Brit Oleson loves her job. As the wildlife manager for Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), her primary district extends from Nogales to the
San Pedro, but she covers calls from as far away as McNeal and Elfrida.
Oleson, who is 30 years old, hardly looks old enough to be a game warden. “When I first came here,” she said, “people called the Tucson office to see if I was real. They didn’t think I was old enough to have a gun or to be a game warden.” She started out in Bullhead City five years ago, but always knew that the Patagonia was her “dream district,” and three years ago jumped at the chance to move to
Oleson, who is originally from Illinois, came to Tucson as a graduate student in wildlife conservation and management after graduating from Lawrence University in Wisconsin.
After three years of study, she joined AZGFD, then attended six months training to become a state certified peace officer. This was followed by an additional six months of training with AZGFD, where she learned additional skills, including how to identify condemned meat, how to dart and transport wild animals, capture techniques, how to operate a boat and an ATV, and how to engage in high speed chases.
During the summer, Oleson spends a good deal of time at Patagonia and Parker Canyon Lakes checking fishing licenses and life jacket compliance. During hunting season, she puts in 16-hour days checking licenses, tags, and whether the hunters are using legal weapons. Checkpoints are set up in Hog Canyon and Gardner Canyon during quail season. “In my line of work the vast majority of people that I talk to are law abiding citizens,” she
says. “The thing that worries me the most are drunk drivers.”
She also responds to poaching calls. “The laws are very specific and highly regulated. You are allowed to use this weapon at this time on this animal in this area,” she said. “Any violation is considered poaching.” She works together with the county sheriff’s offices, DPS,
the Park Service, the Forest Service and Border Patrol. “Border Patrol, honestly, it’s my back-up most of the time,” she said.
Oleson also responds to any calls concerning injured wildlife. If the injury is not too severe, she will transport the animal to a wildlife rehabilitation center. A common situation that she deals with are deer stuck in fences. “Sometimes I’m able to save
them, but a lot of the time I can’t,” she said.
“We deal with wildlife attacks and other serious nuisance wildlife issues,” she said. “We deal with cases involving restricted live wildlife (basically, pets you’re not allowed to have as pets). I have had some interesting ones, including a little old lady out on the Colorado River who was living in a tiny trailer with an adult male African serval cat. She said she bought it because the dealer wouldn’t sell her the tiger.”
She is responsible for monitoring nine wildlife water cachements in the area and arranges for water to be brought in when the levels drop too low. She is also involved in education and outreach. She is especially interested in encouraging youth to get involved in the outdoors. “I want to increase the amount of activities for these rural kids,” she said.
One of the most interesting aspects of her job is the surveying of wildlife populations in the area to set sustainable fishing and hunting limits. Surveying fish in Patagonia Lake is done at night with lights. An electrical charge stuns fish, which are scooped up and placed in a live well on the boat. She has netted 40 and 50-pound flatheads at Patagonia Lake, some of which are microchipped to monitor their growth.
Game species are surveyed from a helicopter once a year. She spends a week or two flying around the area counting javalinas, deer and pronghorns. “We assign permit numbers, and that’s the data we use,” she said. “For bears and lions, we don’t have a good way to survey them,” she said. “I’ll see maybe a lion a year from the helicopter.
“Hunters have to have a tag. Any lion or bear has to be physically checked out by an AZGFD employee,” she said. “Information about the age, sex and where the animal was harvested is used to establish population models.”
Another factor in the number of permits issued for each species is the available hunting territory. For instance, “many of the San Rafael pronghorns are on private land with no hunting,” she said. They are counted, but the lack of access is taken into consideration. AZGFD works with many large ranchers to keep their land open to the public. “We don’t want hunting to become a rich man’s game,” she said.
She has observed a fall in the number of mule deer in the area, due, she believes, to climate change and loss of habitat. Dove season is “pretty slow,” according to Oleson, but dove numbers are doing really well. There is no set season for coyotes, cottontails and
jack rabbits. “We like to leave small game alone, so people can fill their freezers,” she said.
Turkeys seem to hold a special place in Oleson’s heart. “No one in the world has as much gould’s turkey data as I have on my laptop,” she said. Turkeys were hunted out of existence in southern Arizona 100 years ago. In 1983, a number of gould’s turkeys were successfully relocated to Santa Cruz County from Mexico. The population has risen to several hundred birds, and now Santa Cruz County turkeys are being relocated to other areas. A few years ago, 60 turkeys from the district were traded to New Mexico for 40 pronghorns. This year, the Mule Mountains are set to get turkeys, to augment the flock of 33 birds that were
released there previously. Oleson uses a walk-in trap to capture turkeys, but they are proving to be elusive. “I need a couple more big toms,” she said. “I’ve got my eye on a few. I’ll get them.”