ANTES FORT - When Kirk Miller, of Nippenose Valley, visited the bear check stations at the northcentral offices of the state Game Commission as a kid, he would watch the wildlife conservation officers working with the bears and the public there.
At a young age, watching the WCOs, he had a good idea what he wanted to be when he grew up - one of them.
"Seeing the WCO as a kid, I was always like, 'This is what I want to do,' " he said
Today, Miller is a cadet is now in his fourth month of WCO training and he finds himself right back in the same place he found inspiration while he was young.
This is the 29th class to enter into training, and it may be the Game Commission's largest to date.
Thirty-six cadets came to the northcentral office to get hands-on training on June 12, and they found themselves surrounded by more than just staff and instructors.
Seven black bears were trapped the night before by WCOs from all over the region and brought in.
Cadets and bears were destined to meet, literally face-to-face. The bears would be immobilized, not by the instructors, but by the cadets themselves.
"They are in an approximately 11-month program and are pushing into their third month right now," David Carlini, information and education supervisor of the northcentral office, said at the training.
He said the cadets will learn many aspects of being a WCO through classroom work and hands-on training in the field.
A WCO must undertake a variety of lessons before graduating from the training program, Carlini said. Cadets must learn everything from dealing with wildlife, writing reports, learning species of birds and trees, dealing with complaints, law enforcement techniques, public relations and the list goes on.
"The public relations," Carlini added. "They are the local Game Commission's voice."
The cadets are on what Carlini called their "state tour." A stop in this region will allow them to experience land management practices, examine the impact from the Marcellus Shale industry and see how land mangers are working on game lands. A visit to the Elk County Visitor Center would follow.
On June 12, training started early in the morning with a lecture and quiz from Dr. Walter Cottrell, the Game Commission's senior veterinarian.
Cottrell schooled the cadets on various topics, such as the process of wildlife immobilization. Enter the trapped black bears.
"We had all of our WCOs set traps to catch bears and, as of right now, we have six particular bears en route to the region office today," Carlini said.
The cadets broke into three groups before the bears arrived.
In those groups, they learned how to fence bee hives if a nuisance bear is causing problems, how dispatch works inside the office and how to load, set and fire a tranquilizer pistol and rifle.
WCO J. Cole and Tony Ross, commission wildlife biologist, served as the cadets' instructors for the tranquilizer demonstration.
Cadets examined various sizes of darts and learned the proper way to use the gear in the field.
The two instructors stressed that cadets must find every dart they shoot and make sure not to cause trauma to the wild animal.
Ross told the cadets to make sure they treat the tranquilizer gun with safety in mind, as they would with any other weapon.
Before the cadets were able to test both firearms, Cole insisted that they be familiar and comfortable with every part of the weapons, from the darts to the drugs, and that they know how the weapons work.
"You have to be proficient with all these because you never know what you will need in the field," Cole said.
Cadets took turns shooting both weapons, getting a feel for each one.
As the groups rotated through the stations Rick Macklem, law enforcement supervisor for the region, showed them fencing for bee hives, which helps to protect property from hungry bears.
Macklem also took questions from the cadets. He encouraged them to ask him about the job, its duties and anything weighing on their minds.
Cadets asked him about their chances of being assigned to this region once they graduate and can bid for open positions.
Macklem talked about his first placement as a WCO in Bucks County and different aspects of the job.
"It's not a job, it's a career. Every day is different. You might get called out to do bee damage," he said pointing at the example fence. "Then you might be dealing with a downed bear."
Macklem told the cadets that it takes team work to get through the school and succeed in the end.
"They want everyone to succeed and you should want your classmates to succeed," he told them. "Work as a group and you will get through it."
As the bears arrived, the cadets assembled as a group around a trap that came in from Tioga County.
Inside a sow huffed at the cadets, who peered in at it through holes along the walls and top of the metal trap.
The sow wasn't happy and had no problem letting the class know it.
The WCO who brought her in said cubs were sighted close to where she was trapped. He planned to take her right back to the same area so she could reunite with them.
While the students observed the bear, Cottrell, WCO Rob Minnich and Mark Ternent, commission wildlife biologist, began preparing equipment to immobilize the bear.
"They will be doing the work they will have to do in the field. (They'll) get a hands-on today on how to do it," Carlini said. "They will be processing the bear ... like tagging, taking teeth, taking biological information and how to immobilize it properly."
As the instructors readied to immobilize the bear, Ternent asked the class, "How much do you think she weighs?"
The cadets voiced their guesses and Ternent explained how to estimate the size of trapped bears so the correct amount of tranquilizer can be measured out for it.
Minnich aimed the pistol, immobilizing the sow with one shot.
'We need to be prepared'
Cottrell and Ternent told the cadets to time the process to ensure the bear didn't wake up during the processing work. They watched while biological data was taken from the bear and as Minnich and other instructors tagged her ears and tattooed her lip.
A lunch followed the step-by-step presentation and after that, the cadets stepped up to the traps to do the whole process by themselves.
"Pennsylvania is covered in black bear," Carlini said, adding that WCOs are likely to deal with the mammal in the field.
Cadets also will learn how to deal with bear complaints and how to set and bait a bear trap.
Local cadet Miller has come full circle - he grew up hunting and fishing and cultivating a love for the outdoors. He is a 2007 graduate of Jersey Shore Area High School and graduated from Penn State's School of Forestry.
"This is a very important part of our training. We need to get hands-on," Miller said. "We are going to be out in the field by ourselves a lot and we need to be prepared."