- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) - They carry a gun, usually work outside, know the roadways across Indiana, enforce wildlife laws and ensure the safety of people on national wildlife refuges and other federal lands. They are known as federal wildlife officers, and most people don’t even know there are 25 working in Indiana.

Officer Frank Polyak is a federal wildlife officer who works on the national wildlife refuge properties in southern Indiana. On a recent Saturday morning, he stopped his large gray pickup truck at the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge Restle Unit in northwestern Monroe County.

“Do you know where you are?” he asked a woman stopped at the refuge to watch wildlife from the deck overlooking the wetlands. A few minutes later, when a tour group disembarked from a bus, he gave a short talk about the wildlife and plants that grow and thrive in the 78 acres.

Afterward, Polyak drove to Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge near Oakland City before ending his day at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge near Seymour. He estimated he drives 300-500 miles each week while on duty. He also walks between two and 10 miles on a normal day, and 10-15 miles a day during hunting seasons.

“The majority of time, I’ll be at Muscatatuck,” Polyak said, who lives in Columbus. He spends three or four days at Muscatatuck most weeks. He also travels to Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge north of Madison a couple times during a normal week. A couple times each month, he travels to the Patoka River reserve.

“There’s a lot of roads in here,” Polyak said about the Muscatatuck refuge. “I do a couple patrols through and talk to visitors.”

That can mean stopping to chat with hikers, fishermen or hunters. Polyak will make sure visitors know where they are allowed to be, answer questions and check fishing and hunting licenses. “When I stop and talk with a visitor, I’m looking all around them,” he said. “We find a lot of illegal things.”

At Muscatatuck, the biggest infractions are trespassing on the property after hours and littering. There are also a few hunting and fishing violations, Polyak said. “We do find meth labs out here. I do stop people a lot with marijuana. We’re always looking.”

“We do a lot of foot patrol,” Polyak said. That happens more often in the spring and fall, when he and the other officers are traveling through the woods looking for anything that seems out of place. That could mean someone who is hunting out of season or someone who doesn’t seem to be acting correctly. During hunting season, Polyak will walk in the woods to check hunters in their tree stands.

While in his pickup, Polyak has a whole office of equipment to help him do his job - from an assortment of radios, guns, other weapons, radar mounted in the front and back of the truck and lots of safety gear. Many officers are also trained for water rescue, various types of rope rescue and how to use special boats and other equipment. There are also canine officers, and officers who fly helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft. Polyak is a wildfire firefighter and helps instruct others on how to start and properly maintain various types of prescribed burns.

Working at Big Oaks has its special aspects. Since part of the property overlays the former Jefferson Proving Ground and the Indiana Air National Guard still operates an air-to-ground bombing range just north of the wildlife refuge, Polyak is also responsible for ensuring visitors’ safety. Anyone who visits Big Oaks, which is open only a few days each week, must view a safety video and sign an acknowledgement of danger prior to entering the refuge.

“Over at Big Oaks, we have one of the biggest fire programs,” Polyak said. Officers and others are trained for different rescue and firefighting scenarios. There are also prescribed burns on the property.

Geoff Donaldson, zone federal wildlife officer for three states in the Midwest, said there are currently 250 federal wildlife officers stationed throughout the United States.

Those officers have jurisdiction over 150 million acres of national lands that are U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service properties. In all, there are 560 wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management areas included.

“We give the officers some pretty good training,” Donaldson said. “We send them off for 10 months for their basic training. This is as close as you can get to being a state game warden on the federal side,” he said.

Donaldson does recruitment for the southern portion of the Midwest region. He recently was talking to college students, letting them know becoming a federal wildlife officer is a possible career path for people who like the outdoors, want to help with conservation of lands and get along well with the public. Donaldson is hoping his recent recruiting efforts will net 12 new officers, which will be the biggest increase in officers in the past five years.

No matter where they are stationed, Donaldson said the officers’ priority is protecting wildlife and resources on the refuges while also ensuring visitors to the refuge are safe. And even though an officer may be assigned to a certain part of a state, that doesn’t mean he or she won’t be traveling.

“We can send these guys to the border to work alongside the border patrol,” Donaldson said. “And we could send them down to Florida to work and protect the manatee, and along to Kentucky where illegal marijuana grows.”

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Source: The (Bloomington) Herald-Times, http://bit.ly/1Qie3cs

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Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com

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