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NEWS | June 15, 2022

Former air traffic controller loves being wildlife biologist

By Sgt. 1st Class Clinton Wood 88th Readiness Division

This U.S. Navy air traffic controller went from checking flight plans and giving pilots clearance for takeoffs to checking on a whitetail-deer population and giving turkey hunters clearance to hunt by selecting their names in a lottery.

It would be an understatement to say Randy Berry enjoys his latter job. He has been the U.S. Army Reserve Joliet Local Training Area’s wildlife biologist for 30 years. The 88th Readiness Division has been responsible for the 3,600-acre LTA, the largest LTA in the continental United States, since 2008.

“I loved the outdoors, it was always something I wanted to do,” said Berry, who was an air traffic controller for almost six years, for the reason he chose to become a wildlife biologist. “I always wanted a job where I could get out in the field. I never wanted to get stuck inside. I always wanted to get out in the field and do stuff. I wanted a job where I could be outside.”

Berry, who works several seven-day work weeks throughout the year, admitted that being an air traffic controller could be fun despite being stressful. “I’m glad I got to do it, but I did not want to do it the rest of my life,” said Berry, who started taking college classes while he was in the Navy. He became a full-time student after his discharge from the Navy.

His first degree earned was a Bachelor of Science from Purdue University. He worked for the California Waterfowl Association temporarily for six months upon graduation. His next degree was a Master of Science from New Mexico State University. He worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in North Dakota from 1991 until 1993 before accepting the position at JLTA.

Berry’s study of biology, behavior and habitats of various animals and 177 species of birds on the training area throughout the years especially in managing the white-tail deer and turkey populations have provided numerous lifetime memories. Several 10- and 12-point typical whitetail bucks with thick racks have been harvested since 1993. No surprise, according to the Boone and Crockett Club non-profit organization of avid big-game hunters founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt, Illinois is the number two largest big buck state with 1,445 total entries. Illinois has four counties in the top 20 United States counties according to B&C. A typical “nice” buck scores 130 points. A buck must score a minimum 160 inches to qualify for the B&C Club’s three-year award. One in 20,000 bucks would meet this standard. The scoring system includes Number of points on each antler, spread from tip to tip and the widest spread inside spread at widest point of main beams.

The percentage of two-and-a-half year or older adult bucks among the total bucks taken in the training area from 1993 through 2021 was 68 percent or 908 of 1,331. Bucks must have at least four points on one side to be harvested. This restriction began for the 1998 season. A three-point restriction began in 1997.

The first deer hunt was held in October 1993, the same year that Berry became the area’s wildlife biologist. The JTLA was transferred to Fort McCoy in 1991 by Fort Sheridan, Ill., and the hunting program was closed in 1992. The hunting program was established by Fort Sheridan in the mid 1960's. Berry said if not for the deer hunters protesting, the hunting program at JLTA was going to be shut down.

“That was my main purpose to run the hunting program,” said Berry, whose office is within walking distance to the deer and turkey weigh in station.

Ed Tebo, Environmental Division Chief, 88th Readiness Division, Directorate of Public Works, said Berry gives “110 percent of his time” as the Division’s hunting program manager. “And effort to ensure our Soldiers, site workers, and surrounding community members have an enjoyable and successful hunting season,” said Tebo.

Berry said the best time to bag a big buck is during the archery season which runs from October until the middle of January. Bow hunters can harvest two deer (either sex). They must pass a qualification test to hunt on the land. They must place three of five arrows in a five-inch circle from 20 yards.

“If you can shoot a bow, it is not that hard,” said Berry, who was an avid deer hunter but now pursues turkeys and fishes more than he hunts.

The firearms deer season is divided into two seasons. The seasons in 2022 were Nov. 18-20 and Dec. 1-4. Hunters can only bag one deer during the gun-deer season. Does can’t be harvested after the second firearms season.

The training area also offers five spring turkey seasons in a span of 32 days. The 2022 seasons for the northern zone were April 11-15, April 16-21, April 22-27, April 28-May 4, and May 5-12. Berry chooses 10 hunters per season via a lottery system. He said he receives approximately 150 applications.

The overall success rate from 2002 until 2021 was 34 percent (228 harvested of the 678 permits issued). Toms, who have uniform tail feathers and beards which can grow eight inches or longer, accounted for 78 percent of the turkeys harvested. The Jakes, whose tails stick up noticeably in the middle and have beards that are five inches or less, accounted for 22 percent. The harvest average through the 19 seasons was 12.

Berry said he received 16 turkeys, 11 hens and five Jakes, in 1998. Eight each were released in the north and south training areas. This was after Will County, where JLTA is located, was chosen as a county to attempt to repopulate turkeys. The first turkey season at JLTA was in 2002.

“They just took off, it was unbelievable,” said Berry, who added that JLTA was chosen for its great habitat.

The area also offers small game hunting seasons for fox squirrels, cottontail rabbits and pheasants. The total number of pheasants harvested from 1993 until 2021 is 9,152.

Robert McCabe, 45, who has hunted on the land since 1996 and bagged a 21-pound Tom May 10, said it best. “Randy does a good job. The way he manages everything out here.”

Tebo went one step further. “As a wildlife biologist Randy’s knowledge and experience is irreplaceable.”