Class Notes Profile: Frontier Healer

All of Alaska is an animal hospital for wildlife vet Kimberlee Beckmen

Beckmen listens to the heartbeat of a wolf pup which was darted to check the effectiveness of a program to eliminate dog lice. (Image by Craig Gardner/Alaska Department of Fish and Game)
All of Alaska is an animal hospital for wildlife vet Kimberlee Beckmen

At 800 pounds, the female was a lot of sea lion, and Kimberlee Beckmen ’89 VM, DVM ’89, was being careful. She thought.

The massive aquatic mammal had been darted as it lay on its rocky volcanic perch. Beckmen observed the creature as it fell asleep, then prepped to attach a satellite transmitter to its ear. Suddenly, the sea lion arose, inches away from her. “If she had bitten me, I probably would not be here,” Beckmen says. “My head would have fit in her mouth.”

Fortunately, the sea lion ran off down the beach at Ulak—a remote island in the distant Aleutians—and Beckmen lived on as the wildlife veterinarian for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, a position she’s held since 2002. It’s her job to conduct and oversee the chemical immobilizations whereby wildlife biologists tag and study Alaska’s creatures, great and small—including wolves, grizzly bears and, yes, sea lions. She also scrutinizes the state’s ecosystem for new parasites, diseases and invasive species.

“The health and survival of the wildlife population is my No. 1 priority,” Beckmen says.

In 2006, she took on dog lice, which had invaded wolf populations near Fairbanks. Flying in a Piper Super Cub aircraft, she and team members circled wolf dens and habitats, throwing out meat baits dosed with anti-parasitic medication. Three years later, the dog lice had been eliminated.

“I love being … at sea in Prince William Sound or the Aleutians,” says Beckmen, who only makes such excursions once or twice a year. “People would pay thousands of dollars to do what I get paid to do.”

Except for darting gigantic sea lions, studying lice on wolves and otherwise looking out for the animals of America’s largest, coldest and wildest state.