Our New Zealand Program will take place on the North and South islands of New Zealand, an isolated island nation almost 1,000 miles east of Australia across the Tasman Sea. Because of their isolation in the South Pacific, these islands support an incredible array of unique flora and fauna. More than 80% of New Zealand’s 2,500 native plants species and 70% of its 250 breeding birds are found nowhere else on Earth. In addition to its fascinating biodiversity, New Zealand is home to breathtaking landscapes sculpted throughout millennia by volcanoes and glaciers. Our field studies will take us to remarkable alpine fields, magnificent rainforests and remote shorelines. Throughout the program we will investigate important ecological concepts and current environmental concerns such as island biogeography, endemism, evolution, invasive species, eradication and wildlife reintroduction. We will also examine firsthand how New Zealand is addressing these environmental challenges by working with governmental and nongovernmental organizations on a number of conservation projects. So come join us this fall in our exploration of one of the most awe-inspiring places on Earth, New Zealand.


Background Information

New Zealand provides an excellent setting for interdisciplinary field studies. The island’s unique geologic and tectonic history provides a window into a world in which the Age of Mammals never happened: birds and invertebrates fill their niches, and plants have evolved in the absence of mammalian herbivores. Subtropical rainforests give way to majestic alp-like peaks, steaming volcanoes and miles of wild coastal beaches. New Zealanders themselves are as diverse as their landscapes; with a rare mix of English, Scottish and Polynesian backgrounds, they have developed their own dynamic relationship with the isles and the natural resources they contain.

This is an exciting time to study conservation in New Zealand, as the country is on the brink of social, political and environmental change. Much like people elsewhere in the world, New Zealanders are coming to recognize the fragility of their environment. An island nation carries with it particular obstacles and advantages to conservation efforts, and the magnitude of both its peril and recovery is greater than its continental counterparts. Our students will gain hands-on experience as we study invasive species, indigenous wildlife and help restore ecosystems alongside governmental and nongovernmental agencies.

Our program objectives include: providing team members with a firsthand introduction to the culture and natural history of New Zealand, conducting on-site examinations of current environmental issues such as invasive species and wildlife reintroduction, and gaining hands-on experience implementing conservation management and ecosystem restoration.


Program Goals and Activities

Fall program information

Our Fall New Zealand program will examine island ecology through firsthand investigations of the region’s flora, fauna and geography. As a team we will participate in important conservation and restoration projects, investigate current environmental concerns, and talk with local conservation organizations about issues concerning animal reintroduction and invasive species management. Cultural and natural history field studies are an integral part of each program phase. All field methods and data gathering techniques will be taught in New Zealand. No prior research experience is required.

Ecosystems, Flora and Fauna
Through hiking, backpacking and canoeing field studies we will explore a variety of ecosystems in both the North and South islands. Here we will develop plant and animal identification skills as well as gain experience conducting scientific observations and recording in a field journal.

Island Ecology
Throughout our exploration across New Zealand, we will examine general concepts of island ecology, such as island biogeography, endemism, insular evolution, gigantism, dwarfism and niche shifts. We will read seminal scientific articles on these topics and explore how these concepts pertain to New Zealand through discussion, guest lectures and our personal field study experience.

Exotic Species Management
Throughout the course we will examine how and why exotic and introduced species have had such an impact on New Zealand’s ecology. We will review the history of introductions and the resulting ecological damage wrought by the many species of plants and animals accidentally and intentionally brought to these remote islands. We will gain hands-on field experience through projects devoted to dealing with the problems of exotics and the conservation of the native flora and fauna.

Habitat Restoration and Conservation Studies
Our island field studies will take us to key wildland habitats supporting the nation’s unique wildlife populations. In these settings, the team will investigate the threats and impacts on these populations as well as management policies for endangered species. We will learn about varying wildlife research techniques and also examine the rich evolutionary history leading to New Zealand’s present day flora and fauna. These explorations will take us from subtropical rainforests and coasts to high alpine ecosystems.

The New Zealand People
Together we will explore New Zealand’s rich human history, from its first human settlement, the dramatic changes wrought by both Polynesian and European pioneers, and the effects of this rich human heritage on the status of natural resource management today. Through team interactions with different New Zealand cultural groups we will discover diverse perspectives on the role of scientific research, private conservation organizations, land ownership and governmental politics in natural resource management.

spring program information

On our Spring New Zealand Program, students will study the main principles of habitat specialization and climate change, learn ecological field sampling techniques and experience the unique culture of the Māori. This program will start on the southern end of the South Island and slowly migrate north. The beginning of the program will focus on the geography, history and culture of New Zealand, providing students with a strong background of the local natural history. We will then use this knowledge to examine how species, both marine and terrestrial, specifically on the southern tip of the South Island, have adapted to their specific environments and discover how climate change impacts our focal species. Teaching will be done through field work, lecture and seminars by visiting scientists, and through participation on research and conservation projects.  

Habitat Specialization and Ecological Adaptation
As an island ecosystem, New Zealand offers us the incredible opportunity to learn about a vast number of endemic species, both marine and terrestrial. Through our field studies we will examine a number of habitats including coral reefs, fiords, intertidal zones, tropical forests and high elevation mountains. Home to yellow-eyed penguins, sea lions, kiwi, the ancient wētā and parasitic orchids, we will investigate how these species, among others, have adapted to live in such environments and will explore their role within the ecosystems on a community level.

