The highlight of Madonna Luers’ 34-year career at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is one of her sadder memories.
In 1996, Luers, already a veteran spokeswoman for WDFW, traveled with agency biologists to Canada, where they captured 19 caribou and transported them to the Washington Selkirks.
She spent days in the Canadian wilderness taking photos and helping in whatever way needed. A helicopter would spot the woodland caribou and drop a net on them. The copter would land, Luers and others would jump out, blindfold the animal and then “basically hog-tie them.”
Deep mountain snow meant they often sank up to their chests, forcing them to “swim” to the netted creatures.
The helicopter lifted the animals up and away, taking them to a corral. Luers and the other biologists were left in winter silence.
“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “It was the highlight of my career, really. Just because it was such an incredible effort to bring something back that was declining precipitously.”
Luers took photos of the whole operation, some of which ended up in National Geographic.
WDFW biologists, in conjunction with Idaho Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service and Canadian wildlife mangers, transported the 19 caribou back to the U.S. in trucks.
The caribou were introduced to the Selkirk Range, injecting a shot of life and hope into a struggling species.
That’s where the sadness comes in.
This year, Luers final working for WDFW, it was discovered that the caribou herd that brought so much hope is likely no more.
“You know, I think that species is blinking out,” Luers said of the Caribou in the Selkirks. “It’s just sad. That’s a disappointment. We worked hard to bring it back, and they’re slipping away. And that began with habitat alterations.”
Habitat alterations prompted by an ever-increasing human population.
When Luers started working at WDFW in 1984, Washington’s population hovered around 4 million. Now there are 7.5 million people in the Evergreen State.
“The biggest change, that is the root of all the changes we’ve dealt with since I started, is human population,” she said. “That is the root of all wildlife management and conflict issues, because all those people are converting wildlife habitat into human uses in some way shape or form.”
At the same time the population has increased, the number of hunters and anglers has decreased. That has stretched WDFW’s already tight budget. Roughly one-third of WDFW’s budget comes from hunter and angler license fees.
That’s left the agency trying to figure how to get money from other users. Users who don’t buy annual license fees.
“That’s the big challenge,” she said. “(Finding) a way for everyone to be paying into the system.”
Luers has lived through those changes, and more often than not was tasked with explaining what was happening to the general public. At a retirement party Saturday, attended by roughly 100 people, Luers was honored by her colleagues, journalists and friends.
For years she appeared regularly on the radio, in television segments and quoted in press accounts. That earned her the unofficial title of the “Voice of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.”
Much of her work has been focused on highlighting what the agency does beyond managing game species and creating hunting and fishing rules.
The Selkirk caribou reintroduction is a prime example. Luers was instrumental in creating a wolf management plan representing numerous, often opposed, groups.
“We’re mandated to preserve protect and perpetuate all the fish and wildlife, hunted and nonhunted, throughout the state,” she said.
Many don’t understand the agency’s broad mandate, she said.
“Personally, I think it’s the agency’s own fault that we don’t have more people understanding what we do,” she said. “We don’t tell our stories very well.”
With her retirement, it will only get more difficult.
Despite the increasing population, despite an ever-expanding mission and funding struggles, Luers is optimistic.
She points to moose as a beacon of hope. When moose started filtering into the area, they were far and few between. When they did make it into an urban area, like Spokane, it elicited cries of excitement, and sometimes gasps of fear.
And yet, 20 years later, the moose population has remained strong. And, perhaps most important, people have become accustomed to the large ungulates’ presence.
“People do learn. The messages do start to sink in about coexisting with wildlife,” she said. “Now it’s kind of, ‘Eh, another moose.’ ”