As the final installment in our series of interviews with the women of the Pennslyvania Game Commission, we have Colleen Shannon, who’s a land management group supervisor (“land mangement officer” for short) in the north central part of the state. It’s amazing how asking essentially the same questions of three different women — even in the same state — reveals such a differing range of experiences.
_ The photo is Colleen with an elk calf that they captured and “collared” as part of an ongoing survival study. They used an expandable radio telemetry collar designed to last about 18 months. They also attached an ear tag for future identification when the collar is gone. Colleen talks about the process in some great detail along with many other interesting perspectives below. Thanks to Colleen for the fantastic interview! -K.H._
FSHuntress: What made you want to work for the game commission?
Colleen Shannon: My father subscribed to “Game News,” the PGC’s monthly magazine, so I always read the magazine when I was growing up. There was a monthly column called “DGP Diary” written by a different District Game Protector every year (DGP was the title for our officers before we switched to WCO – Wildlife Conservation Officer). That column featured an officer giving day-to-day descriptions of the work he was doing – sort of like a blog. The Game News also has a monthly feature called “Field Notes” where officers would submit funny or interesting notes about happenings in their area. I think that exposure to the profession is what prompted my interest in a career with the PGC. However, at that time (1970’s and ’80’s) there were not any female officers in the PGC and very few females in law enforcement in general. However, we were in the post-Earth Day renewal of interest in the environment and right in the midst of the “modern” feminist movement so things were changing and opportunities for women were expanding. I knew that I wanted to work outdoors so I enrolled in the Forest Science program at The Pennsylvania State University in 1978. Penn State did not have a Wildlife Science bachelor’s degree program at that time so I figured Forestry was the next best thing even though my dream was to become a DGP. During my time at Penn State, I became aware that a female graduate of the PSU Forestry program (Cheryl Stauffer – now Cheryl Trewella) was accepted as the first female officer trainee at the PGC’s Ross Leffler School of Conservation. I was thrilled to think that a woman could become a PGC officer. Cheryl, of course, graduated from the program in 1982 and is still working for the PGC as you know. I graduated from Penn State in 1982, and the PGC began recruiting for another class of officer trainees in 1983. I took the tests and scored well but our training class was delayed until 1985 for budgetary reasons. As part of my training in 1985 I was assigned to work with Cheryl Trewella so she has always been a role model and mentor for me. I graduated from the training program in 1986 and was surprisingly assigned to a fairly rural area in Northcentral Pennsylvania. In 1987, our title was changed from District Game Protector to Wildlife Conservation Officer. In 1997, I was promoted to my current job.
FS: What are your job duties?
CS: My current job is more administrative in nature but is still a field position. I supervise the work of 3 crews of habitat development and maintenance workers whose day-to-day duties involve creating and maintaining wildlife habitat on public lands and maintaining roads, parking lots, signs, waterfowl impoundments, and other infrastructure on our State Game Lands and other public access areas. I manage 75,000 acres on 12 separate State Game Lands in 5 different Counties. This involves writing comprehensive management plans, annual work plans, and seeing to the day-to-day needs of game lands users. I frequently interact with various businesses such as electric companies, coal companies, gas companies, and others who have rights-of-ways across our lands or have the rights to mine or develop gas on our lands.
I also maintain my full law enforcement credentials and training so that I can apprehend individuals that I may encounter breaking the laws as I go about my duties and I also will set aside my land management duties to assist the full-time law enforcement people in the peak hunting seasons. I have also served as a Defense and Control Tactics Instructor for my entire career and provide training in self-defense to our officers on an annual basis.
My duties include assisting with wildlife management activities in my area. I am fortunate in that my area includes most of the elk management area of Pennsylvania so I assist the elk biologist on a regular basis with tranquilizing elk to attach radio collars, surveying elk, and monitoring the elk hunt. I also assist other wildlife management activities as needed such as deer research, turkey trap and transfer, etc.
FS: Could you talk a little more about the radio collaring?
CS: We tranquilize elk for collaring but that is only for the adults. For collaring calves we search for them when they are bedded down using the “hider” strategy. We can usually walk up to them and handle them until they get to be about a week old so we just grab them and straddle them to do the processing which involves sliding the collar over their head, attaching the ear tag, checking their sex, and weighing them in a net. It is probably the most fun thing I have ever done in my job because it is like hunting but we don’t kill anything. We find the calf by first locating the cow and observing her behavior and checking to see if she is lactating by looking for the enlarged milk sac using a good pair of binoculars. If we think she has a calf nearby then we search the ground until we find it (or not) and then try to grab it before it jumps up and runs off (if it is old enough to run well we almost always lose the race !). It is great fun observing the cow and trying to figure out where the calf might be hiding then trying to catch it!
FS: What’s a typical day like?
CS: My job is very diverse and there is no typical day. I may spend a whole day in my office on administrative matters and paperwork or be out in the field checking on the work that my crews are doing, planning future work, conducting a wildlife survey, or meeting with a company who needs access to a game lands.
FS: Are you a hunter yourself?
CS: Yes, I have been hunting since I was 12 years old, which was the minimum legal age in PA until recently mentored youth hunting programs were established. I started out hunting for ring neck pheasants with my Dad and brothers where I grew up in southeastern PA. I also hunted for deer in Northcentral and Southcentral PA with my family. I now hunt almost exclusively for deer with a flintlock with a group including many current and retired PGC officers. We have a great time hunting together, it is one of my favorite times of the year. I have also made 3 trips to Colorado with my friends to hunt for elk with my flintlock and we are planning another trip next year.
FS: What’s the best thing about your job?
CS: The absolute best thing is that we can see the difference that we have made with our wildlife habitat projects because we see many species of wildlife utilizing the improved areas and we also see sportsmen and women using these areas. My particular part of PA includes many areas that were strip mined back before there were good environmental laws so the land was not reclaimed. There are high walls on the landscape and acid mine drainage polluting the waterways. We have been successful as an agency in obtaining funding through state grants and partnerships with non-profits to reclaim some of these areas on State Game lands. It is very rewarding to be able to correct the sins of previous generations and return the land to a condition more usable by both wildlife and people.
FS: What’s the most challenging thing about your job?
CS: The work load is incredible. I know there are more opportunities to make improvements but there is so much to do and not enough hours in a day. We are being swamped in PA right now with a strong interest in development of deep well natural gas reserves. I am impacted every day with the results of this activity on our State Game Lands. Consequently, I can’t spend enough time on other important aspects of my job so I get frustrated. But overall, I feel that I have the best job in the PGC, I enjoyed being a WCO but being a Land Management Officer is the best of both worlds.
FS: What do you think most hunters might not know or realize about your job?
CS: Most hunters really have no idea of the effort that we put into habitat management in PA. They think our money is spent paying officers to “harass” the hunting public or pick up dead deer along the highways. We do so much more as officers and as an agency and, in fact, the biggest chunk of the agency’s budget is spent on habitat management activities which are paid for through hunting license fees and Pittman-Robertson funding. Most hunters also have no idea what constitutes good habitat management practices so even if they see what we are doing on the State Game Lands they do not understand it. I think the current increased interest in private land habitat management being promoted by many conservation organizations such as Quality Deer Management Association, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and many others is helping in this regard. As people learn more about habitat practices they recognize what they see on public lands and ask more questions or solicit advice for their own projects.