The stars of the Wild Kingdom TV series made it glamorous, but Howard Ferguson has made his living handling and monitoring critters ranging from butterflies to moose.
The wildlife biologist is retiring after 21 years with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“I just got back from doing golden eagle surveys on the ground and from the air,” he said last week. “I surveyed nests and historical nest sites along the Columbia River for a couple days. Found two nesting pairs and found a peregrine falcon and bald eagles.
“That was my last field work for the agency. Leaving is bittersweet. It’s a job I love.”
Ferguson, 64, says he’s handled a wide range of birds for banding or other research: “Probably more than 4,000,” he said, without hinting at the amount of guano he’s laundered from his work clothes over the years.
“Howard is especially respected by the birding community not just because of his professional expertise but because he’s a birding enthusiast,” said Madonna Luers, department spokeswoman in Spokane.
His job as district wildlife biologist took him to Lincoln County to help with the reintroduction of sharp-tailed grouse as well as to Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, where he helped set up hunting seasons for elk. The Turnbull elk seasons were a milestone – the first hunting allowed on the refuge – to helping manage the damage the elk were inflicting on the area’s habitat.
“I’ve worked on the aerial helicopter surveys for the Turnbull elk as well as deer counts and the annual winter moose surveys,” he said, noting that he’s seen the moose population expand during his career.
“It’s a privilege to be able to fly and look for wildlife. Very few people get that experience.”
In between the monitoring and inside computer work, he has been on the teams fitting radios to elk, moose, bighorn sheep, hawks and grouse with the care of a dad fitting a bike helmet on his kid.
“It’s very hands on,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
Ferguson’s data collecting and habitat work has been has helped with long-term conservation benefits in Spokane County.
“Anyone interested in conservation would understand that the land my work has been able to save is probably more important in the long run than the individual animals I’ve worked with,” he said.
For example, his detailed information on Antoine Peak’s value as wildlife habitat was instrumental in getting state funding for its acquisition. Spokane County matched the money and added the 1,066 acres of mountain – the background to the north of East Valley High School – to its Conservation Futures Program.
His work also had a hand in securing the Rustler’s Gulch area on the West Fork Little Spokane River and the wetlands of the Reardan Audubon Lake.
“These are things that will last forever and help the animals more than anything I’ve done,” he said.
He said he’s disappointed his work at Mount Spokane did not convince Washington State Parks officials to refuse plans for the proposed expansion of the downhill ski area into wild reaches of the mountain.
“It’s a unique habitat in Spokane County and important to wildlife,” he said. “I hate to see it lost especially when it’s in a state park.”
A highlight to a career in wildlife biology is working with people who have similar interests, he said.
“This is a group of people who love working with fish and wildlife,” he said. “They’re not getting rich out there, but they’re doing pretty much what they want – preserving animals and their habitat – and they’re dedicated to that singular purpose.”
Of course, all of the programs Ferguson has worked on will continue in his retirement.
“There’s still a lot to be learned about the Turnbull elk, whether the hunting seasons have impacted the movements of elk and how they’re impacting the refuge and the private land outside the refuge.”
“The department is putting more emphasis on working with private landowners for the good of wildlife and that’s a good thing.”
Ferguson doesn’t plan to give up his interest in wildlife now that he won’t be getting a paycheck for it.
“The love for wildlife will always be a part of me,” he said. “I’ll be open to the possibilities for work in my retirement, but I’m also interested in working of my life list (of bird sightings).
“I’m at about 1,500 species now and while I’ve been to places like Southeast Asia and Africa, there are a whole lot of great birding areas in the USA I haven’t explored.
“I can see me and my wife paddling kayaks through the Everglades with binoculars around our necks pretty soon.”