Conservation Agents Walk Fine Line Protecting Elmendorf Residents

Story by Randy Roughton, Airman Magazine

Photo: (U.S. Defense Department graphic by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kayla Jo Finley/Released)

(U.S. Defense Department graphic by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kayla Jo Finley/Released)

Eyes stared from the shadows outside the installation’s Burger King as employees locked the doors and walked to their cars, just as their stalker had observed a few nights earlier. Once the cars left the parking lot and disappeared from sight, he went to work on the dumpster.

The “BK Bear” had struck again.

Life, especially wildlife, is much different at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, which makes the job of the installation’s wildlife conservation professionals a daily adventure. Military conservation agents and military police patrol areas where bears, moose and other animals could pose a threat to JBER’s residents. Tech. Sgt. Andy Lockhart encountered the BK Bear several times, including one meeting when he said the 5-foot-tall black bear seemed to be playing hide and seek with him.

Photo: Black bears explore the treeline on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Sept. 18, 2013. The base is home to a large number of animals on its 125 square miles of land including black bears, moose, elk, porcupines and marine life. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee/Released)

Black bears explore the treeline on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Sept. 18, 2013. The base is home to a large number of animals on its 125 square miles of land including black bears, moose, elk, porcupines and marine life. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee/Released)

“It’s amazing how smart these animals are,” said Lockhart, a passenger service superintendent with the 732nd Air Mobility Squadron. “The time I dealt with him, he’d already been [sprayed] two or three times. The dumpster is in a little enclosed building with the front end facing the walkway, and when I drove through the parking lot, I couldn’t find him. I got out and pulled on the door, and he was sticking his head out of a little corner of the building. So we had to sit and wait for him to decide what he was going to do.

“Eventually, I went around to the back and scraped on the wall with a stick, and he came out. We were able to run him across the parking lot, behind the golf course and back into the woods where he belongs. He’s probably the funniest bear I’ve ever dealt with.”

Military conservation agents work with the base’s two conservation law enforcement officers to help maintain a balance between protecting JBER’s people and the region’s diverse wildlife. Conservation law enforcement officers, like James Wendland, are essentially game wardens with additional installation responsibilities.

Photo:James Wendland surveys the perimeter of the base in search of any illegal activity. Wendland patrols the 125 square miles of base property and protects a variety of wildlife during duty. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

James Wendland surveys the perimeter of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, in search of any illegal activity, Sept. 18, 2013. Wendland patrols the 125 square miles of base property and protects a variety of wildlife during duty. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee/Released)

“How many places can you go to work and not know if you’ll have to deal with a black bear, brown bear or wolverine that day?” he asked. “Also, a lot of states have bald eagles, but very few of them. We deal with them on a daily basis, and you see them flying all over the place.”

Wendland began his career as a military conservation agent in 1995, and when he retired from the Air Force as a technical sergeant in 2001, he began working with Alaska Fish and Game. In 2008, the Army selected him as a conservation law enforcement officer for U.S. Army Alaska, and he continued in that position after Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson were consolidated in 2010.

This has been a busy year for Wendland, fellow conservation law enforcement officer Mark Sledge and their conservation agents. The 450 wildlife calls they responded to by September had them on pace to shatter a record that was set only last year.

“We’re pretty diverse,” Wendland said. “We are part park ranger and have to enforce all state laws like Alaska State Troopers do. We do a lot of joint investigations with the troopers and Fish and Wildlife Service, so we do a little bit of everything.

“We also deal with the archaeological and historic preservation side,” he added. “Just about anything dealing with natural resources or that is culturally driven, we deal with.”

One of the things Wendland and others, who enforce conservation laws on JBER’s 125 square mile property, will admit is they never know what to expect. A few weeks earlier, they rescued an injured bald eagle. The day before, they freed a moose that was tangled in wire next to a road.

But much of it is cyclical – they face the bears in the spring and summer, along with the Alaska’s many bald eagles and other raptors, but moose are prevalent pretty much year-round. The conservation officers also have a good working relationship with Alaska Fish and Game, working in support of the state biologist. They are especially helpful when the fish biologist walks streams frequented by brown bears.

“The particular stream is very hazardous where the fish biologist needs to walk a couple of times a year to see what type of salmon and where they are,” Wendland said. “We have a lot of brown bears on that stream, it’s a noisy creek with high banks and low grass in the bear areas. So we try to get a couple of volunteers to go with her and basically be her bodyguard. There have been several times when we came around a corner, and there were salmon still flopping, but missing some of its body parts.”

