Dennis Ferraro, a herpetologist and professor, developed a program to teach volunteers about conservation. Credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln

From appearing on TV to teaching students to cultivating homegrown naturalists, Dennis Ferraro actively engages the public in wildlife conservation.

These efforts have earned Ferraro, a professor of practice of conservation biology and herpetology in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, TWS’ Conservation Education Award.

“He has built an outstanding set of programs that impact a broad array of learners in the region and throughout the nation,” said John Carroll, a professor and director of the School of Natural Resources, in his nomination letter for Ferraro. “His accomplishments push the rest of us to be better at what we do, including our teaching programs, outreach programs, research programs and mentoring programs.”

Ferraro co-founded the Nebraska Master Naturalist Program in 2005. Through the adult education program, people have the opportunity to become experts in conservation and the environment through indoor presentation as well as hands-on field experiences. The purpose is to develop informed conservation volunteers to help take care of Nebraska’s natural resources. Individuals receive certification after going through trainings.

“I sat down with two or three other people back in 2005, and we knew we needed something in Nebraska to engage the public in biodiversity and conservation and possibly bring in some biological conservation tourism,” Ferraro said. “We were very fortunate to get grants to start off, and to date, we’ve gotten six or seven grants totaling close to a million dollars.”

Conservation Education Award recipient Dennis Ferraro is proud of his students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Ferraro, who now works as principle investigator and continues to manage grants, said the program has become a win-win for contributors. Volunteers learn about conservation and then help the contributors with their conservation projects. Since 2010, the program has trained 530 master naturalists, logged 930,000 volunteer hours, conducted 8,000 projects and had an impact value of over $2.5 million, according to the program’s website.

And he’s not done with adding to the program. Last year, he directed the formation of a Master Naturalist Junior program for students under 18 years old. “Teach them young because they’re going to be the wildlife biologists of the future,” he said. Taking the master naturalist course can even provide credit toward teacher’s master’s degrees.

Ferraro has also been a part of the Nebraska PBS show “Backyard Farmer,” where scientists answer viewers’ questions from how to deal with everything from a bat stuck in the attic to a fox in the yard. Ferraro also helped develop a website where people can ask questions and receive answers off of the show.

When Ferraro isn’t doing this extracurricular work, he teaches wildlife biologist students of the future. Their work is the real reward, he said.

“I feel very appreciative of the people who put forth the package to put me up for the award,” he said. “I’m humbled by it. And to me, awards are great and I really appreciate them, but when I see my students getting PhDs and jobs, that really puts a smile on my face and makes me feel great.”

Ferraro hopes his legacy as a teacher and in the programs he’s created continues after he retires. “I had a job making really good money and when I went to work at the university, people would ask me what are you making?” he said. “I would tell them ‘I’m making a difference now.’”

Click here for a complete list of 2021 TWS award winners. For more about this year’s virtual conference, click here.


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