Climate Change
The effects of climate change are highly visible in New Zealand, from receding glaciers to species range shifts and an increase in predation pressure and disease. Throughout this course we will evaluate how changes in climate are currently effecting species and ecosystems, both on the individual and community level. Additionally, we will make educated predictions on how we would expect species composition to change given different climate scenarios.

As an island ecosystem, New Zealand’s flora and fauna never needed to develop herbivore or predator defenses. Consequently, over the previous few centuries, introduced species have decimated New Zealand’s native populations, particularly its avifauna community. We will examine the characteristics and adaptations of focal species and come to appreciate what makes them vulnerable to non-native predators. Through hands-on experience and field work, we will learn about the conservation measures used historically and today. By meetings with local and government organizations, including the Department of Conservation, we will understand the future plans for conservation in New Zealand, especially the ambitious Predator Free 2050 project. Additionally, we will debate the controversy of some of the predator reduction schemes that are occurring.

By the close of the program students will have first-hand knowledge of the ecosystems that make up New Zealand and the challenges they face due to climate change. Our team will have a better understanding of community dynamics and how specialization and adaptation equals survival in these environments. Ecological sampling and monitoring techniques such as scientific observations, ecological transects and biological surveys will be hands-on takeaway skills. Additionally, we expect students to gain an active appreciation for the native culture of New Zealand.

All field methods and data gathering techniques will be taught in New Zealand. No prior research experience is required. We expect students to have a positive and engaging attitude throughout the course. In exchange, they will be rewarded with an incredible experience, exploring a diversity of unique ecosystems. Teaching will be done in the outdoor setting, through hiking, extended backcountry field studies, visits to national parks and student-led independent research projects. Seminars will be led by Wildlands Studies staff, local conservation organizations and researchers.


Academic Credit

Students will receive 15 quarter credits/10 semester credits from Western Washington University. Our staff will be happy to explain the program in further detail to the applicant’s advisor, if necessary. This field studies program gives credit in three courses: 

ESCI 437A, Environmental Wildlands Studies (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)
ESCI 437B, Environmental Field Survey (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)
ESCI 437C, Wildlands Environment and Culture (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)

Students will be evaluated on the basis of: 1) active participation in all scheduled class and field activities; 2) examinations; 3) extent and quality of field journals, scientific observations and species identification; 4) taxonomic flora and fauna presentations; 5) proficiency and participation in group discussions; and 6) a paper and presentation concerning the environmental and cultural issues of New Zealand.

Team members are expected to conduct themselves in a mature and responsible manner. Wildlands Studies reserves the right to require any student to withdraw from the program if their conduct is detrimental to or incompatible with the interests, safety, or welfare of any course participants. We ask all students to read the Student Program Manual before joining the program on-site.


Team Logistics

Participants will fly into Auckland, New Zealand, and depart from Queenstown, New Zealand. Participants can decide whether to fly home on the scheduled date or remain in New Zealand to travel on your own. We will be in New Zealand in our autumn (New Zealand’s spring) and weather can be unpredictable. We could easily encounter winter-like conditions as we hike in the Southern Alps, as well as many warm, sunny days on North Island. We must be prepared for almost any type of condition, especially as wilderness travelers. In addition, New Zealand wilderness has an infamous reputation for its “sand flies” (biting black flies). 

Participants will fly into Queensland, New Zealand, and depart from Auckland, New Zealand. Participants can decide whether to fly home on the scheduled date or remain in New Zealand to travel on your own. We will be in New Zealand in our spring (New Zealand’s autumn) and weather can be unpredictable. We could easily encounter winter-like conditions as we hike in the Southern Alps, as well as many warm, sunny days. We must be prepared for almost any type of condition, especially as wilderness travelers.

All reasonable efforts will be made to follow the activities outlined above. However, please understand that on our New Zealand program, travel arrangements can remain tentative until the traveling actually takes place. Weather conditions, road closures, volcanic activity, as well as bureaucratic considerations may affect our plans. Wildlands Studies has put together an innovative, unique program in New Zealand, and team members need to be flexible, patient and prepared to adapt to unexpected situations. Being flexible also allows us to take advantage of unique opportunities that inadvertently arise during our journeys, often producing some of the program’s most memorable moments. Participants are required to bring their own camping and backpacking equipment (tent, sleeping bag, backpack, water filter, etc.).


Primarily camping and, backpacking, with occasional youth hostels or rural lodges. Most of our nights will be spent in our tents or in primitive huts situated in the high mountains, dense temperate forests or coastal beaches. 


Official Documents/Visa

You will need a current passport that does not expire until six months after the end of the program. U.S. citizens who wish to visit New Zealand for a period not exceeding ninety days do not require visas, providing they hold tickets for the journey out of New Zealand (either open or confirmed). U.S. citizens who wish to go to New Zealand for periods exceeding ninety days must obtain New Zealand visas. New Zealand visa applications take two to three months to process, so plan ahead. If you are not a U.S. citizen, check with your consular office for visa information.



This program is taught in English.


Pre-Program Mailings

Detailed information regarding travel/flight and visa information, equipment/gear requirements, food costs, meeting plans, group expenses payment, medical and vaccination recommendations, and academic preparations will be sent to all team members in a logistics letter emailed about ten to twelve weeks before the program initiates.