By Karen Miranda Gleason
Federal wildlife officer Russell Haskett patrols the Snake River. Haskett’s territory includes Southeastern Idaho National Wildlife Refuge Complex’s four refuges and one waterfowl production area. Photo credit: Lance Roberts/USFWS
Enforcing fish and wildlife regulations is central to a federal wildlife officer’s job. For Russell Haskett at the Southeastern Idaho National Wildlife Refuge Complex, rescuing stranded hunters just happens to come with the territory.
Normally, Haskett’s job involves patrolling by truck, all–terrain vehicle (ATV), boat or aircraft. Depending upon the time of year, he may encounter hunting and fishing violations, Migratory Bird Treaty Act infractions or looting of archeological sites. He patrols lands on and off the complex’s four refuges (Minidoka, Camas, Grays Lake, Bear Lake) and one waterfowl production area (Oxford Slough).
One day while on duty in December 2012, Haskett responded to a Power County sheriff’s radio report and found two waterfowl hunters clinging to their capsized canoe in the frigid Snake River near Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge. As the first law enforcement responder on the scene, he weighed the risk of trying to save the men versus staying alive himself.
While federal wildlife officers perform a range of duties and are certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid, search and rescue is not part of their training.
The men had been in the freezing water for half an hour despite their attempts to get to shore. One was unconscious. The other couldn’t speak. Haskett waded into the river and, for the third time in his career, saved lives.
“It was a calculated risk,” he says now. “It was either [go in] or watch those two guys drown.” One man was treated and released after the rescue; the other went into cardiac arrest, underwent surgery and survived after 10 days in the hospital.
Haskett returned to the rescue site to find one of the victim’s eyeglasses. After he visited the victim in the hospital twice, his own focus quickly returned to the reason he comes to work every day — to protect wildlife.
“Without law enforcement, all of the efforts done by biologists are just good recommendations,” he says. “You need law enforcement to give what the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service does teeth.” But as first responders, wildlife officers inevitably end up helping people, too.
Years ago, Haskett rescued another man and his 12–year–old son who had grounded their boat, also while hunting waterfowl on the Snake River. He once even responded to a traffic accident and pulled a man who had suffered a seizure from a burning vehicle. Those incidents occurred during his 13 years as a fish and game officer for the Shoshone–Bannock Tribe, of which he is a member. He joined the Service in 2004.
Today, Haskett’s work involves ongoing joint cooperation with officers from the Tribe, as well as Idaho Fish and Game, the county sheriff and Service special agents.
He is also part of a special team involving Washington, Oregon, and Idaho that eradicates illegal marijuana growth, an increasing problem on public lands in the Northwest. He is one of only five Service law enforcement staff members trained in short–haul helicopter operations.
But regardless of the risk or danger involved with his daily tasks, he wants to go home at the end of the day.
“My No. 1 rule is to assess the situation so you don’t become a victim yourself,” he says.
Karen Miranda Gleason is a public affairs specialist in the Refuge System Branch of Fire Management at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID.