For many wild animals living in and around Bend, Corey Heath has been a veritable savior.
Over the course of his 30-plus years with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Heath, a wildlife biologist, has freed deer caught in fences, helped hawks get out of warehouses and removed cougars from traps.
“One of the things that attracted me to this field is there isn’t a typical day,” said Heath, who hails from northwest Montana but has been living in Oregon since middle school. “It keeps the job interesting and adds a lot of variety.”
On a recent cold day at the ODFW office in Bend, Heath described the two different hats he wears at work. He arrives as an administrator, in charge of wildlife inventories, migration pattern studies, hunting tags and the like. But when a call comes in for help, Heath puts on his figurative rescue cap, assisting by phone or sometimes heading to the scene of the problem. Many of the calls are cougar sightings. Some describe deer injured by vehicles. Others can be hawks or eagles stuck in fences.
It’s been like that since he started working for ODFW in the 1980s, said Heath. The only thing that’s changed is the technology. Net guns, tranquilizer darts and various kinds of traps and lassos help Heath complete his rescues.
But the job still requires a fair amount of good old-fashioned manhandling. Heath has a torn rotator cuff to prove it. The injury occurred while tackling a deer that had to be subdued when a tranquilizer dart failed.
“There have been a lot of wrestling matches with various critters, but that is what you do,” said Heath, who has a degree in wildlife science from Oregon State University.
Some of the more dangerous fieldwork was conducted in Bend, thanks to cougars that periodically appear around town.
Last year, a series of cougar sightings around Deschutes River Canyon kept Heath busy through winter and into spring. He posted warning signs southwest Bend neighborhoods and helped to locate cougars for removal from city limits.
Fortunately, there’s been no wrestling matches with cougars. When the big cats are trapped and need to be released, Heath can administer a tranquilizer dart to calm the animal. Euthanizing is sometimes deemed necessary if the animal became habituated to urban areas. That occurred in February when a 135-pound cougar was tracked down and shot by local authorities in the area around Deschutes River Woods.
Heath and other ODFW biologists take cougar and bear encounters seriously, particularly with recent hiker deaths at the hands of predators.
Two cougar deaths occurred in the Pacific Northwest in 2018, one in Oregon and one in Washington.
“We get lots of cougar sightings,” Heath said. “They have a very large home range. When someone sees (a cougar) we talk to the person about what is legal to do.”
Bears are less likely to be seen around Bend but are sometimes spotted raiding campgrounds around the Cascades, said Heath.
“Bears are really driven by their stomachs,” Heath said. “They have excellent noses ; they are always driven by hunger. Bear problems include them getting into garbage cans, dumpsters, grease barrels at rural sites, barrels at campgrounds, coolers, stuff like that.”
Bears and cougars require the most amount of caution but deer in distress have also made for a few adventurous calls for ODFW biologists.
“Deer hung up in fences, deer hung up in Christmas lights, deer hung up in hammocks, volleyball nets. You name it, and we’ve taken it off of them,” Heath said.
He has also seen deer struck with arrows or injured by cars. All sorts of items seem to get wrapped around them, including buckets, tomato cages and chicken feeders. But freeing deer from such entanglements is not always an option. A deer with a broken back or pelvis from a car strike is euthanized, Heath said.
The distress calls have only increased in recent years, as Bend has grown.
“The job has changed quite a bit,” Heath said. “As Bend has grown over time the impacts to wildlife and habitats have also changed over time.”
Heath has seen plenty of those changes himself. Bend has been home since 1993 and he has explored much of the backcountry in the Cascades on family trips with his wife and two sons, now aged 21 and 17. Fishing, rafting and traditional bowhunting for deer and elk have been regular family activities for years.
“Kids these days have a lot of things competing for their time, but both my sons have been brought up in a hunting household,” Heath said. “They have been brought up to do it safely and responsibly.”
Some of these outdoors skills were passed down from his father, who worked as an engineer for the Forest Service in Montana and Oregon. The elder Heath worked on various road projects and some aspects of Timberline Lodge. He has non-outdoorsy passions, too. A baseball nut, he’s been coached more than 30 youth teams over the years, and still loves to attend OSU Beaver ball games.
Out of college, a lot of the job required commenting on timber sales, grazing plans and mining operations. ODFW’s modus operandi was to minimize the impact of the extractive industry on wildlife and habitats, said Heath. Today, it seeks to stop direct human impact from recreation.
“A lot of our focus is to work with the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the counties to minimize the human impacts on wildlife,” Heath said. “There is still some logging now, but it’s not nearly at the level it was before.”
The goal is to help animals return to their management levels. Some species are still a work in progress. Mule deer have a management objective of 38,400 for five management units in Central Oregon but the population as of spring 2019 was 16,060, said Heath.
Other animals have been deemed a success story. Inside the ODFW office Heath pointed out a stuffed mountain goat, a majestic creature with little black horns and a body covered with snow-white fur. The species, which had disappeared from the Cascades in the mid-1800s, was reintroduced 10 years ago. Their numbers have since doubled to around 120 animals.
“We are pretty proud about the reintroduction of mountain goats,” said Heath. “We spent several years figuring out the logistics, and now, we have mountain goats back in the Central Cascades. They are doing well.”
Next up are studies on pronghorn antelope and Sierra Nevada red fox. There’s never really an end to the project work, as the inventories occur annually. But the encounters with wild animals really keeps things interesting. When pressed, there was no best incident. In his humble way, Heath just remembers that none had really gone south.
“Anytime we go out its memorable to me,” Heath said. “A lot of what we do is kind of dangerous but we haven’t had any serious human injuries, either with the public or our personnel.”