Alumni Spotlight: Joseph Colbert, MS ’16

Beth Gavrilles, bethgav@uga.edu

Contact: Allison Walters, allison.walters@uga.edu

Joseph Colbert, MS '16, a wildlife biologist with the Jekyll Island State Park Conservation Department, standing in a longleaf pine savanna on the island. Photo courtesy of Joseph Colbert/Jekyll Island Authority.

“It’s about the journey and it’s about taking those opportunities. When those opportunities pop up, definitely try to take them.”

That’s advice that Odum alumnus Joseph Colbert offers, and it’s advice he has taken to heart.

Colbert is a wildlife biologist at Jekyll Island State Park whose journey has been a winding one.

Before coming to UGA to pursue a master’s degree in ecology, Colbert served in the U.S. Marine Corps for two deployments in Iraq. After leaving military service, he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of South Carolina, which led to an internship studying rattlesnakes and a stint as an Americorps member at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.

“I had no idea I was going to do this stuff when I got out of the military,” Colbert said. “Thinking about it from that standpoint, it was a big trajectory change for me.”

Colbert discovered he had a passion for wildlife. He arrived at the Odum School in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree, where he was the University of Georgia’s first Tillman Military Scholar. Highly competitive—only 60 recipients are selected each year out of thousands of applications—Tillman Military Scholarships are awarded to military veterans and spouses based on academic excellence, leadership ability, and strength of character. He remains involved with the Tillman Foundation to this day.

“There’s still opportunity for professional development grants for me through Tillman, and I still stay connected. That’s been a really good thing,” he said.

Colbert completed his master’s degree in 2016, conducting his thesis research on the effects of prescribed fire on plant and animal communities in a rare maritime grassland. After graduating, he joined the Jekyll Island State Park’s conservation department, becoming its first wildlife biologist. There, he manages research programs and helps with restoration projects, supporting land management on the island. He conducts environmental assessments and also plays a role in policy decisions that involve wildlife.

“We work with what I call the ‘four Ps:’ predators, plants, priority species, and problem species,” he said. “Because it’s a sustainably developed community—about one third is developed by law—we have that human wildlife component that we get to manage and deal with on a regular basis.”

Colbert is also responsible for managing external research requests on Jekyll Island.

“If our sustainably developed community offers a suitable laboratory working with any model organisms or our unique coastal habitats for any prospective projects, the doors of collaboration are always open,” he said, adding that faculty and students interested in conducting research on the island should contact him.

His work on Jekyll led to yet another opportunity that has expanded his career horizons.

In 2019 he was one of just 25 people accepted to the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders training fellowship. This two-year professional development program is sponsored by a number of agencies and NGOs, including the National Geographic Society, White Oak Conservation, and Wildlife Conservation Network, with additional support from the World Wildlife Fund and Wildlife Conservation Society.

EWCL brings together early-career conservation practitioners from diverse professional and demographic backgrounds from around the world for networking, mentoring, and skills training. Colbert’s cohort included representatives from NGOs, government agencies, and zoos and aquariums from across the U.S. and six other countries including Zimbabwe, Brazil, Indonesia, Venezuela, Malaysia and Uzbekistan.

Along with two weeks of in-person training, participants worked in teams to develop international wildlife conservation campaigns.

Colbert’s team focused on conservation of the greater one-horned, or Indian, rhino, a species that had declined to approximately 200 individuals in the wild. A species recovery plan and the hard work of conservation organizations and government agencies in India and Nepal have resulted in increased numbers: there are believed to be more than 3,700 individuals today. However, as their population grows, the rhinos’ range is nearing its capacity to support them. Colbert and his colleagues were tasked with finding ways to improve conditions so that rhino populations can continue to increase.

“As a land manager, my big role was to work on a management plan,” Colbert said. “Two people in our group specialized in making maps. Another two folks were really good at finding funding, and doing a social media campaign and stuff like that, so we all combined our different backgrounds to work on this project.”

The team submitted their final product to WWF, one of their project partners, and to WWF India; through them, it made its way to the government of Assam, India, where it is being adopted into general management plans.

“They’re hoping to use some of that information we provided, including maps that showed how much grassland they’ve lost over the course of a short time period,” Colbert said. “It gives everybody the urgency they need to start addressing some of those problems, with maybe stronger tools than they’ve been using in their toolbox.”

Colbert and his cohort graduated from the EWCL program in 2021, but, as with Tillman, remains connected.

“The networks and the training developed through this program I’ll lean on for the duration of my career,” he said.

And to add a slightly more unexpected turn to his journey, Colbert has also been pursuing another passion: mushroom farming. He and two partners established Southern Brothers Farms in Brunswick, Georgia, in 2017, growing oyster, lion’s mane, and chestnut mushrooms.

“It started off as a mycology club, a hobby that paid, and then it became a business,” he said. “We’re doing quite well at this point, just after four years. We can grow 300 pounds a week, and we’re selling about 200 pounds in restaurants and maybe as much as 100 pounds to local farmers markets. It’s been a really enjoyable experience.”

The mushroom farm also illustrates another piece of advice Colbert has learned along his journey.

“You don’t have to do stuff on a giant national and international scale to make a difference,” he said. “Sometimes you can do things hyperlocal and build relationships there and make positive improvements in small communities. Sometimes even small things can turn into bigger things over time. That’s a good way to have influence that you don’t even know you have sometimes, with something local.”