Monday, October 6, 2014

Military wildlife officers manage everything from #wolves to people on JBER

Sean Doogan
 Bow and arrow Moose Hunter John Konosa talks with Mark Sledge, the federal conservation officer in charge of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, while Sledge is on patrol in Anchorage, AK on
Tuesday, September 30, 2014. Bob Hallinen / ADN
Guardians of wild places and wildlife, conservation officers might not seem to be a huge cog in the machine of Alaska's expansive military bases. But they quietly keep the peace between thousands of troops and their families and the untold numbers of wild animals that call the base home. On Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, three federal officers and a few dozen military members patrol areas that are as full of wildlife as some of the most remote places in the Last Frontier.

In fact, JBER just might be one of the wildest places in the Anchorage Bowl. Unlike much of the state's largest city, a majority of JBER remains undeveloped. In addition to the housing complexes, hangars, airstrips and other military buildings, JBER is home to a menagerie of wild animals. And the installation packs a lot of different terrain into an area about the size of Seattle.

"It's not so much the size as it is the habitat," said JBER's senior conservation law enforcement officer, Mark Sledge. "We go from the arctic alpine all the way down to coastal mudflat, so we have all those different environments."

JBER is home base for 19,000 airmen, soldiers, guardsmen and civilian employees but the installation's 84,530 acres also are home to a surprising variety of Alaska animals. Two wolf packs, hundreds of moose, dozens of black bears and even some brown bears prowl its territory. Add to that the multitude of smaller predators and game -- from salmon to wolverines -- and it's easy to see why JBER needs wildlife enforcement officers. They work in much the same way as the men and women of the Wildlife Division of the Alaska State Troopers, ticketing hunters and anglers who break the law and dealing with the consequences of having animals close to people.

A porcupine peaks out from the brush on a back road on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, AK on Tuesday, September 30, 2014. Bob Hallinen / AD

Multiple jurisdictions, many responsibilities

Because of overlapping federal and state rules and jurisdictions, JBER's conservation law enforcement officers -- CLEOs for short -- have to wear a lot of hats. "We are certified federal investigators, deputized Alaska Wildlife Troopers and park rangers because we have to enforce everything," Sledge said.  "And we are also certified in search and rescue and incident command."

Most of the work is in dealing with nuisance wildlife calls when animals get too close to people. So far this year, JBER wildlife officers have dealt with three wolf calls, 126 moose calls, 201 black bear calls and seven brown bear calls. One black bear call, in late September, also turned into a search and rescue after two people hiking on the former Eagleglen golf course got disoriented and found themselves between a sow and three cubs. Neither of the hikers was hurt, and the bears simply wandered back into the brush after Sledge arrived, he said.

Despite two bear attacks on JBER this summer, Sledge said the bruins are his favorite animals that live in the area. And he gets to know some of them quite well. One, called Tripod by base conservation officers because of her deformed rear leg, is a very successful mother, raising four cubs this summer.

Sledge has been a CLEO for 25 years and has seen two wolf packs pass each other on a lake. He has watched as a lynx and a coyote battled over a snowshoe hare, and once saw a black bear do a move any acrobat would envy.  "We were called to this black bear that was about 15 feet in a tree," Sledge said. "We were hazing it, trying to get it to leave the area, with paintball guns loaded with baby powder-filled balls, when it just jumped backwards, spun around in the air and grabbed a different tree about 10 feet away. I looked at my supervisor and said, 'Did you just see that? Did we imagine that?' " Sledge insists his is a dream job.

Spend a clear fall day with him as he patrols JBER's back roads and lakes, and you might agree with him. As his truck rumbled down one of the base's gravel paths last week, Sledge was looking for moose hunters who were on the last day of a popular and very successful bow-and-arrow moose hunt. Sledge said that the permit-only hunt has a historical success rate of about 50 percent. The permits for the hunt are highly coveted by Anchorage-area hunters, who are allowed on base only after completing a skills test and getting a day pass. "Most of them are locals," Sledge said. "You get off work, you come and go hunting, then go home to sleep in your own bed. That’s what makes it kind of nice."

The most unpredictable animal

Staff Sgt. Robert Gallagher is one of about 48 military conservation agents who work on base. Gallagher and the other MCAs started out as volunteers, and after months of training, their volunteer duty became additional duty -- required, but outside their normal military job. Gallagher and his colleagues work at least four hours per month, on their off-duty and holiday time. They only enforce small fishing and hunting violations and don’t carry law enforcement authority but the post's MCAs are the bulk of its wildlife conservation force.

Many use the job as a platform for a post-military law enforcement or wildlife conservation job. Sledge himself began working at JBER as an MCA before he got out of the military. Now Gallagher is hoping he can follow in Sledge's bootsteps. "I am getting out in a few months. After that, I am going to go home to Tennessee, go to college for wildlife biology, and hopefully come back and take his job," Gallagher said, laughing, as he pointed to Sledge. "I'm not ready to give it up anytime soon," Sledge said before throwing some well-placed verbal jabs at Gallagher's apparent lack of moose hunting prowess. (Sledge shot a bull moose this year. Gallagher didn't.)

It takes an easy nature and people skills to manage JBER's wildlife, according to Sledge. "People are the hardest to deal with because they are the most unpredictable," he said. But helping people enjoy JBER's land is a big part of the job. Sledge and Gallagher spend a lot of their time simply talking to hunters, hikers and fishermen.  They have a wealth of knowledge about the area's best spots for recreating and they aren't shy about sharing it -- or learning new tricks.  "You are out there to check that they are in compliance with all the laws but at the same time you are learning," Gallagher said. "Maybe they have a technique for catching salmon or trout that I have never thought of."

JBER has about a dozen lakes stocked with rainbow trout and two streams that produce salmon each summer but you don't have to be in the military to enjoy the area. The base offers Alaska residents with state hunting and fishing licenses access to some of its land through its iSportsman program. Details are available at jber.isportsman.net.

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