Wildlife monitors help protect endangered species

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Matthew Rosine
  • Air Force Print News
As night turns into dawn, a man's shadow rises on a rugged desert butte. His gaze slices through the morning light looking for his target. It is hard to hunt down the fastest land animal in North America, but he is good at stalking this elusive ghost of the Arizona desert.

But, Erik Stenehjem is not looking for a hunter’s trophy from his perch among the cactus. In fact, he is not a hunter at all. He is a guardian, only one of a few select protectors of the Sonoran pronghorn antelope, an endangered animal that lives on the Barry M. Goldwater Range.

“I really like my job,” said Mr. Stenehjem, the lead wildlife biologist here for pronghorn monitors. “It is fun. It’s one of those jobs that people can say ‘I can’t believe they are paying me to do this.'

“I really like hiking out into the desert every morning,” said the former high school teacher. “I guess my favorite part of the job is being out in an area where not everyone gets to go.” 

Many people might assume that the five Pronghorn monitors who work the range have easy jobs. But, there is a lot more to it than carrying a pair of binoculars.

“Primarily, we spot for pronghorn,” Mr. Stenehjem said. “But, secondarily we look for anybody who shouldn’t be here.”

Just as the pronghorn antelope are in danger from the live-fire combat training that takes place on the range, so are the undocumented aliens, or UDAs, who illegally cross the border through range territory.

If pronghorn spotters see either the antelope or UDAs in the vicinity of live-fire ranges, they call it in and flying is restricted for the day. These instances result in approximately 7 percent of all missions flown annually on the range being called off.

The spotters also call range security and the U.S. Border Patrol to pick up any UDAs on the range. Monitors must also be careful because many of these people have been walking through the desert for days without food or water and are suffering from severe dehydration, sun exposure sickness and often shock.

The pronghorn monitors also support other range programs. They conduct insect surveys to help track effects on the desert ecosystem. They perform raptor surveys which evaluate and observe the birds of prey on the range.

The range has its own specific rules and regulations -- not only about driving (on-road only) and safety concerns, but in a historical sense, too. Eighteen Native American tribes have ancestral roots there.

There are more than 1,200 archeological sites on the range. If monitors happen across any of these sites or a new site, they can not disturb it in any way or touch any of the pieces.

“It really comes down to enjoying your job,” said J.T. Hesse, the senior wildlife biologist with the 56th Range Management Office. Mr. Hesse is one of the people in the RMO who provide quality assurance for the monitors on the range.

“They do a very good job. At a minimum they will have to stare out at a blank desert. Ninety percent of the time they don’t see pronghorn out there, but they are always vigilant and well prepared,” Mr. Hesse said.

Monitors must be in place to watch for the antelope 30 minutes before sunrise. Since the range is 1.05 million acres in size, it can take several hours to get in place. Mr. Stenehjem said during the summer months he must wake up at 2:15 a.m. to be in place on time. His days usually end about 6:30 p.m.

But for everyone involved with the pronghorn monitoring program, the reward seems to be well worth the time and effort.

“The thing that most people don’t realize is that the Sonoran Desert isn’t just a big dusty hole,” Mr. Hesse said. “It is teeming with a unique wildlife complexity that is well worth the effort to conserve.”