The day started out at 6:00 AM. I met Unit 37B Wildlife Manager Ben Brochu at the junction of Highway 79 and 96 Ranch Rd. After introductions I threw my pack into the back of his truck, hopped into the front, and away we went.
I had contacted Ben after he made some posts on CWT.com regarding some upcoming water projects. My intentions were twofold: I wanted to publicize his water projects; and I wanted to learn more about the Unit where I spend so much of my time.
Ben replied and said he would gladly let me ride along for a day. After some e-mail tag, we finally settled on the morning of Sunday the 12th.
Ben had asked if there was anything in particular that I wanted to do. I let him know that I was mostly interested in javelina and mulies, but I was also interested in learning about the Unit, period. He asked what I thought about going to the 96 Hills area, and doing some glassing; he knew of at least a couple of herds of pigs in that area. While we were there, he said, he could show me some proposed sites for water projects. As we bounced along 96 Ranch Rd., Ben told me that he has been with the Department for five years, starting out as a Dispatcher. He has a Degree in Wildlife Ecology from the U of A, and had been working this particular Unit since November. I asked if he did many ride-alongs, and he said that he did a fair amount of them, and that usually – they were hunters.
Next we moved on to the topic of challenges facing the game population in the Unit. Without hesitation, Ben said “The drought”. “Certainly”, Ben added, “habitat encroachment is a factor, as is predation. The biggest single impacting factor right now, though – is the drought”. He stated that javelina populations are stable, and that mule deer populations were stable as well – and possibly slightly increasing. I asked if there were any Coues in the Unit, and Ben told me that there was indeed a few Coues. He went on to say that many of the Wildlife Managers were surprised at the Coues’ population’s ability to adapt to the drought. Most had assumed that the mulies would handle the drought conditions more efficiently. Instead, it has been the Coues that adapted more readily. As we wound our way through the desert, conversation came easy, and one wouldn’t know that we had only met that morning. We came up to a range of hills, and Ben said “I thought we’d go up on that hill and glass for pigs for awhile.”, as he parked the truck. Curiously, I saw no “hill” nearby, but there was a significantly steep “mini-mountain” looming in front of us. “Surely he didn’t mean that one”, I thought to myself. He did mean that one though, and off we went. Ben obviously forgot that half of us were fat and worked in an office, as he went straight up the hill at a near-trot. I cycled my stubby legs as fast as I could, to no avail. Several minutes after Ben had disappeared over the crest, I was reaching the ¾ mark. Once the beating of my heart had reached a level of force sufficient to keep popping the caps off of the binos that were strapped to my chest, I figured I had gone far enough. I didn’t think my Game Warden friend wanted to add “heart-attack victim rescuer” to his resume. I dumped my pack, rummaged around for a bottle of water, and got my tripod set up. 10 minutes later, I jumped up after discovering the hard way that I had set up on top of an ants’ nest. Approximately 20 minutes after getting re-situated, I spotted what I thought was a mule deer in my field of view. I decided that it wasn’t a buck, as it was motionless the entire time I was peering at it, through my 12×50 binos. Eventually Ben wandered down the hill towards me. He remarked that he had seen a desert tortoise up on the top, but was unsuccessful in his glassing efforts as well. As we made our way down to the truck, Ben told me how surprisingly interesting the history of the area was. Miners and settlers, Indians and ranchers – these desert flats and mountain ranges were rich in history.
Ben pointed out an area near the truck that was tentatively slated for a water project. Building a water catchment is so much more than picking a spot and digging a hole. Typically, the “paperwork” side of the project takes roughly two years. Permission from the entity holding the land has to be obtained. Environmental impacts have to be considered and documented. Funds have to be budgeted, materials purchased and manpower lined up. All that before a shovel hits the dirt. There are typically two “types” of waterholes being built. The first utilizes an apron to catch the rainwater and funnel it into an underground tank. The other uses a system of small natural and/or concrete “dams” to divert runoff from a whole network of drainages. Imagine a bunch of gullies and small washes all being unobtrusively altered in order to “steer” runoff towards a tank. This system can be very efficient – rainfall of less than half of an inch can fill a huge tank (i.e. 10,000 gallons). Both of these types have no moving parts to break; the storage tanks are underground, and they are built in such a way to have as minimum an impact as possible on the surrounding desert. These tanks are typically built with assistance of local groups such as the Arizona Deer Association, the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, and the Arizona Elk Society. Ben is currently mounting a campaign whereby companies can donate a backhoe and operator for a day. This almost cuts the cost of a new water tank in half – ultimately allowing him to build 2 catchments for the price of one.
