My dream job would be to stake out and find endangered or rare species in the wild and capture them with photos. Does anyone have any specific steps to making that happen?
There are very few people out there with that job; it's an extremely tough discipline to break into. That said, here's what I'd work on to start down that path:
1) you need to be a good photographer. More than that, a good nature photographer, with a portfolio that stands out. So, go out and shoot. Shoot at zoos, shoot in refuges, shoot wherever you can get out work with animals in their environments (heck, shoot ducks at the local park to learn how to shoot things that are moving and not cooperating and may not want you to be near them). Shoot a lot, build an online portfolio of your best.
2) Study nature and the animals in it. You'll need a background to understand the species you're shooting and the world they live in. Very often the big difference between photographers with average shots in the field and the great ones is that the great photographers have done all the study and know what to expect and how to plan their way to improving the odds for that shot. The better background you have in this, the better you'll understand the subjects.
3) Volunteer. Find local nature organizations you like and start volunteering. The local humane society. The local wildlife rescue groups. Look around for organizations you can be helpful to. You amy well start out cleaning cages or feeding recovering animals, not being their photographer -- but get involved in the organization, and when you go, carry your camera. You won't get the photography jobs to start because lots of people want to be the group photographer -- but find ways to contribute and get involved, and you'll find opportunities to take photos along the way. Give those photos back to the group, and over time, they'll start asking you to do that. This kind of work can open doors that won't open any other way.
4) Make sure you're comfortable roughing it outdoors. Camp. Hike. Learn to backpack and hike out there. One thing people tend to forget is that if you're going out after rare and wild species, there are rarely hotels nearby, so you need to know how to handle yourself in rough terrain in bad conditions, and how to hike yourself in and out of the locations where those species are. And don't forget, the photographer who took that shot you drool over in National Geographic was probably out in the field tracking it for a month, not a weekend. It's not an easy life, just a rewarding one.
Those to me are the cornerstones of a foundation of a career that can lead in the direction you want to go. Not easy, not overnight, and maybe not ever. But if that's what you want to do, it'll be the kind of things to do to get you going down that path.
Like many "dream jobs", the one you describe requires a combination of multiple skill sets. You would need to master each of those skill sets before combining them in a way that makes what you have to offer unique enough to motivate someone to pay you to do it.
Here are just a few of the areas in which you would need to become exceptional:
Basic Photography Learn how to properly expose, compose, and develop/edit photos that are appealing and evoke a response in the viewer. This includes learning the general principles of photography, learning how to select the proper equipment for a specific task, and how to bring about what you visualize to a realization in the form of an image.
Advanced Action Photography Building on what you have already learned, specialize in the photography of unpredictable, moving subjects. Shooting many human sports events provides an opportunity to learn and improve a lot of the same skills needed when photographing wildlife. You must learn how to anticipate and be ready for an action before it happens so that you and your camera are ready to capture that decisive moment when it occurs.This would include becoming so thoroughly familiar with your equipment that using it to execute a photo is an extension of your thought process about the shot you want without needing to consciously consider the sequence of actions performed by you in order to capture it.
Basic Outdoorsmanship Become adept at outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, etc. to the point that you are comfortable in the world away from human development and habitation. This would include basic a understanding of how to function for short periods without the support of modern "city comforts".
Advanced Outdoorsmanship Building on the basic skill set, learn how to survive and work in the wild for extended periods of time, either alone or in a small group of individuals. This would also include the skills necessary to hunt game. Even if you do not wish to actually take game animals you will need to learn how to track and stalk them. By far the greatest resources to learning this skill set are experienced expert hunters.
Science Become well versed in the worlds of biology/zoology, geography, and cartography. Learn how to distinguish various similar species from each other. Learn the habits and characteristics of the species you wish to document. Learn what natural habitats they prefer and need to survive. And learn how to find such habitats and place yourself in them.
Resume/Portfolio Building/Marketing Learn how to recognize the best of your work and how to get it in front of as many of the right eyes as possible. You can be the greatest wildlife photographer in the world but if no one sees your work it won't matter. The bulk of your portfolio would need to be of wildlife that demonstrates you can get the shot of even the most difficult quarry both in terms of finding the rarest of animals and getting good photographic results when you find them. In the current landscape of the business of photography, this probably means doing some unpaid volunteer work in exchange for gaining access to resources and areas that might not otherwise be available to you.