When Mitchell Marema moved his uncle to Montana back in 2008, the landscape stayed with him during his military service. So when it came time for him and his wife, Katie, to relocate after their stint in the Navy, they had two choices to consider.

Head south to Texas or north to Montana? The decision was easy. Whitebark pine won over creosote. Wolves and grizzly bears over prairie dogs and boars.

“She wanted to go back to Texas and I talked her out of Texas to Montana, even though she'd never been here before,” Mitchell said. “Life kicked me in the teeth a little bit before I had to find real direction, but I knew this was something I wanted to do.”

Mitchell and Katie have followed a parallel road the past few years. Both served in the Navy, both have a love of the natural world, and both are now students at the University of Montana.

What's more, they're each enrolled in the university's highly rated wildlife biology program, though they're not alone in that endeavor. Nearly 30 military veterans were enrolled this semester, drawn to the program's access to the outdoors and the rich wildlife heritage that lingers in the Northern Rockies.

“There's a lot of people here who are like-minded, especially veterans,” said Mitchell. “We click together pretty well. Not only do you have the camaraderie of other vets, but just learning how wildlife biology works and all the assets to it, from habitat to ecosystems to migration and diet, all those things are really interesting to me, and it's what drew me here.”

While the two wildlife biology students grew up in different parts of the county – Katie in Texas and Mitchell in Wisconsin – both embraced hunting as a way of life. That interest intensified when they moved to Missoula, drawn by the region's wilderness and UM's wildlife biology program.

The program has long been recognized for its excellence, though its reputation has expanded across the country. Last year, Academic Analytics ranked it the No. 1 program in the U.S. and Canada to study wildlife while gaining unrivaled access to hands-on, outdoor learning opportunities.

The program's ranking was important to both of them, and it played a role in bringing them West to begin the next chapter of their life.

“I pretty much grew up being outdoors, grew up hunting, and I have a good appreciation for conservation,” said Katie. “But it's a lot higher now that I've been in Montana these past two years. With all the public lands you have access to – to see things first hand – it made my interest grow. Being out here made it a lot easier to appreciate.”

The couple are both members of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and are strong advocates of public lands and public access. Like many Montanans, they're keenly aware of the political debate surrounding access and the push by some conservatives to transfer public lands to local jurisdictions, a move opponents argue would lead to privatization and a loss of habitat.

As Katie put it, it's the public's right to access the few wild places that remain on the American landscape. Without access, life would go a little bit awry. Public lands, they content, should remain in public hands.

“Conservation is important because there's a lot of people out there trying to sell land for the profit,” Mitchell said. “Things like the mountains and intact habitat the animals occupy could have a dollar sign put to them. To disconnect and be away from everything to see how the world works naturally without the input of humans, it's an amazing opportunity.”

In the Navy, Katie served as a heavy equipment operator with the Seabees while Mitchell, a fourth-generation veteran, worked as an electronics technician. They met in Virginia Beach, each serving as a designated driver for another friend.

Neither expected to land in Montana, let alone take parallel courses in the nation's leading wildlife biology program. And while Katie grew up hunting in Texas, Mitchell did the same in Wisconsin, where his father and grandfather taught him the art of bowhunting.

“My old man and grandfather taught me everything I know about deer hunting and bowhunting,” Mitchell said. “But then, when you start learning these things in a classroom setting about the plants, or certain ecosystems and how they work, once you go out into the woods again you see it in a whole new way.”

Given their affinity for the wild world and the plants and animals that call it home – and the spiritual impact it has on the human soul – they still express amazement and wonder that an academic program that puts it into perspective actually exists.

With a conservation mindset and a desire to preserve public lands for future generations, the wildlife biology program has been a good home, even as they juggle the challenges of raising two kids and working part-time jobs.

“Missoula is a great place for an outdoors person or for someone who generally likes being outdoors,” Katie said. “Once I learned you could go to school to study the animals, study the woods and the mountains and get information on how they work and how the animals live their life – and how to sustain that type of ecosystem – it's something I want my kids to be able to enjoy like I do.”