The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is fueled by the dedicated employees that make conservation happen on the ground. Samantha Fleming, a Federal Wildlife Officer at Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland was recently recognized as the 2014 Northeast Region Refuge Officer of the Year for her outstanding law enforcement service and for her willingness to lead projects that extend beyond her duties.
Patuxent Research Refuge is located within the Baltimore-Washington Corridor, an area home to nine million people. “Patuxent is challenging because it is an urban refuge,” Fleming says. “We are 20 minutes from D.C. and 20 minutes from Baltimore, so we get an influx of people.”
With approximately 200,000 people visiting the refuge annually, visitor safety is one of Samantha’s top priorities. As a Federal Wildlife Officer, Samantha is the face of the Service to the visiting public. “It’s important to have relationships with visitors,” she says. “The better you know them, the better they feel about the Refuge, the safer they feel on the Refuge.”
In 2014, Samantha handled 1, 416 field contacts, worked on several high profile cases, developed partnerships with law enforcement agencies in the area, and often acted as the first responder when incidents occurred near the Refuge. In addition to her exceptional performance as a Federal Wildlife Officer, Samantha took on many of the roles and responsibilities of the Deputy Refuge Manager when the Refuge had a need. She also works as an active member of the Service Honor Guard, a team of National Wildlife Refuge System Uniformed Law Enforcement Officers who represent the Department of the Interior and the Service at ceremonial events.
I spoke with Samantha about how she became interested in a conservation career, her most memorable experiences with the Service and her advice for folks interested in pursuing a career as a Federal Wildlife Officer.
How did you get interested in conservation?
I have always had a love for the law and for animals. We would go camping when I was a kid every year and I would spend all my free time outside. I started down the route towards being a veterinarian but realized that wasn’t my passion. Someone told me about a tiny college in Maine where I could study Conservation Law Enforcement. I started there and realized that was what I wanted to do. I found out about national wildlife refuges in my junior year and was excited that I could get paid to do what I love. I applied and told the interviewing panel that my bags were packed and I would move anywhere if they would hire me.
What do you consider the most rewarding part of your job as a Federal Wildlife Officer?
The most rewarding… that’s hard. I really enjoy when I see kids get excited about the outdoors, whether they are fishing, hunting, or watching wildlife. You can see this pure love in their eyes and you just want to capture that moment. I get paid to protect our resources and visitors in places where people want to vacation. If I do my job well enough, that resource will still be there when my grandchildren and their children start appreciating the outdoors.
What was your most memorable experience with the Service?
Currently, I have been serving on the Service Honor Guard since it started in 2010. In 2013, I was honored to be able to attend the memorial service for the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew that perished during the Yarnell Hill Fire. Of the crew, 19 died and only 1 person survived. I went to the service with 4 other members of the Honor Guard. It was an emotionally rough service to go through, but I was so honored to be able to represent the Service during this terrible time. It wasn’t long ago when the Service would not have been able to send the Honor Guard to this memorial, or any other, because it didn’t exist. By sending the Honor Guard to the memorial service, it showed all those who attended that the Service supports its sister agencies and the dangerous role of fire fighters. It will always stick with me for the memorial itself, and that the Service supports more than just its own employees.
What’s your favorite thing about working for Service?
I love the ability to have options. I have been stationed in two states that have offered me incredible experiences and I could move on to many more states if I choose. I have had the ability to work in the majority of the US through details or Honor Guard deployments and I have been able to meet amazing people who work for the Service. I love that I have the option to work in various places, climates, and cultures but still do the same job. It doesn’t matter where you go, you will always find people who are passionate about working for the Service. Our agency doesn’t look down on employees working in multiple places over their career, in fact, its encouraged. I like working for an agency that allows and supports me to move around to make me a better employee.
Any advice for folks considering a career as a Federal Wildlife Officer?
It’s a career that many want to have but few have the passion to pursue. I absolutely love my job because it offers me a challenge; it’s complex in nature, requires independence and above all a passion to do what is right. However, remember that your job is to protect against those who want to harm, therefore, this job can and will be dangerous at times.
The job and the route to the job can be challenging, but if it’s what you want, it’s definitely worth pursuing. Schedule ride-a-longs with Federal Wildlife Officers or state wardens to see and experience what the job really is. Reach out to these officers to ask questions. If you’re headed to college, pursue wildlife based degrees, such as environmental protection or conservation law enforcement. If this is what you really want to do down in your heart, push yourself to have the best resume out there. Most importantly, don’ tie yourself down to one spot; be willing to move to pursue your passion.