One of a Select Few

Wildlife Conservation Officer Protects Animals, Habitat

by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue.

In 2011, Pennsylvania enjoys a diverse wildlife population, a turnaround from what could have been when, in the late 1800s, wildlife was declining in the face of widespread deforestation, unregulated hunting and trapping, and pollution.

Michael J. Reeder, ’96, is one of only 600 candidates since 1937 to graduate from the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Ross Leffler School of Conservation and become a wildlife conservation officer. A career plan 12 years in the making included a Penn College forest technology degree. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the state today is home to more deer, bear and turkeys than when colonists first arrived, through efforts of the commission and other organizations to study and protect wildlife, improve its habitat, and educate the public. Its policies have become a model for other states.

"I like challenge and something different every day, and this job is just that."

On the front lines of those efforts are the commission's 135 wildlife conservation officers, of which Michael J. Reeder, '96, is one.

Reeder covers about 350 square miles in northern York County, with the assistance of volunteer part-time deputies who help to patrol the area. The job entails not only enforcing hunting and trapping laws, but also investigating hunting accidents, conducting wildlife surveys, assisting in wildlife research projects and providing education programs.

"It is never the same from day to day. … It can never get boring like some jobs can," he said. "I like challenge and something different every day, and this job is just that."

Pennsylvania's wildlife continues to face threats, the most serious of which, Reeder said, are loss of habitat and poaching; changing case law – as well as new laws as they are enacted – constantly alter the way wildlife conservation officers do their jobs.

His time might be spent helping biologists with research by performing turkey surveys or banding doves so that the commission may study their population and dispersal. The information helps the commission to determine the best way to manage the state's wildlife.

But much of his attention is given to the people who reside in his region. He conducts education programs for local schools, including some college students. One of his favorites is a Wildlife Forensics course, during which Reeder teaches students how to use science to solve a crime. Following a 45-minute classroom discussion, he takes them outdoors, where he has fabricated a complete crime scene, with bullet casings, blood and a deer carcass (roadkill he's picked up) hidden in the bushes. The students find the body and take measurements off the deer, including using a thermometer to take its nasal temperature, to help solve the case.

"It's the whole CSI effect," he said. "They love it."

On the job, Reeder releases a Ring-necked Pheasant. His inspiration to become a wildlife conservation officer was sparked by a part-time job propagating pheasants on the State Game Farm in Loyalsockville, Lycoming County. Photo courtesy of Michael Reeder.Often, his day is dictated by the calls he may receive from "There's a raccoon in my garage," or "My daughter just brought home an opossum," to the bizarre incidents that Reeder declines to repeat.

"Everybody gets into this job because they want to help wildlife," Reeder said. "But you end up dealing with people."

He deals with his share of disgruntled constituents, who face citations for such incidents as breaking hunting laws or boating or driving under the influence, but his affable demeanor and his law-enforcement training help to keep confrontations in check.

"I've never been in a situation where I've been in a shouting match; we're really taught to use our mouth," he said. He realizes most of those who confront him with hostility are angry, but not at him. "I let them vent. … Every time, I've been able to talk them down. I've never had to reach for pepper spray or a firearm. I usually never raise my voice."

Reeder set his sights on becoming a wildlife conservation officer in 1993. A Loyalsockville native, he had no plans to attend college when he graduated from Montoursville Area High School that spring.

"I just didn't think I needed it," he said.

Until, that is, he got a part-time job working with his uncle as a wildlife propagator at the Loyalsock State Game Farm. The farm, operated by the Game Commission, raises pheasants that are released for hunting across the state. When commission officers visited the farm, Reeder listened to the "great stories" they told about their recent cases and other details of their job.

"I said, 'That's what I want to do. I know that's what I want to do,'" Reeder said.

A Pennsylvania College of Technology student told him about the forest technology program at the college, and he decided to enroll in the Fall 1994 semester.

"After I started classes, I thought it was great that I could go to school for what I wanted to go for," Reeder said. "Which made it very interesting and fun!"

He completed the associate degree and graduated in May 1996 with knowledge in dendrology, botany, wildlife management, forest ecology and forest recreation.

Reeder continued to work at the pheasant farm and bolstered his experience with volunteer activities, maintaining a website for the Lycoming Audubon Society and taking over a bluebird box trail for his neighbor, wildlife rehabilitator Ed Reish, '56.

In 2001, Reeder transferred to York County, where his wife grew up, and became a part of the "food and cover," or habitat maintenance, crew.

"We maintained the state game lands, which included planting crops and trees for wildlife, cutting trees, repairing roads and trails, mowing, and general maintenance," Reeder said.

In 2005, he became a volunteer deputy, and in 2007, he was one of about 25 cadets accepted to the Game Commission's Ross Leffler School of Conservation in Harrisburg. The school was founded in 1936. Only about 600 wildlife conservation officers have graduated from the school since its inception.

The application and acceptance process alone takes about a year, Reeder said. The candidate pool begins with about 2,000 hopeful applicants, but only about 900 applications are accepted. Then comes a two-hour "written" test (administered by computer). Written tests are scored, and the best are selected for an oral test, which is videorecorded and evaluated. Written and oral test scores are combined, and the best applicants are selected for interviews in their homes, where the selection committee can speak with their families, "because it's quite a commitment," Reeder said.

Then comes a final interview, when the applicant answers questions from nine interviewers, followed by a psychological test and a physical test that gauges his or her ability in swimming, running, agility and endurance.

By the time the 27th class entered the Ross Leffler School in March 2007, the pool had been narrowed to about 25 cadets. Classes are accepted at the school only when there are sufficient job openings, which left a seven-year gap between the 26th class, which graduated in 2001, and Reeder's.

"We have guys that could retire but keep going," Reeder said. "They're very dedicated people; they want to do this."

Reeder feels the same.

"This is all I've ever wanted to do,"

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