The New Wildlife Biologist

By Mike Stahlberg
VIDA, OR–As a teenager, Brian Wolfer rode in the passenger seat of a pick-up truck, holding a spotlight out the window, helping his father survey deer populations for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) in Medford.

At age 32, Wolfer is still spotlighting Blacktail Deer for the state wildlife agency, but now he’s the one in the driver’s seat, one eye on the narrow logging road, the other peering into the woods, looking for the tell-tale glint of deer eyes reflecting light.

Wolfer is the ODFW’s new wildlife biologist in the southern Willamette watershed. Wolfer previously worked as the assistant district biologist, where he dealt with issues ranging from Sage Grouse management to the occasional (unverified) report of a wolf sighting.

The job of wildlife biologists is part wildlife monitor, part wildlife advocate, part public relations, and part lightning rod for any wildlife-related problems or issues that may arise.

Unlike many of his classmates in the wildlife biology program at Oregon State University, Wolfer said, “I knew what I was getting into.” After all, he was simply following his father’s career path.

“Many of those kids had no idea what a biologist actually does,” Wolfer said.  What biologists do during late November and early December–when deer population trend counts and herd composition surveys are conducted after hunting season ends–is log long hours.

On this day, Wolfer arrived at the ODFW’s office in east Springfield at 8:15 a.m. and didn’t head home until almost midnight. In between, he spent the daylight hours on the telephone and at the computer in his office, stepped outside at dusk to take tissue samples from the head of an elk, brought in by a hunter to check for chronic wasting disease, and drove through the darkness for six hours doing deer survey work.

Blacktail Deer tend to bed down during the day and feed in clear cuts at night, so monitoring their population requires biologists to work nights. The deer surveys give wildlife managers an indication of the ratio of bucks and fawns’ does–information that can dictate changes in hunting regulations. In recent years, biologists also have used the surveys to look for signs of deer hair loss syndrome and other diseases.

At other times of the year, Wolfer might be found in the field riding in a helicopter to survey the local elk population, pulling teeth from hunter-harvested Black Bears for use by researchers, monitoring Western Pond Turtle habitat, or counting doves at a spring.

Most of a wildlife biologist’s job, however, involves dealing with people, not animals. And many members of the public have misconceptions about the role of their local wildlife biologist.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is just the size of our staff and the things we have time to respond to ranging from sick and injured wildlife to nuisance wildlife damage,” Wolfer said.

“We’re in a pretty big area here, with a large urban component, and when you have that there are a lot of injured animal issues,” he said. “And we’ve essentially got two people here, so there’s a limit on how much help we can provide to people and still get the rest of our jobs done.”

Indeed, Wolfer and assistant district biologist Christopher Yee rely upon volunteers for such things as wildlife rehabilitation and for help with habitat improvement projects. But Wolfer said he does try to make time to check out reports of sick deer. “I would try to get samples from that animal, as opposed to one that’s been struck by a car.”

Another common misconception is that biologists are available to tranquilize problem animals with dart guns.

“The ability to safely and effectively dart animals is not what people think it is,” Wolfer said. “For instance, we don’t relocate problem Cougars, and the same thing with bears. If an animal is creating enough of a problem that it can’t continue where it’s at, we’re not going to move that problem to somebody else.”

His top job priorities, Wolfer said, include familiarizing himself with his new district and establishing good working relationships with owners and managers of private timberlands in the district.

Due to changes in habitat resulting from reduced timber harvesting on public lands, “private timber is getting more and more important to our hunters,” Wolfer said.

He also wants to use the ODFW’s “Wildlife Access and Habitat Program,” funded by a $2 surcharge on hunting licenses, to help maximize public access to private lands.

“I’d like to try and be a liaison between some of the hunter groups and the timber companies for special projects that the different hunter groups could do,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ve got enough positive face time between our landowners and some of our hunter groups, so I’d like to encourage that.”

The salaries of state wildlife biologists are financed in large part by license and tag fees and excise taxes paid by hunters. (The pay scale for a supervising wildlife biologist ranges from about $40,000 to about $59,000 per year.)

But Wolfer’s job also includes responsibility for non-game species, and he wants to work with owners of private lands used by non-game species.

“We have a lot of unique habitat types around here” such as the oak savannahs on the fringes of the Willamette Valley “that need to be preserved if certain species are going to be maintained in this area,” he said.

“There are landowners who would like to do positive things for wildlife, and I’ll try to work with them to let them know about some of the positive things they can do to enhance habitat values on their lands–just protecting what they have, voluntarily.”

Meanwhile, Wolfer said his first deer surveys in the McKenzie and Indigo units of eastern Lane County are producing mixed results. In some “strongholds” where lots of forage combines with plenty of nearby cover, “deer seem to be doing well, as a whole,” he said, but “we don’t see the numbers” in areas with less-productive habitat.

Of course, Wolfer knows well that spotlighting surveys can produce misleading results.

After all, it was his father, Mervin Wolfer, who came up with the idea of using cameras hidden along deer trails to photograph migrating Blacktail in southern Oregon. The cameras–triggered by breaking a laser beam across the trail–snapped flash or infrared photos of whatever happened along.

And hundreds of Mervin Wolfer’s photos documented that there was a much higher percentage of bucks–and many more big bucks–in the population than had ever seen by hunters, or biologists. –Register-Guard