The spotlight was on award winners at the regular August meeting of the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission on Monday in Oklahoma City. Leading the pack was Game Warden Riley Willman, based in Delaware County, who was recognized as Oklahoma’s 2022 Game Warden of the Year by Shikar-Safari Club International.
Willman was selected by his peers from nominations throughout the Law Enforcement Division of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC). Shikar-Safari members Reagen Siegfried and James Johnson were on hand to make the presentation. Willman will now be considered in the running for the national Wildlife Officer of the Year Award.
Last spring, Willman was honored by the State Legislature for his actions in saving the life of a man in a near-drowning is eastern Oklahoma. He’s served four years as a Game Warden, and he consistently logs the most sportsmen and sportswomen contacts in his district.
ODWC Director J.D. Strong announced that the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies selected Oklahoma’s Wildlife Conservation Commission as its 2023 Wildlife Commission of the Year among its 24 states and Canadian provinces at its recent summer conference.
ODWC’s Fisheries Division Assistant Chief Richard Snow presented Biologist Anthony Rodger with the 2022 Fisheries Professional of the Year award, Selected by his peers, Rodger has served in the Streams Program since 2015 and plans all of the program’s field sampling work. He was praised for his preparation, positive attitude, his ability to teach other staff members, and his willingness to speak to school and civic groups. Research by Rodger has been published 10 times in scientific journals since 2018.
ODWC’s Wildlife Division Chief Bill Dinkines announced Wildlife Biologist Brett Cooper is the Wildlife Biologist of the Year, and Wildlife Technician Nathaniel “Junior” Kester is the Wildlife Technician of the Year.
Cooper works in northwestern Oklahoma primarily with private landowners. He made 53 technical assistance visits on over 78,000 acres in 2022 to help landowners with wildlife plans, cost-share programs, and other assistance. He is agency coordinator for lesser prairie-chicken CCAA program, in which more than 400,000 acres are enrolled. Cooper was praised for his loyalty and passion for the agency that drives him to conduct his work with excellence and professionalism.
Kester assisted with prescribed burns on more than 10,000 acres, mowed/planted 460 acres, worked seven controlled hunts, and spread 400 tons of gravel on roadways at three wildlife management areas in 2022. He’s a graduate of ODWC’s Wildlife Resource Professional program, fosters a relationship with FFA groups, and is a resource for knowledge about his local area.
The Spirit of ODWC Award was presented to Human Resources Officer Karla Beatty. Her accomplishments, mostly done behind the scenes, include revamping the ODWC leadership development program, conducting training sessions, producing outreach materials, helping employees transition to modern computer procedures, and making classes fun and enjoyable.
Wildlife Commissioners also recognized Communication and Education Division staff members Smokey Solis, Blake Podhajsky, Darrin Hill, Todd Craighead and Sarah Southerland for winning nine awards in national competition with other state wildlife agencies at the annual conference of the Association for Conservation Information.
Dinkines announced that Johnston/Pontotoc County ranchers Susan and Floyd Bergen are the 2023 Landowner Conservationists of the Year in Oklahoma. The Bergens’ were lauded for more than a decade of work to enhance soil health, prairie plant diversity, and wildlife populations across about 22,000 acres.
“It really takes you being brave to talk to people about how it can be different,” Susan said. “I want to cry because this award means so much to me.”
Also in Monday’s meeting, commissioners, received a status report on detections of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Oklahoma free-ranging deer. Wildlife Division Programs Supervisor Jerry Shaw said two CWD-positive cases were confirmed in recent months in Oklahoma: one in Texas County about 4 miles north of Optima Wildlife Management Area, and another about 15 miles east of Woodward.
Shaw said ODWC’s response plan in cooperation with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry is to contain CWD within areas where it is detected and to minimize its artificial spread to other areas by establishing special surveillance areas (SSA).
SSAs are areas that extend outward roughly 10 miles from the site where a CWD-positive deer was found. Special rules on removal of deer and other cervids apply within SSAs.
ODWC will be publishing SSA-specific information for hunters ahead of the opening of deer and elk seasons. For more about CWD, go to wildlifedepartment.com/hunting/resources/deer/cwd.
In other business:
- Members of Blue River Fly Fishers including Barry Shrader, Stephen Ruiz, Bill Payeur and Scott Dittner made a generous donation of $12,308 to ODWC’s Fisheries Division to be used in managing Blue River Public Fishing and Hunting Area.
- Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Foundation Executive Director Rick Grundman announced a collaborative effort with the MidwayUSA Foundation to create a $1.1 million endowment supporting youth shooting sports in Oklahoma. Any additional donations made to the Foundation for this fund will be matched 2-to-1 through November.
- Communication and Education Shooting Range Coordinator Amanda Thomas updated commissioners on shooting range projects across the state.
- Dinkines, Wildlife Assistant Chief Russ Horton, Northwest Region Wildlife Supervisor Scott Parry and Data Analyst/Programmer David Murray reported on creation of near real-time functionality and modernization dashboard in wildlife management area planning.
- Commissioners recognized Law Enforcement Division Operations Manager Marni Loftis and Game Warden Phillip Cottrill Jr., based in Major County, for 20 years of service.
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 Wildlife Commission meeting originally set for Sept. 5 has been canceled. The next scheduled Commission meeting is set for Oct. 7, 2023, with the location to be determined.
To view a video recording of the Aug. 21, 2023, meeting, go to the Outdoor Oklahoma YouTube Channel at https://www.youtube.com/live/OVS_0c6nCO8?feature=share.