“Normally that would be a suspicious vehicle to me,” says Samantha Fleming as she patrols a Patuxent Research Refuge road that is closed to motorized traffic. “But it’s okay. That’s Bill Harms, a volunteer who’s collecting vegetation samples” for Patuxent’s herbarium.

Fleming, a federal wildlife officer at the Maryland refuge, knows its 12,841 acres and the people who frequent them like the back of her hand.

“It’s important to have relationships with visitors. Lots of times they’re your eyes and ears. They let you know what’s going on,” says Fleming. “The better you know them, the better they feel about the refuge, the safer they feel on the refuge” and the more likely they are to report something untoward happening on the refuge.

It was 9:30 on a Saturday morning when Fleming recognized Harms—basically lunch time for her on this day. She had been at the refuge since 4:30 a.m. She checked in participants at a youth wild turkey hunt before dawn. Then, as first light and refuge wildlife arose simultaneously, she began to patrol in her U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement Chevrolet Tahoe.

“Patuxent is challenging because it is an urban refuge,” Fleming says. “We are 20 minutes from D.C. and 20 minutes from Baltimore, so we get an influx of different types of people. We get a lot of backcountry folks, and we also get a lot of city folks coming in not really knowing how to be in a refuge.”

Patuxent Refuge is challenging also because it has three separate tracts in two counties.

On this day, Fleming started on the North Tract, “where the majority of hunting goes on and fishing,” she says. “That’s our biggest challenge, trying to cover the 8,000 acres, which is small in comparison to most places, but there is such a diverse use up here and it’s so accessible to the public that we stay very, very busy.”

She had been away for a few days, so before the refuge opened to visitors at 8 a.m., she checked roads, trails and “potential hotspots” for damage, dumping or mischief. She also checked that signage was intact and gates were locked. That’s important on former military base land holding unexploded ordnance and rifle ranges still used by the National Security Agency, the Secret Service and others.

Next, she drove 20 minutes to the 2,540–acre South Tract, “where our beautiful visitor center is. … We had a rash of vehicle break–ins. We’ve had to update our camera system.” Today all was quiet, so she checked out Service land along Maryland Route 197, which bisects the refuge and is the scene of frequent auto accidents that result in refuge fence damage.

The Central Tract is why it’s called Patuxent Research Refuge. The tract houses the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and endangered species/migratory bird facilities. The tract is generally closed to the public, but errant bicyclists, lost drivers and speeding delivery vehicles cause problems. With about 200 people from various agencies working on the refuge, issues regarding research permits and personnel matters arise, too. Everything in order on this Saturday, Fleming gassed up and headed back to the North Tract.

Hers can be a solitary job. So, in addition to chatting up, checking on or nodding to visitors, she relies on the U.S. Park Police, county police and other law enforcement agencies for help. “I need all the support I can get,” she says.

Not that she’s complaining. Fleming has been interested in the law and protecting animals since she was growing up near Boston. She enjoys being outside. She especially likes that—even though she’s on call pretty much 24/7—“no day is like any other day.”

She employs a low–key style, when possible. In approaching individuals who might be violating the law, she is conversational, not confrontational. “I don’t start off as close–minded or rough,” she says. She builds rapport. That way “they tell me what I need to know” uneventfully. “If I come off as being confrontational, they’re more likely to come off as confrontational.”

And she loves seeing kids catch their first fish. “Sometimes they have to have their dad or mom help them pull the fish in because it’s so big, and they’ve got a smile that’s ear–to–ear. And you can tell right then and there they’re hooked,” she says. “Same thing with hunting.”

Photo of Samantha Fleming
Fleming checks the hunting license of Patuxent Refuge visitor Christian Wilder. (Bill O’Brian/USFWS)

Back on the North Tract, she helped two young hunters measure wild turkeys they took and reminded them to report the kills to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

She also touched based with 10–year–old Sebastian Wilder. On this day, Sebastian did not bag a turkey. But his father, Christian, was grateful for the opportunity.

“It’s hard for me to sum up what the refuge means to me,” Christian Wilder said, “because I’ve been coming here since I was younger than my son is. I look forward to him growing up here, my daughter growing up here and hopefully their children growing up here.”

He said he and Sebastian will be back next year for the youth turkey hunt.

Samantha Fleming likely will be there, too, checking them in, checking out their harvest and, as always, checking on the refuge.


A video related to this article, “A Day in the Life of a Federal Wildlife Officer,” is on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service You Tube page: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXvpnWb9LtU&feature=youtu.be