A Talk on the Wild Side.
|Refuge Federal Wildlife Officer Michael Whitney of Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge gave Elder Pius Sipray one of the blankets made by Alaska Law Enforcement Chief Jim Hjelmgren’s sister. Photo by Elder House|
You don’t have to talk to Alaska Refuge Law Enforcement Chief Jim Hjelmgren very long before you hear the word — several times, in fact — when he talks about the relationship between Alaska Natives and the 13 full-time Federal Wildlife Officers (FWOs) who work “in the woods and on the rivers” to protect natural resources across 77 million acres within 16 national wildlife refuges in the state. The law enforcement contingent in Alaska also includes two zone officers.
“Positivity” wasn’t always the byword for Refuge Law Enforcement in Alaska. “About six years ago, our philosophy changed dramatically,” says Hjelmgren, who has held his position since October 2007. Contacts with the local community then were often confrontational: boat chases, protests, sometimes threats against officers in communities where hunting and fishing mean putting fish and meat onto drying racks and into smokehouses for months of way-below-zero weather.
“It was dangerous for both sides,” recalls Hjelmgren, who has worked in natural resource law enforcement since 1987. “The only time we would show up in a village is when we had a problem.”
The turning point came in 2013, a difficult fishing year when the State of Alaska and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had to severely restrict fishing based on biological assessments of Chinook salmon runs. In many remote locations across the state, about 70 percent of Alaska Native people’s diet is fish.
“We were asking folks to wait weeks before they could fish. They watched the prime time for drying their fish pass,” said Hjelmgren. “It turned into a ‘no fishing opportunity’ for extended periods, and people had experienced that pre-season assessments sometimes don’t pan out.”
The law enforcement response?
“We showed up on the beach and in villages in full duty gear as a show that we are wide open, that we are here to listen,” recalls Hjelmgren. “There was lots of anger, lots of anger. We let it go. ‘We’re here to listen and to help,’ we told the villages.” Not long later, the outreach programs began.
FWO Kelly Modla of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge organized the Service’s first Federal Wildlife Officer Camp in Alaska in 2014: 45 kids, grades 4-6, enrolled for two days of archery, air rifle instruction, wildlife forensics, search and rescue demonstrations to show how an officer can find a lost hiker, and wildlife identification. “Teach an officer to teach archery to kids, and it’s complete magic,” says Hjelmgren.
Refuge Federal Wildlife Officer Steve Steinger of the Northeast Region taught youngsters all about air rifles during an archery camp at Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS
The programming grew. Today during fishing season, at least one patrol boat is used to go into villages to bring archery, air rifle and boating safety instruction. “We bring positivity to the villages. Over a two-week period, we have a dozen to 20 mini-camps in villages, and the people love it. It’s an out-of-the-park hit.” FWOs work with several hundred villages across Alaska, some as small as a handful of residents.
FWOs have been trained to understand how cultural difference play out in interviews when an incident occurs. “We teach our officers that Alaskan Native people respond differently than people from other cultures. A world-renowned expert on Native culture helped produce a training video.”
More law enforcement outreach programs are coming, including nutrition and one to combat domestic violence. But the impact of relationship building is already clear.
Refuge Federal Wildlife Officer Kelly Modla gives one campers special instruction on archery. “Teach an officer to teach archery to kids, and it’s complete magic,” says Alaska Refuge Law Enforcement Chief Jim Hjelmgren. Photo by USFWS
Two years ago, the opportunity to fish again became an issue. One village planned to protest. This time, Hjelmgren had advance notice and the chance to meet with the Tribal Council. “After our conversation, after I assured them that when the biology says it is OK, they will have the opportunity to fish.” When it came time to decide on the protest, every Tribal Council member voted to delay.
“The same tribal leadership that wouldn’t talk to us five or six years ago, now invite us into their villages,” says Hjelmgren. “We spend time with their kids. As big government, we have to learn how to be neighborly. I always says, it’s like a Seinfeld episode (on TV), we just talk to them about nothing. … We learn things from them that you will never read in a book.”
Enter Hjelmgren’s sister act.
“When I went home last summer, I asked my family if they would help make some polar fleece scarfs and hats for the kids and elders in bush Alaska who may be in need of a long lost smile. I came back to Alaska with a bounty of 30 hand-made, polar fleece hats and scarfs,” Hjelmgren smiles.
A few months later, he got a text from his sister, a delivery room nurse in his home state of Minnesota, who said she had made 120 blankets to give the elders and youth. “I thought it was a typo and she meant 12 blankets. ‘No, she said, 120.’”
When Hjelmgren opened the packages, they contained more than 200 blankets. His first stop was the Elder House in Bethel.
“True conservation, sustained conservation, begins and ends with kindness, empathy and trust,” says Hjelmgren. “You have to give positivity.”