Good communication, as always, is key, Masa says. Dedicated to his work as a research scientist, he hopes that the more effective communications he learned in Texas will help Japan develop its own strong foundation in conservation- and science-based wildlife management.