Photos and Story By Steve Meyer
“What a great job!”
It seems sportsmen and –women around the world share that sentiment as the game warden walks away after contacting a hunter or angler. Well, except maybe those who have reason to dislike the game warden, such as the poacher. What could be better than spending your job in the outdoors, interacting with those who pursue recreational activities and helping to ensure the future of those activities?
Unless one is not behaving appropriately, experiences with game wardens can and should be pleasant ones. For children growing up in a world that may not include a lot of interaction with the outdoors, perhaps they have already formed opinions and contain fears about those who enforce our fish and game laws that do not mirror the real world of wildlife enforcement.
WITH THAT IN mind, there are several programs nationwide that seek to introduce youngsters to the real workings of protecting our nation’s wildlife resources.
Maine and Oklahoma are two of the more prominent places that have developed these “game warden camps.” It was these camps that caught the attention of Jim Hjelmgren, chief refuge enforcement officer for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.
Hjelmgren, a very community-minded man, thought a similar program introduced to Alaska would be a great vehicle to form local ties with children and their parents. Knowing refuge manager Andy Loranger of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to also be committed to his community, Hjelmgren contacted him, and the latter embraced the concept and set to work making it come to fruition in spring 2014.
Developing a program that brought children in and provided a comprehensive introduction to what really goes on in the world of wildlife protection wasn’t easy. Loranger is quick to point out that refuge officer Kelly Modla became the driving force in getting the program started. Modla is well known among local outdoor enthusiasts and is tireless in her work with local youth in various aspects of her position, another community-focused individual (do you see a theme developing here?).
The program took shape in the form of catering to kids of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade ages. Keeping this age group interested is a challenge that was met by developing numerous stations, each a different aspect of life as a game warden, that the kids would rotate through and be able to actually participate in. That is a lot to cover in two days, but the refuge employees have done a great job of orchestrating the event.
DAY ONE STARTED with the gathering of participants and assigning groups with their stations to begin the course. Having an introductory icebreaker is always good for these types of events, and what better way for kids than with horses?
Retired backcountry ranger Rick Johnston brought out two of his own horses and the kids gathered around while Rick explained some of the ways game wardens use horses on the job. The kids all have the opportunity to get close and pet these iconic animals that are so closely tied to our outdoor heritage. From there, the kids break into groups and head for the various stations that are staffed with refuge officers and biologists, U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service officers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officers, Alaska Wildlife Troopers, Alaska State Park rangers, and Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists.
When developing the warden camp, refuge representatives realized pulling it off successfully would require a lot more staff than normally available. Scheduling it while annual regional in-service training for Alaska’s refuge law enforcement officers was in session in Soldotna provided the perfect venue to have many officers on hand without incurring additional expenses of travel and lodging. Those with the various local state and federal agencies were quick to volunteer assistance, which resulted in plenty of professionals attending the event.
TAKING A TOUR of the course finds one observing game wardens showing the kids remote control decoys used to enforce various wildlife and safety regulations, including shooting a prohibited species or shooting from the road. Moving on to the station found refuge manager Loranger and ADFG’s Jeff Selinger explaining the intricacies of migratory birds (namely ducks and geese), big game and furbearer management and enforcement. There was plenty of waterfowl taxidermy on display, as well as numerous skulls, hides, horns, and other artifacts from the wildlife world for the kids to examine.
The next station featured Rex, the golden Labrador retriever (ASJ, April 2015), putting on a show of his talents for wildlife detection and his ability to enhance successes in the field with his partner, officer Rob Barto.
Next door, KNWR law enforcement supervisor Chris Johnson was donning a RedMan suit, a padded suit used for baton training, and showing the kids the equipment carried daily on the duty belt. They had the opportunity to try on a ballistic vest and a duty belt; then they got to beat up Chris with batons. Well, not really, but he explained some of the situations where a game warden might have no choice but to use force to subdue someone and then gave them a chance to use a baton and “subdue” him. The kids obviously had a great time at this station.
THE KNWR HEADQUARTERS sits on a hill surrounded by wooded acreage. A trail down the hill through the woods leads to Headquarters Lake, a picturesque body of water surrounded by spruce, birch, and alder woods and muskeg swamp. The lake teems with all sorts of bird life, and the trails in the area often exhibit grouse and moose; it’s a terrific setting for learning about the care of wildlife resources.
On the lakeshore officers explained some of the issues with boating accidents and how officers can be called in to assist boaters in trouble. The kids experienced some hands-on experience throwing life rings and ropes used for rescues.
Just up the hill from the lake, an archery station, which would continue through both days, was bustling with activity. The idea with these stations is to introduce the kids to some of the nuances of archery and shooting, not to mention some of the problems officers face with those who are not conducting themselves appropriately in their world.
The last event on the tour for the first day of camp was a wildlife forensics station. Here, the kids learned how game wardens use technology and outdoor skills to find/preserve evidence for solving poaching and other wildlife violations. They made plaster casts of shoeprints along a trail, used a metal detector to find spent cartridge cases and were challenged to find evidence near a wildlife crime scene.
A stark bit of realism was on hand in the form of a brown bear cub that had been struck by a motor vehicle, and which was used to show some of what wardens would look for/do in the event of an animal believed to have suffered an illegal demise.
Day two’s itinerary included scenarios where the kids were able to participate in checking, questioning and subsequently deciding whether to issue a violation notice to both duck hunters and a fisherman along the lakeshore. They learned some basic GPS and map-reading skills as well as issues surrounding cold water survival. The air rifle station was busy and one of the favorites of attendees.
THE ATMOSPHERE OF the KNWR game warden camp is clearly one of respecting the wildlife resources shared by everyone. For those who love the outdoors, the importance of building relationships with nature in the next generation is critical to our outdoor heritage. The first KNWR Game Warden Camp was conducted in 2014, and of course, it was a learning opportunity for all involved.
This year’s camp was even better, and judging by the interest will continue into the foreseeable future. This has been the pilot program, the first for the National Wildlife Refuge System. With the success, according to Loranger, other refuges around the state and the nation are looking into having their own camps for prospective game wardens.
One side note: before this article comes to print, the KNWR will have celebrated the grand opening of the new visitor’s center adjacent to the current refuge headquarters facility. It is a fabulous place to visit and worth taking a look.
The efforts of the KNWR in involving the community in our outdoor heritage should be applauded.
There was a time when outdoor activities in Alaska centered on hunting and fishing. Now there are all sorts of outdoor interests that take place within the bounds of wildlife refuges. The KNWR has done a good job of seeing that all of those interests are accommodated and respected, which is not an easy task. ASJ
Editor’s note: If you have a youngster who would like to participate in next year’s camp, be sure and check with refuge officer Kelly Modla (907-260-2851) as soon as possible. The nature of the camp limits the number of participants to 40 and it fills fast. For more information on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, go to kenai.fws.gov or facebook.com/