“There we go,” Erika Peckham said Thursday evening pulling the big green pickup to the side of a Campbell County gravel road northeast of Gillette.
She grabbed a pair of binoculars from the center console and stepped out of the vehicle glassing a hillside some 200 yards distant.
“Two does and two fawns,” she said. “This time of year, the does and fawns are found together, and the bucks usually roam around in bachelor groups.”
Peckham is a wildlife biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD). In 2019, she was selected as Wildlife Manager of the Year by the Wyoming Game Wardens Association.
What’s a day in the life of a wildlife biologist like? According to Peckham, that’s an impossible question to answer.
“No two days are the same,” she said. “It’s definitely not a nine-to-five job.”
It’s August, and every August, in addition to her other duties, Peckham takes part in a statewide pronghorn count. She’s up before daylight every day, and out until after dark, riding roads and walking trails, counting the animals. The information she gathers will be combined with information from other biologists and game wardens to get a close estimate of how many antelope Wyoming has. The information is used to plan hunting seasons and set limits to ensure the health of the herd.
Peckham is a Michigan native, who grew up southeast of Detroit. A life-long animal lover, as a child she had dreams of being a veterinarian. That changed in college though, when she found the wildlife and fisheries management program at Montana State University. It was a perfect fit.
She worked several seasonal jobs both with the federal government and private corporations, doing consulting work. One of those jobs brought her to Gillette. She liked the area, and when a position opened up with WGFD she jumped at it. She hired on as habitat extension biologist in 2008, then moved into her current role in early 2012. She’s also a private pilot who, when she’s not working for WGFD, sometimes contracts for local companies to do aerial surveys. The hours she puts in with both endeavors don’t leave much time for outside interests.
“I do like to take care of myself, so I make time for the gym,” Peckham said. “But the way I work doesn’t leave a lot of time for hobbies.”
From September through December, her duties revolve around hunting season. The days are even longer then, she said. She mans check stations and often finds herself educating hunters, particularly those from out of state, on Wyoming’s regulations.
Mile after mile Peckham drives the gravel backroads of rural Campbell County, stopping at every antelope sighting, glassing fields and making notations. While she works she talks.
“They’re not really antelope, although we call them that,” she explained. “In fact, their closest relative is the giraffe, if you can believe that.”
Peckham knows her job, and she knows the animals she studies. She stopped on a straight stretch of isolated road and pointed ahead. On a fence post 50 feet away sat a large hawk.
“That’s a Ferruginous Hawk,” she said. “This is neat, because there aren’t that many of them. They’re my favorite.”
As the hawk took flight Peckham’s cell phone rang.
“That’s the dying animal number,” she said somberly.
As much as she loves her job, there’s one duty she dislikes immensely, and she’s called to perform it far too often. When a wild animal is injured and a citizen calls for help the call gets routed either to Peckham or to one of the local game wardens she works closely with. Whether it’s a deer or antelope struck by a car, or a sick animal someone spotted on their property, she’s frequently tasked with dealing with the situation.
“It’s definitely the hard part of my job because most of the time there’s not much we can do,” she said. “I’ve been asked before why I can’t just take a deer or antelope to an animal hospital, and I have to explain that we don’t really have one of those. Often we’re so far out that there’s not a good option.”
Sometimes the most merciful thing she can do is end the animal’s suffering. But it’s not something she enjoys.
As the sun sets Peckham makes her way back toward town. She will spend the rest of the evening compiling data and entering it into the WGFD’s system.
Tomorrow morning before the sun is up she will load up and head out again.
For Erika Peckham, it’s just another day at the office.