Special Veteran/Youth Hunt Provides Touching Moments for Ridgefield NWR Project Leader
By Brent Lawrence, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Columbia Pacific Northwest region.
Juliette Fernandez picked a tough time to start her new job as project leader for Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Washington.
It was early August when Juliette moved to southwest Washington from New Mexico where as the Refuge Supervisor for Arizona and New Mexico she oversaw 17 refuges. Her portfolio included refuges along the Colorado River and international border with Mexico, and serving the urban community of Albuquerque.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions across Washington and the Service, she was limited in her face-to-face interactions with staff, the public, volunteers and partners while trying to learn about the refuge and it’s partnership with the community. Those interactions and relationships are vitally important to creating trust and a good working relationship.
“It has certainly been a different experience than when I’ve started other jobs,” Juliette said. “I’ve been trying to be as active as possible and meeting with everyone with safe social distancing or virtually. Fortunately, we already have great staff, volunteers and partners here at Ridgefield, and a great relationship with the community. I’m thankful that everyone has been so supportive of the refuge and our team.”
One of the first major events under Juliette’s tenure would have been the 3rd annual Ridgefield NWR Veterans Day Waterfowl Hunt, where about 20 U.S. military veterans would be introduced to hunting and the outdoors through a dynamic partnership with Washington Waterfowl Association (WWA), Fallen Outdoors and others.
After discussions with WWA and Fallen Outdoors, they decided they had to postpone the 2020 banquet and mentored veterans’ hunt this year.
“Postponing the hunt was heartbreaking for all of us,” Juliette said. “Our partners and staff put so much effort into this hunt as a way to give back to our veterans. We were so disappointed because the hunt provides important comradery for our veterans, and allows them to experience hunting, which is one of the Big 6 uses of our national wildlife refuges. We are looking forward to the hunt returning next year, and building it back better than ever.”
But Juliette got an opportunity for a little do-over at the end of an otherwise successful waterfowl hunting season at the refuge. Ridgefield NWR opened the hunting blinds at the refuge for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s special youth, veteran and active military hunt on Feb. 6. This special day is added at the end of the duck season and is only open to youth, veterans and active military members.
What Juliette saw that day certainly made a lasting impression. Here is Juliette’s account of what she saw that day:
“February 6th was truly an inspiring day for me. I tried to get out several times this hunt season to meet and hear from our hunt community but also to support our hunt check-in coordinator, Dave Lescalleet and wife/co-pilot, Cindy. They are quite the amazing team of expertise, professionalism, and dedication. At 4:45 on February 6, Dave and Cindy were surprised to see me once again greeting the sunrise with them. Trucks rolled in, and veterans and children eagerly awaited their opportunity to pick their favorite blind. All but three of the 21 blinds were filled: we had 25 hunters, including 14 veterans, one active duty, and 10 youth with observers. This meant everyone got to hunt, and several had never hunted the refuge before. As each vet finished registering, I thanked them for their service and wished them luck. The children, somehow both yawning and ecstatic, were in camo and small masks. The dogs waited eagerly to go get soaked.
“Among the hunters were four individuals that especially stood out. One young veteran was new to the area. Because his friends didn’t want to wake up so early, he came alone to try duck hunting for the first time. He left at the end of the day with five ducks. He sheepishly admitted that he’s a pretty good shot, and he was looking forward to next season.
“The second individual was the young boy who came with his family. The father hunted in one blind with a teenage girl, who ultimately harvested two ducks. The mother hunted with the younger brother and sister, each around the age of 8 or 9. They came back and reported that they didn’t get any ducks but they did see a massive flock of geese land just in front of them. They were so awestruck that they didn’t even take a shot. They asked that I not reveal this to the other hunters and laughed. Before the family drove off, the little boy turned to Dave Lescalleet and said, ‘Thank you for giving us ducks to eat.’
“The third individual was part of a darling trio. A father hopped out of the truck, followed by a happy golden retriever and lastly a tiny being dressed in camo and waterboots, a little girl about 3 years old. They wandered through the dark to their blind, and I followed their headlamp until it vanished behind some brush. About 7 hours later, the trio emerged and in the girl’s tiny hand was a duck they would take home as her prize for her first hunt. She splashed in mud puddles as her father checked out, and they were off to their next adventure.
“The last individual was a veteran. The veteran is a Ridgefield NWR regular and came to hunt several times this season, but his companion was winding down her hunt days. As the veteran checked out, Lady, his 12-year-old hunting dog, rested contently in the passenger seat below the heat vents. I petted her through the window and she hardly raised an eyebrow. The veteran told me the next day he was picking up his new puppy. Lady had lost her hearing and was slowing down, and he looked forward to training his new ‘baby.’ Though Lady may not see too many more hunts, the veteran did think she could offer the new puppy some tips and tricks and the journey would begin again.”
For more information on Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex, visit https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Ridgefield/