Rick Dillard's love of the outdoors serves him well as fish and wildlife program manager for the U.S. Forest Service. His passion has been a guiding force in his professional and personal life. The Potts Camp, Mississippi native and CFR alumnus comes from a long line of hunters, fishermen, and trappers.
"I fished with my grandmother before I could even carry a fishing pole. My most vivid memory, however, happened later. I was nine the first time I caught bass using tackle. I had a Zebco 600 casting reel with a plastic worm. I still remember wading out into the reeds to cast and that first tug on the line," Dillard said.
Those early experiences hooked Dillard on a career protecting wildlife and fisheries resources while promoting their recreational value.
Dillard has been with the U.S. Forest Service for 31 years, 25 of which have been in his current role. Dillard oversees 1.2 million acres encompassing Bienville, Delta, DeSoto, Holly Springs, Homochitto, and Tombigbee National Forests. He monitors threatened, endangered, and sensitive species and forest waterways. He also manages recreational fishing and works with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to manage game species and monitor migratory birds.
"I keep an eye on things like population increases and decreases, wild game trends, migratory bird patterns, water quality, and habitat conditions," Dillard explained.
Dillard said his passion for fish and wildlife began with his dad.
"Growing up, I loved to listen to my father's adventures of the outdoors. I was most curious about why certain things occurred in nature," Dillard said. "Why are there bass in one lake but not another? Why do these fish get big in this river but not that one? Why are there stories of my grandfather catching paddlefish in this river, but they aren't here anymore?"
Dillard points out he's experienced the changes to the landscape where he grew up.
"Where I grew up, quail were abundant but white-tailed deer weren't. I went on many successful quail hunts before I harvested my first deer. I began deer hunting at age 12 but didn't kill my first deer until I was sixteen," Dillard remembered.
When it came time for college, Dillard parlayed his love of the outdoors into training for a career.
"At first, my family didn't understand. At the time, African Americans our family knew who went to college majored in business, engineering, or pre-med. I was ridiculed by friends who said, 'No one has ever majored in that so what are you going to do?' Honestly, I didn't know what I would do but I knew pursuing a career in wildlife and fisheries would make me happy," Dillard said.
After high school and a year at Jackson State University, Dillard came to MSU where he earned a bachelor's in fisheries management in 1986 and a master's in wildlife and fisheries in 1989. He began working for the U.S. Forest Service upon graduation. Collaboration is what excites him most in his career now.
"Managing for fish and wildlife must extend beyond imaginary boundaries to include the public and private lands adjacent to our national forests. Working together helps invested parties—from government agencies to nonprofit organizations to private landowners—achieve the big picture goals necessary to improve fish and wildlife habitat on a larger scale," Dillard said.
The Magnolia Records is a collaborative effort that has been a defining legacy in Dillard's storied career. In 2001, he saw a statewide need for recording prized deer.
"I have always been fascinated with trophy bucks. I often wondered about the largest deer harvested in Mississippi or in Marshall County, where I grew up. At the time, Mississippi had maybe 25 deer large enough to make the Boone and Crockett Club records, though I felt more deer in our state were worthy of some kind of recognition."
Dillard spearheaded a joint venture between the Mississippi Wildlife Federation and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to create Magnolia Records, a statewide antler scoring system.
"We score on a county by county basis which gives bragging rights to locals across Mississippi's 82 counties. We also include photos on a standard background, so people can see the size of each deer," Dillard said.
Thus far, Dillard said around 10,000 deer have been scored by himself and others.
"The largest buck I've scored was a non-typical in Adams County near Natchez that scored 232," recalled Dillard, who said the project inspired him to become an official wild game measurer for the Boone and Crockett Club.
He also shares his love of the outdoors with the next generation, serving as president for the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, or MWF, from 2012-2013. He's currently on MWF's board and has been involved in many of its programs over the years, including youth-outreach fishing events and squirrel hunts, to name a few. He's also visited students of all ages to speak about his career.
He still hunts with his father, uncles, brothers, and cousins, planning one big family hunt out of state each year. His two grown sons love to hunt and fish, too, when time permits.
His son Wesley followed a similar path as Dillard earning a biology degree from MSU. He's now working on his doctorate in zoology at the University of Florida. His son Chandler is focused on baseball, as an outfield starter for Jackson State University. Dillard also fishes with his wife, Jocelyn, and credits her with supporting his career and lifelong love of the outdoors.
As for advice for individuals interested in pursuing a similar field, Dillard emphasized the importance of following your heart.
"Do what drives you and what makes you happy. I look forward to going to work every day. That's what you really want to look for in a career," Dillard said.