We hopped in the pickup and headed off for Antelope Peak. We talked about a lot of topics. It is obvious that Ben loves helping kids and also enjoys promoting women’s involvement in the sport. He comes from a family where his Mom got hid Dad into hunting. His wife enjoys fishing and shooting. She doesn’t hunt so much, but supports him in his passion for hunting. He said it would be nice to “…not necessarily turn women into hunters, but to educate them to the point where they can be supportive when their husbands or kids want to hunt.” He offered several times to help me in my upcoming hunts, and emphasized that if my daughter wanted to go small game hunting, he could come along; same thing if she ever drew a big game tag. Like many units in Arizona, 37B has no shortage of garbage laying around. From shotgun shells, to mattresses, to mounds of household garbage, you find it all out in the desert. Ben said that “wildcat dumping” is a big problem in Pinal County, and often – hard to prosecute criminally. The County is tackling these cases civilly however, with a greater degree of success. In a criminal trial, it has to be proven that the defendant actually left the garbage; in a civil trial, basically if you can prove it is theirs, then they are responsible for it. Almost every time he finds household trash, Ben finds mail, letters, information containing Social Security numbers, even wage garnishment forms on one occasion – that make it easy to find a culprit. Ben’s preferred method is to call the individual up. “Hey, I found this garbage at this location. It contains information which indicates it yours. I’ll tell you what – I’ll check back in a week; if it’s gone, we’re done. If it’s not, the County will be pursuing you civilly.” So far, it’s worked every time. If Ben stops you while you’re bird hunting, you’d better have some empty hulls in your pocket – if you have birds in your possession. He’s looking for a “reasonable attempt” to pick up your shells. No one expects you to crawl on your belly through the bushes to get your hull back. If you can get to them, though – pick them up. My daughter and I always make it a habit to pick up a bunch of other peoples’ hulls, when we’re out. She enjoys feeling like she’s helping clean up, and prattles on about the slobs that left those lying all around. Ben spends about 50% of his time doing “biologist stuff” and the other 50% doing enforcement activities. He says that he enjoys both aspects of his job. “Catching a bad guy gives me a more immediate feeling of satisfaction. We manage game using 5-year trends, so positive feedback on that aspect of my job takes longer.”
Soon our journey found us at Antelope Peak. For those of you familiar with the Unit, this peak is one of its highest, if not the highest. Ben had been telling me that in the 1800s, there were indeed antelope in the area. The area around the peak used to be predominantly savannah-like. Over the past decades it has grown up with shrubs and low trees. The department is considering a program of burns to try and restore it to the way it used to be. As we approached the peak, I noticed that the two-track we were on went straight up the side of a small peak that was hooked to the north side of the main peak. The trail was steep, nearing 60-70 degrees in my estimation. It became apparent that Ben intended to drive up that hill. My “pucker factor” climbed as steadily as the truck did. Ultimately, the tires were no match for the incline. I commented that I would have been scared to death driving up a hill that steep. I had done a fair amount of off-road driving in the military, but I was a mud expert, not a mountain expert. Ben just grinned at me and commented “We get a pretty extensive off-road driving course as part of our training. We really learn the capabilities of our vehicles.” He went on to grumble that the tires on the newer trucks weren’t as good as the ones on their previous trucks. That suited me just fine. Up on the peak, it was a spectacular view. Ben pointed out where a couple of pig herds resided. I showed him where my friend Jeff Rogers had glassed up a nice mulie buck and some does two years ago. He showed me the far off ranges of the Arivaipas, where an effort was ongoing to build a sheep herd.
Off we went again, headed west on Freeman Road. Ben asked how I felt the Department was doing, and how I thought that the general (hunting) public felt about the Department. I replied that I rarely heard a disparaging comment about the Wildlife Managers; that generally we (hunters) had the utmost respect for them. I feel that the Commission would do well to offer more explanation when rejecting suggestions and comments – especially those presented by conservation groups such as the ADA, ABA, etc. These groups put a lot of time and effort into forming rational comments. I think that most of us can handle some disagreement, but that a little explanation will go a long way. To be summarily dismissed without explanation just builds distrust between “us” and the Commission. I also admitted that “we” (we being the message board crowd, the volunteers, the conservation group core members) may not be representative of the majority of the State’s hunters. I feel this is where some of the consternation comes from, in these controversial issues such as the current “quality versus opportunity” debate. Ben related that he was “amazed” when he starting to talking to hunters in the field, “at the amount of people that just wanted to see a deer; to shoot a spike or a fork for these people, would equal success.”
I talked about the frustration of the public when they reported violations, and they weren’t responded to. I mentioned that usually, that was the only negative comment that I heard, directed toward the “boots on the ground”. I mentioned that this was especially true when it came to OHV issues. Ben agreed and stated that Game & Fish Officers are frustrated too. There simply isn’t enough people to go around, not enough funding. Add to that the fact that a person can hop on their Quad, and cross several jurisdictions in the matters of an hour. Ultimately, the onus is on other state agencies to enforce OHV rules – those agencies are even worse off than AZGFD. At this point in the conversation, we were going by Coyote Peak. Ben reiterated that if I needed help this javelina season, that maybe he could assist on his day off. As we drove by, he pointed out where a pig herd resided, in a basin just west of Coyote Peak.
Finally, we hit Highway 79 and headed north, back towards the spot I left my truck. I told Ben that I would do what I could to get him some backhoes for his water projects. He didn’t ask me to, but I told him that I would convey to the public the importance of getting involved with the legislative side of AZGF. That folks need to take an active part in contacting legislators to make sure that the Wildlife Managers have enough capital and manpower to carry out all of their responsibilities effectively. I got the impression that WMs are spread paper-thin. Thin when it comes to management; thin when it comes to enforcement. I also detected a definite sense of pride and ownership. These guys enjoy what they do. They do not like coming up short, even for legitimate reasons like lack of time, money, or people. We agreed to stay in touch, and maybe get some hunting trips in. I genuinely liked Ben Brochu, and thoroughly enjoyed my morning with him – time had flown by, and I was a little disappointed that it was drawing to a close. He provides an ideal representation of the Department, and the type of employee that is out there, watching our Units.
A final, separate note : Ben and his wife are expecting their first child in early September. I wish them all of the best.