Shikar-Safari Club International presented its 2015 Wildlife Officer of the Year award to game warden Ben Bickerstaff during the regular meeting of the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission on Dec. 7 in Oklahoma City.
Bickerstaff, based in Alfalfa County, has served as a game warden for 12 years. He was selected by his peers to receive the honor, which was presented before the Commission by Suzie Brewster and Robin Seigfried of Shikar-Safari Club International after introductions by Col. Robert Fleenor, chief of law enforcement for the Wildlife Department.
Bickerstaff, born and raised in Enid, is a 2003 graduate from Oklahoma State University. In 2013, Bickerstaff, along with fellow game wardens Lt. Mark Walker and Lt.
Frank Huebert, were honored by the FBI for their assistance in a priority law enforcement effort. The officers were cited for their assistance in a rugged area of northwestern Oklahoma as the FBI pursued Sandlin "Sandy" Smith, a Florida man wanted in connection with the bombing of a Muslim mosque.
Gathered for the presentation of the Shikar-Safari Club International's Wildlife Officer of the Year award are, from left, Col. Robert Fleenor, district chief Capt. Tracy Daniel, Suzie Brewster, honoree Ben Bickerstaff, and Robin Seigfried. (Micah Holmes/ODWC)
Bickerstaff is also a member of the Wildlife Department's honor guard and in his spare time enjoys passing along outdoor traditions to his own children.
Game wardens are among the most widely recognized members of the wildlife conservation team. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation employs more than 100 wardens, who are dispersed among eight law enforcement districts.
Oklahoma's game wardens are public servants sworn to protect wildlife and the public's interests in the outdoors. All wardens are state-certified peace officers, allowing them to enforce all state laws, and all are commissioned federal game wardens, allowing them to enforce Lacey Act violations.
Shikar-Safari Club International began more than a half-century ago and is limited to 200 members worldwide. It is dedicated to the protection, enhancement and preservation of wildlife, with particular emphasis on endangered and threatened species through the promotion of enforcement of conservation laws and regulations. The club's foundation puts more than $1 million into wildlife and conservation efforts each year, including more than 30 scholarships annually for game wardens and their children in hope of building interest in wildlife careers and conservation.
Also, the Commission heard a presentation on the 2015 Fisheries Professionals of the Year. These professionals were nominated by their peers for their dedication and excellence in their field. Recognized were:
- Chris Cantellay, hatchery manager at the Byron State Fish Hatchery.
- Rebecca Filmore, hatchery technician at the Durant State Fish Hatchery.
- Shelli Gray, Fisheries Division secretary at the Wildlife Department headquarters in Oklahoma City.
"These individuals represent the best of the best in their field, and it is a real honor for them to be recognized by their peers today for their outstanding work ethic,
professionalism and knowledge," said Barry Bolton, chief of fisheries for the Wildlife Department.
Fisheries Chief Barry Bolton honors Fisheries Professional of the Year honorees Rebecca Filmore, Chris Cantellay and Shelli Gray. (Micah Holmes/ODWC)
Each individual was presented a unique custom sculpture handmade by Bill Newman, an award-winning artist who also works for the Wildlife Department as the assistant hatchery manager at the Holdenville State Fish Hatchery.
In other business, Commissioners received an update on ongoing quail research at Packsaddle and Beaver River wildlife management areas.
"The support provided by the Wildlife Department for these quail research efforts has just been outstanding," said Craig Davis, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University professor and Bollenbach Chair.
Oklahoma State University Ph.D. students Evan Tanner and Matt Carroll provided an overview of their research in which they fit more than 200 adult quail and chicks with transmitters to track how the birds use different habitats in extreme weather, where they choose to nest, and survival rates over a two-year period.
"This is the best quail research from around the United States, and it is being conducted right here in Oklahoma," said Richard Hatcher, director of the Wildlife Department. "These findings will help us make sound management decisions moving forward."
Two species of quail can be found in Oklahoma. The northern bobwhite's range is statewide, while the scaled quail is restricted to the western edge, including the Panhandle. Oklahoma has a long quail-hunting tradition and is one of the few remaining states where hunters can pursue relatively large numbers of wild quail.
Populations of northern bobwhites and scaled quail appear to be making great strides this year in recovering after severe drought parched the state from 2010-13. Roadside surveys conducted in August and October indicate the statewide quail population index is up 59.5 percent over last year. Even more astounding is that the quail population index is up 353.9 percent from the 2013 survey results.
The statewide quail population index is now 6.9 percent higher than the 26-year statewide average, which is great news for the state's estimated 20,700 bird hunters.
Commissioners heard a presentation from Allan Janus, Wildlife Department research supervisor, on the Oklahoma Ecological Systems Mapping project. State wildlife biologists and other natural resources professionals have recognized the need for accurate, current vegetation maps to facilitate conservation planning and management for decades. With cooperation across agencies, the Oklahoma Ecological Systems classification and mapping project was launched in 2012 with initial funding from the Wildlife Department and Landscape Conservation Coalitions, and was completed in summer 2015.
More than 3,700 points were gathered from across the state, mapping the distribution of 165 vegetation types. Post oak was by far the most common tree encountered. The primary grassland types of Oklahoma together accounted for more than one-third of the area of the state, and cropland made up more than 15 percent of the state.
These detailed maps are already becoming an important tool for researchers and for wildlife professionals in making management decisions. Funding to collect ground data and assist with classification and mapping was provided to the Oklahoma Biological Survey, University of Oklahoma. Funding to complete remote sensing, mapping and interpretive information was provided to the Missouri Resource Assessment Partnership (MoRAP), University of Missouri.
Also, Commissioners approved a budget add-on of $65,880.49 to enable the final disbursal of funds from the Deep Fork River Natural Resources Damage and Restoration settlement. The settlement was a result of a sewage discharge into the Deep Fork River that resulted in a fish kill. The funds will be used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to buy, from willing sellers, properties adjacent to the Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge.
Additionally, the Commission voted to release the Wildlife Department's interest in an 8.82-acre tract of property in Marshall County. The property near the Caney Creek area of Lake Texoma was conveyed to the state of Oklahoma by the federal government. This release of interest will provide for the parcel to revert to the U.S. General Services Administration.
In other business, the Commission:
- Approved a three-year lease on Department-owned mineral interests for 142 acres in Blaine County, as recommended by the state Commissioners of the Land Office's Mineral Division.
- Authorized Director Hatcher to negotiate the purchase of property in Johnston County.
- Received positive financial reports on the Department's retirement plans and the 2015 Fiscal Year Annual Financial Audit.
- Approved a restated Wildlife Retirement Defined Benefit Plan and Defined Contribution Plan.
The Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission is the eight-member governing board of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The Commission establishes state hunting and fishing regulations, sets policy for the Wildlife Department and indirectly oversees all state fish and wildlife conservation activities. Commission members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Oklahoma Senate.
The next scheduled Commission meeting will be , at the Wildlife Department's temporary headquarters, NE 36th and Martin Luther King Avenue in Oklahoma City.