When you think of Southwestern federal wildlife officers, drug interdiction probably comes to mind. And, while Ben Lanford does do anti–drug–smuggling work, his job entails much more than that.

For starters, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s only full–time federal wildlife officer for New Mexico’s eight national wildlife refuges, Lanford covers a lot of ground.

He is the primary officer for Bosque del Apache, Sevilleta, Las Vegas, Maxwell, Rio Mora, San Andres and Valle de Oro Refuges. That’s roughly 400,000 acres of refuge land in a 160,000–square–mile territory. At Bitter Lake Refuge in southeastern New Mexico, refuge manager Floyd Truetken and outdoor recreation planner Steve Alvarez serve as dual–function officers.

Because the territory is huge, federal land management agencies cross–designate officers in New Mexico.

“I work almost day to day with other land management officers for the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to help provide law enforcement coverage on their lands. They, in return, provide some coverage for refuges,” says Lanford, who is based at Bosque del Apache Refuge in central New Mexico. “There are no typical days, only typical seasons.”

In the hot summer months, when refuge visitation slows, Lanford helps Service firefighters in various capacities. He also keeps an eye out for underage outdoor parties and trespassing violations on refuges and other federal lands.

In fall and winter, he focuses on refuge visitors—“everything from first–time family visitors to professional wildlife photographers”—as well as migratory bird hunters and poachers.

“A typical migratory bird season involves thousands of miles of patrol and hundreds of checks,” he says. “Because the Service has such a small LE presence in this zone with the limited amount of officers, I spend a lot of time educating hunters and answering questions.”

Year–round, he is on the lookout for Archaeological Resources Protection Act violations related to New Mexico’s abundant prehistoric, Native American, Spanish and even Civil War cultural resources.

“As all of our officers know, we come across all walks of life during our patrols,” he says. “Any day can go from a simple fishing compliance check with a family to a felony arrest on your next stop.”

Lanford, a 27–year–old New Mexico native, grew up hunting, fishing and enjoying the outdoors. “The idea of being a game warden was always appealing to me,” he says. “When I discovered the Fish and Wildlife Service, I knew I found what I wanted to do.”

Before joining the Service, he served four years in the Marine Corps, including Iraq and Afghanistan combat tours. “The leadership, training, discipline and experiences I had in the Corps helped prepare me as an officer in ways no other job can,” he says. “The Service, especially in LE, has strong ties to hiring vets.”

Photo of Ben Lanford

While he is mostly a game warden, Lanford does drug enforcement, too. He regularly serves on details along the Arizona–Mexico border, particularly at Cabeza Prieta Refuge—where in excess of 1,000 pounds of narcotics are seized weekly, on average, he says. At New Mexico refuges, marijuana growth is an increasing problem, he says, as is heroin and methamphetamine trafficking statewide.

At border security training, he learned that millions of dollars in narcotics travel annually from Mexico to Denver on Interstate 25, which runs through Bosque del Apache and Sevilleta Refuges.

Still, he finds his game warden duties most satisfying.

“The most rewarding part of my job is walking up to a group of hunters and, before I finish identifying myself, they shout out a ‘Good morning, Ben,’ ” he says. “Seeing wildlife in places most people only see in pictures makes coming to work easy.”