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updated: 7/23/2011 1:11 PM

Former Wheaton woman tends to Alaskan wildlife

Former Wheaton woman tends to Alaskan wildlife

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  • Wildlife veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen monitors the heart of an anesthetized muskox.

      Wildlife veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen monitors the heart of an anesthetized muskox.
    courtesy of Kimberlee Beckmen

  • For recreation, Kimberlee Beckmen skijors, pulled on cross-country skis by her two Alaskan huskies.

      For recreation, Kimberlee Beckmen skijors, pulled on cross-country skis by her two Alaskan huskies.
    courtesy of Kimberlee Beckmen

  • Kimberlee Beckmen prepares to remove the endotracheal tube from a Steller sea lion that is waking from gas anesthesia.

      Kimberlee Beckmen prepares to remove the endotracheal tube from a Steller sea lion that is waking from gas anesthesia.
    Courtesy of Kimberlee Beckmen

 
 

Back when Kimberlee Beckmen was a student at Wheaton Central High School, she couldn't have foreseen that one day she would fly in a small plane with seven black bears, take fat biopsies of anesthetized Stellar sea lions, or earn the moniker "Miss Marple of Moose."

Beckmen, wildlife veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks, has done all of the above and more in what she calls her dream job -- a job she talked about in recent telephone and email interviews with the Daily Herald.

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"I really love Alaska," she said. "I don't ever want to leave."

As the only veterinarian with the state's Department of Fish and Game, Beckmen monitors the health and does disease surveillance among wildlife populations, helps with the capture of wildlife so they may be radiocollared and counted, and educates humans on how to coexist with the untamed critters sharing their space.

It's a big job, she admits.

"I travel all over the state," she said. "When I walk into my office, I don't know what my day will be like."

Like a detective solving a crime, Beckmen often investigates the causes of death among wildlife populations. An Alaska newspaper referred to her as the "Miss Marple of Moose" after she determined that a moose calf had been poisoned by eating chokecherries, an ornamental plant not native to Alaska.

"Satisfying is when I investigate wildlife mortalities … and am able to figure out why the animal died, especially when it can prevent further deaths," she said. "It's most intriguing and challenging."

New career path

It's not quite the career path Beckmen envisioned for herself. Born in St. Charles and raised in Wheaton, she had wanted to be a marine biologist from the time she was captivated by beautiful reef fish while snorkeling in Hawaii when she was about 12.

She achieved her goal by earning a bachelor's degree from Florida Atlantic University and a master's from the University of Miami.

Returning to her home state, she attended veterinary school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because she wanted to study the pathology of wildlife, especially of marine animals. During a fellowship in California, she did necropsies, or post-mortem exams, on seals, sea lions, whales and dolphins.

While earning her doctorate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, she participated in research projects with several agencies. She became the wildlife veterinarian at the Department of Fish and Game in 2002 after the former veterinarian retired.

Beckmen said that one of her most unusual experiences has been helping to relocate nearly 100 black bears a distance of 350 miles.

"I had to keep up to seven bears (at a time) anesthetized on a bush plane," she said.

Beckmen also has spent seven to 10 days at sea at a time on the Aleutian Islands doing Stellar sea lion capture and research to determine the cause of their declining populations.

She's been at the forefront of working to keep Chronic Wasting Disease out of Alaskan deer and elk populations, and of warning that diseases carried by domestic pack goats could be devastating to wild Dali sheep.

Just like in the Lower forty-eight States, conflicts occur when humans and wildlife venture into each other's territory, Beckmen said. Leaving garbage out attracts bears. The cute baby moose that may be spotted around Fairbanks and Anchorage have mothers who are fiercely protective when upset.

"Really, wildlife management is managing people," she said.

Beckmen said her busiest time is during hunting season, which in Alaska lasts from August to June for various species of animals. Hunters may notice evidence of a parasite or disease when butchering the meat and want to know whether it is safe to eat. In many cases, problems can be avoided simply by cooking the meat thoroughly, including bones and scraps given to dogs, she said in an Alaskan Department of Fish and Game article.

Northern view

Many residents in the Lower forty-eight harbor some misconceptions about Alaska and its wildlife, Beckmen said. For example, the state has been criticized for shooting wolves from helicopters. Only a small percentage of the state's wolves are killed, and that's because they depress the moose and caribou populations, Beckmen said.

"In Alaska, a lot of native people are dependent for their meat on moose and caribou," she said. "We shoot them (the wolves) humanely and quickly."

Objections to potential oil drilling in a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have been misplaced, Beckmen said. Objectors argued that the area was a breeding ground for caribou and muskoxen, but the caribou have not calved there for seven years and only a couple of muskoxen have ever been found there, she said.

Because of the protest, that area of the refuge was removed as a potential drilling site. But now oil leases are being sold in the Colville River Delta, a sensitive breeding ground for waterfowl and the peregrine falcon, where an oil spill at the wrong time of year could wipe out entire species, Beckmen said.

She also expressed concern about offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

"There is currently no known methods developed to clean up an oil spill under ice or in broken ice. It would be a disaster," she said.

Evidence of global warming can be seen clearly in Alaska, Beckmen said. Polar bears are starving and venture farther south than they formerly did. Warmer temperatures have caused an increase in parasites that kill trees and affect the health of some wildlife populations, she said.

Keith Beckmen, Beckmen's older brother and the regional president of Harris Bank in Naperville, said conversations with his sister are always educational for him and his family.

"I've learned more about muskoxen and seals than I ever wanted to know," he said with a laugh. "She has helped me, my family and daughter to have a different understanding."

Although Keith Beckmen has not yet visited his sister in Alaska, he plans to do so. Remembering how she used to give proper burial to critters such as frogs and fish when she was a kid, he said he isn't surprised by the adventurous life she has chosen.

"She was always interested in animals," he said.

Heartfelt work

For relaxation, Beckmen does dog mushing and skijoring with her two Alaskan huskies and Belgian Tervuren in the winter. In the summer, she does dog agility with her Tervuren. She recently was in Illinois to pick up another Tervuren puppy. But Beckmen doesn't stay away from Alaska for long.

"I really take my job to heart," she said. "I like to work on different things. I especially like to work on muskoxen, caribou and sea lions."

Beckmen said her field work takes her to the remote and beautiful parts of Alaska, especially the Aleutian Islands, Prince William Sound and the Inside Passage of southeast Alaska.

She acknowledged that her job has its frustrations, too.

"The most challenging is dealing with the political side of wildlife management, where politicians and the public make decisions for their own interests or political gain that ultimately harms wildlife or wildlife populations," she said.

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