The following story and photos are courtesy of ASJ correspondent Steve Meyer and running in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal, on sale now:
By Steve Meyer
It seems most every hunter/fisherman has thoughts of becoming a game warden. How cool would it be to go to work every day and be outdoors around the scene we love the most?
My opportunity came in the late 1980s with an offer to work for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Sitka. Life circumstances wouldn’t allow accepting the job, so there will always be the “what if” thoughts in the back of my mind.
But about the same time, Rob Barto started his tenure with USFWS, working as a seasonal employee for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
“It was a great time working seasonal,” Barto says. “I learned the fishing spots and had plenty of time to enjoy them, and during the offseason I could go South and work other seasonal stuff, or just hunt, fish and trap.”
But eventually we must all grow up – a real shame – and Barto became a full-time wildlife enforcement officer with USFWS in the Kenai.
The Kenai refuge sprawls across some 2 million acres of “Alaska’s playground,” the Kenai Peninsula. The terrain runs the gamut from coastal mud flats to mountain glaciers; a large percentage is accessible only by foot, horseback, boat, airplane and snowmachine in winter when snow cover allows.
Five full-time wildlife enforcement officers are assigned to monitor outdoor activities on the refuge. The hot spots where the most activity occurs include the Swanson River/Swan Lake Road, the Skilak Lake Loop (where hunting is prohibited except for some small game archery and a youth hunting season for small game), Skilak Lake, the Kenai River, the Russian River, the Tustumena Lake area, and the Caribou Hills.
The variety of outdoor pursuits on the refuge include wildlife viewing, bird watching, skiing, snowshoeing, canoeing, boating, mushroom gathering, fishing, hunting and trapping. With such a broad spectrum of activities, refuge officers wear a lot of hats. Duties range from tracking down moose poachers to answering questions about the local flora and fauna from the many visitors to the area, so they have a rather full plate. Refuge officers are also commissioned by the State of Alaska and have authority to enforce all state laws, as well.
PARTNERS IN (STOPPING) CRIME
Some refuge officers have special additional duties/skills above and beyond the norm; Rob Barto is one of them. He patrols the Kenai refuge with Rex, a canine officer and one of only eight dogs in service on national wildlife refuges across the country.
Rex is a 5-year-old golden Labrador retriever and is the only one of these canines certified in wildlife detection. He is trained to detect all of Alaska’s big game species, plus walrus, seal and polar bear. Rex is also trained in article recovery and human tracking.
The pair will travel to other areas, such as the U.S./Canadian border and some of the coastal Alaska towns where illegal trading in wildlife is suspected. Barto and Rex have also worked with our Canadian neighbors to the east in Dawson City, Yukon Territories. They will be working in Whitehorse in the Yukon this spring.
Having a canine partner is a rather significant commitment for the dog’s human partner. Besides the obvious of making the dog a member of the family – feeding, watering, housing and providing exercise – there is the ongoing training. Canines in the law enforcement world have training sessions every day and, for the most part, more than one. It is part of the maintenance of the canine certificate that makes what he does acceptable to the court. Working dogs need to be worked or they lose the excitement and drive for what they are trained in.
Training sessions must be documented (more paperwork). Barto and Rex go to local schools and put on demonstrations for the kids; it’s a great public relations service and Rex gets to do what he does.
Rex travels with Barto in a nicely built kennel in the back of his work SUV. He often rides with his big Labrador nose pressed up to the partition between the front and back seat, watching for some excitement that might employ him.
He is a typical Labrador, with a big otter tail always wagging and what one always thinks is a smile on his face. He is friendly and has the diplomacy so loved by dog folks who know his breed.
A DAY IN THE FIELD
Having the opportunity to spend a shift with Rob Barto and Rex was a pleasure and an eyeopener. His training sessions where he displayed his talents of finding small pieces of game and other articles hidden by his partner seemed picture perfect. What becomes obvious while watching the two work together is the bond they share.
We headed out towards the Skilak Loop area to check on ice fishermen and anything else that might be going on. A vehicle headed in our direction blipped on the radar gun at 73 mph in a 55 zone. Barto turned around and stopped the speeder and explained that while they don’t make it a point to stop every speeding vehicle, when there is one that is clearly excessive, they pull them over.
“There are enough people dying on the Sterling Highway as it is,” Barto says.
The individual driving was not being reckless but just driving too fast. He did have a suspended license for nonpayment of child support. In Alaska, when one’s license is suspended a notification is sent to the individual with no guarantee the person actually received the notice. With that, the first time an individual is stopped and the suspension discovered, an otherwise arrestable offense is instead turned into an advisement. Henceforth, that person caught driving would be taken to jail.
Within minutes of the first training session I attended in my law enforcement academy, the instructor made a statement that has rang true ever since: “Approach determines response.”
Barto was pleasant when he contacted the driver, who was equally pleasant and apologetic in his failure to pay attention to his speed. With that, he chose to write the speeding ticket as a federal violation instead of a State of Alaska violation. That was a new one on me; I had no idea that such a thing existed. Barto explained that there are many regulations on federal property, including the refuge, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service land, that mirror the state regulations. In the case of the speeding ticket, the difference was no points would go against the driver’s state record with the same fine. So Barto elected to write the ticket federally and cut the guy some slack.
CHALLENGING A MYTH
The point in telling that story is that the general public often has a misconception of law enforcement officers in general. They believe that officers are out to get them (I won’t deny there are some like that) and when confronted, they become less than cordial, and that rarely works out well.
That reminds me of what I used to tell newcomers in the business: “It’s OK to be nice until it’s not OK.” In other words, why treat folks any less than with decency, unless they respond in such a manner that decency clearly isn’t going to work?
My experiences with game wardens over the years have always been positive, and the Kenai refuge’s officers have been no exception. Across the board they have always been very appropriate, helpful with questions and are just generally decent officers who share the same love of the outdoors.
Of course, there are sometimes rather humorous aspects to being a refuge officer. A common violation along the gravel roads of Swanson River and Tustumena Lake is hunters shootinggrouse while they stand on the road eating gravel that aids their digestion. To help combat this, enforcement officers will set out decoys – mounted spruce grouse that appear alive until you watch them for a few seconds. Normally, the officer watching the bird will be able to stop the “hunter” before damage is done; but it’s not always the case.
One frosty morning, a pickup pulled up and the driver stuck his .300 Winchester Magnum out the window and blew that mounted bird to bits before he could be stopped. Another time, a guy recognized what the decoy was and pulled up right next to it, grabbed it and took off down the road. He was caught down the road, and fortunately for him, the officer recognized that boys will be boys and didn’t ticket him. There are some people out there who would initally scream out “entrapment.” How about just don’t commit the violation?
I often hear hunters complain about the refuge’s officers, claiming they’re tree huggers and don’t understand hunters. I would say the opposite is true. Confusing some administrative policies that really have nothing to do with the decisions made at the local level with those who are tasked with enforcing regulations is throwing stones in the wrong direction.
All of them enjoy the outdoors as much as anyone in their free time. They hunt, they fish, they trap and live wholesome rural lifestyles. They are active with kids in the community, and some are hunter education instructors. Rob Barto and his 11-year-old daughter, Emily, have been running a trapline all winter, walking 8 miles twice a week.
What can possibly represent us outdoors lovers better than that?
Editor’s note: For more on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, check out its website (fws.gov), Facebook (facebook.com/usfws) and Twitter (@USFWSHQ).