But they also play a pivotal role whenever skiers or hikers get lost in the Alaskan wilderness, but fortunately usually find them before they have to call for a major search and rescue effort.

“The game wardens know the woods better than anybody else because we’re out in it all the time,” Wendland said. “All three of the civilians in our office are trained at the national level for managing lost-person incidents.”

Photo: James Wendland meets with soldiers, who are volunteer military conservation agents, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, to talk about the events that happened throughout the day, Sept. 18, 2013. Wendland works alongside the soldiers to patrol and protect the base's perimeters. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee/Released)

James Wendland meets with soldiers, who are volunteer military conservation agents, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, to talk about the events that happened throughout the day, Sept. 18, 2013. Wendland works alongside the soldiers to patrol and protect the base’s perimeters. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee/Released)

Wendland’s military conservation agents respond to wildlife incidents when the civilian enforcement officers can’t be in the office. Most of them are active-duty airmen assigned to JBER from a wide variety of jobs. Once they complete 110 hours of training, they are certified to enforce Sikes Act compliance and state fish and wildlife laws on the installation. They cannot apprehend or handcuff anyone, but can issue citations for violations, with arming and ticketing authority from civil engineer and security forces commanders.

Lockhart became a conservation agent a year after he arrived at JBER primarily because he hopes to be a game warden after he retires from the Air Force. Their military job always comes before their wildlife duties, but Lockhart spends between 15 to 20 hours a week patrolling areas such as where the “BK Bear” frequented. Black bears have become more of a nuisance in housing areas the past two years, so the conservation agents and military police keep a more constant presence in those areas. However, Lockhart considers the moose to be the most troublesome animal they have to face.

“The moose isn’t an apex predator, but he can be a lot of places on base where a bear cannot,” Lockhart said. “We had one we called Elliot from the ‘Open Season’ movie. He was a smaller moose but was super aggressive. He was a pain in the tail for about three weeks. Moose can be so unpredictable. Sometimes, you look at them, and they run off. Other times, you can rattle a can at them, and they will run right at you.”

One of the biggest lessons the conservation agents have to learn is how to deal with people, especially those who often don’t understand the efforts to protect a rogue bear or moose that’s in a populated area like housing.

“Here in Alaska, we have what’s called a living with wildlife policy,” Wendland said. “What that means is unless an animal is being an active nuisance or a real problem, we can’t do a whole lot. If it’s just a bear being a bear or a moose being a moose, we have to let them go about their business.

“What that equates to is we have a little bit of confusion in the base populace. If they see a moose in their back yard, they want us to run it off. But we have to explain to them that we can’t do that until it becomes a hazard or aggressive, so we pretty much have to let the moose be a moose. That changes if we have a moose next to the bus stop with kids involved or one that’s protecting its young. But for the most part, we just monitor the animals.”

One example Wendland likes to tell is from his active-duty days when a brown bear was spotted at the golf course. They narrowed the area down to two fairways with the woods in between where they believed the bear was.

“By the time I got there, an older gentleman asked me, ‘Sergeant, why do I need to stop golfing and leave?’” Wendland said. “I told him, ‘We’ve got a really ornery bear that’s coming right through the area. Can I get you to go back to the clubhouse until we can clear the area?’ He started to leave, but I could tell he wasn’t exactly impressed.

“All of a sudden, I heard this gentleman yell, ‘Sergeant! I see why we’re leaving.’ He was pointing to a sand trap where his ball landed inside a giant bear paw print. He moved pretty quickly to the clubhouse then.”

But they sometimes must do things they would rather not. In 2012, for example, they had to put down a bear that was out of control, and normal procedure called for them to also euthanize the bear’s three cubs.

“As you can imagine, your heart sinks when you hear that because the cubs weren’t at fault,” Wendland said. “To be honest, that was the worst feeling I ever had. I told everybody that if it had to be done, I would do it because I didn’t want to put that on anybody else.”

Fortunately, the Alaska Zoo found another zoo that would take the cubs, so nobody had to euthanize them, Wendland said.

As for the “BK Bear,” the many nights of confrontations with conservation agents and military police patrols finally convinced him to move on to another food source. But they never know when the next BK Bear or Elliot the Moose will turn up, and they will once again walk the delicate balance between protecting both JBER’s residents and wild animals.

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Conservation Agents Walk Fine Line Protecting Elmendorf Residents