Biologist’s death cause for reflection on nature workers

The death of state wildlife biologist Rocky Spencer is a blow to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Spencer died Saturday while assisting with a bighorn sheep capture in the Yakima River Canyon. As he stepped from a helicopter, Spencer was hit by one of the helicopter's rotors.

When I heard what happened to Spencer over the weekend, I felt sad for his family and co-workers. I never had the chance to meet the 55-year-old Ravensdale man, but I know the people who work for fish and wildlife agencies are a tightknit group. His death will resonate throughout the region.

Spencer's death got me thinking about all of the people who work for the agencies charged with protecting our fish, wildlife, mountain vistas and high desert expanses.

They work in difficult times as human and wildlife populations intermingle more and more every day. Not only are more people taking to the backcountry, but also housing developments have extended far beyond the forest's edge. That leads to more people-wildlife conflicts.

Wildlife and park agency employees also work under tremendous pressure from user groups.

Private landowners, as an example, want them to do something about the elk eating the hay intended for livestock. Hunters argue they have too few opportunities to hunt those same elk. In the middle of the often heated tug-of-war is the wildlife biologist.

Last year, I attended a session where the public asked questions about the state's plan to manage the Mount St. Helens elk herd. At one table, a state biologist gave an assessment of the state's plan. But for a few hunters at the table, her answers never seemed good enough, not slanted enough in their favor.

These dedicated agency employees also have to contend with shrinking resources. As hard as staff members at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument work to maintain facilities, they still face a daunting $13 million maintenance backlog. The continued trimming of the monument budget is forcing the closure of the Coldwater Ridge visitor center this fall.

Finally, on top of little pay, some employees are not sure how long their jobs will last from year to year.

In the case of one botanist I met at Mount Rainier National Park, not only was her pay low by most standards, but also there wasn't enough money in her program to employ her year-round. When the money ran out, she was out of work until the next round of funding began.

Imagine starting each year not knowing how long you would work, how long you would have off, whether you would need to get another job to fill the slack time. Talk about stressful.

I once knew a game warden in Montana who laughed when I asked about comp time and overtime. There were so few wardens in the field that, if he took time off, there would be no one out there to watch the hunters and fishermen.

But there is a commonality that keeps these people in the field, in Spencer's case for three decades. They have a passion for the outdoors, and an intense desire to protect it.

That's what carries them through public hearings where tempers flare and the verbal attacks can get personal. It's what gets them through the phone calls from people sure their wandering house cat has become a meal for a hungry cougar. It's what drives them to find a way to get a job done, even when they're told there isn't enough money.

Spencer's death is a tragic blow. But it should give us cause to stop and offer a word of thanks to his brethren in the field, the men and women working to protect our natural resources.