As a temporary employee at a federal wildlife office in Fort Collins some 40 years ago, Steve Keefer shared in the excitement of the discovery of a colony of black-footed ferrets in Wyoming.
The black-footed ferret had been feared extinct for years in North America and the discovery ignited a passion in Keefer to help rescue it and other wildlife. So when his temporary job ended, he decided to return to college and get a degree that would help him protect and rescue other wildlife.
It was 1976 when Keefer enrolled at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he earned a wildlife biology degree that he has used in protection of Colorado’s wildlife and in service of the state’s outdoors enthusiasts ever since.
Soon, however, Keefer will hang up his duty belt after 36 years as a wildlife officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. His retirement will leave a void in the agency he has served all these years.
There is no doubt he will also be missed among the public who have grown to know Keefer as a gentle but fierce advocate for wildlife from their interactions in the field and his public profile including his monthly radio show in La Junta where he has talked about upcoming events, hunting and fishing seasons, bird migrations, new laws and regulations and even the “Critter of the Month.”
“We’re really going to miss Steve at CPW and I know the hunting, fishing and wildlife-watching public are going to miss him as well,” said Todd Marriott, CPW’s Area Wildlife Manager based in Lamar.
Marriott has worked with Keefer for 18 years as a colleague and in recent years as his supervisor. He long ago came to appreciate Keefer’s work on behalf of wildlife conservation.
“For nearly 40 years, the people of the Southeast Region have looked to Steve for answers about wildlife and I know I’ve come to depend on him for his judgment and experience,” Marriott said. “You can’t replace people like him. He has a passion for the job that he’ll carry to his last day.”
It took a bit for Keefer to find his passion.
Born in eastern Kansas, Steve found a passion for wildlife conservation during a high school internship program with the Kansas Biological Survey through the University of Kansas. He spent some time as a student at Colorado State University before dropping out in 1978. Unsure of his next step, Keefer landed a temporary job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Fort Collins.
At that time, black footed-ferrets, one of North America’s rarest mammals, had not been seen in so long that they were on the verge of being declared extinct. Steve was working at the USFWS research center in Fort Collins when the species was rediscovered in Wyoming after a ranchers dog found and killed one.
The discovery prompted USFWS to launch a major effort to capture the remaining ferrets in the colony and start a breeding program that continues today with black-footed ferret reintroduction efforts, including in CPW’s Southeast Region, not far from Keefer’s La Junta-area district.
As he earned his wildlife biology degree at CSU, Keefer continued working for the National Fish and Wildlife lab until he graduated in 1981.
It was hard to get wildlife conservation jobs at the time and Steve also had a passion for being a first responder after working with Custer County Search and Rescue in 1975. So, in 1982, he went to work for the Grand County Sheriff’s office where he met the woman who would become his wife, Sue.
Steve joined Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s predecessor agency, the Division of Wildlife, in 1986 as a District Wildlife Manager for the Las Animas wildlife district, eventually shifting to cover the La Junta South district in 2011. His 2,000-square-mile district of canyons, farmlands, river bottoms, and prairies is in his opinion, underappreciated and some of the most beautiful areas in the state.
“It’s too much for one person to physically manage all of the wildlife,” Keefer said of his sprawling district. “And I don’t manage it alone. The people of the state, the people of this area, they really manage it, I just influence them.”
“As a wildlife officer, I try to influence how people manage and how people care for the resources, which is an important part of this job. We do land and water rescue, law enforcement, biology, education, I have done a lot of search and rescue and recovery work, all of that is part of this job and I can’t think of a better one.”
The La Junta South district is one of the few wildlife districts in eastern Colorado that is almost 50 percent public land. CPW’s recent priority of opening access on public lands prompted Keefer to work even harder with landowners. During his 36 years, Keefer is proud of his work to expand public access by over 100,000 acres.
But that’s only one aspect of Keefer’s work as a wildlife officer, which he describes as a jack of all trades. He has often served as a first responder at emergencies including floods, wildfires and other catastrophes.
After 36 years, Keefer thought he’d seen just about everything. That is until a night in June when he found himself responding to a tornado victim: himself.
While rushing out to Adobe Creek Reservoir to warn campers that tornado weather was on the way, Keefer found his truck surrounded by dangerous swirling winds.
His back window was blown out and his truck was picked up and moved. Keefer was lying across the front seats of his CPW truck and peaked out to see he was inside a tornado.
In his typical fashion, Keefer kept his cool. He was fine once Las Animas ambulance staff removed broken glass from his shirt, hat and hair. Being the humble man he is, he made sure to credit the camp hosts Bill and Connie Sweeney with getting most of the campers out of harm’s way before he arrived.
Perhaps Keefer’s favorite story is also among his most touching. He emotionally recounted going out to catch some poachers during a snowstorm many years ago when he came across a car stuck in a snowbank. There was a woman and baby in the car and the woman’s partner had left to find help in the wrong direction.
Forgetting about his poaching case, Steve went into his first-responder mode. He cleared snow from the car’s tailpipe so the woman and baby wouldn’t get carbon monoxide poisoning, helped pull the car out of the ditch and found the woman’s companion and got them safely on their way.
Years later while running some errands, a woman Keefer didn’t recognize approached him and asked if he remembered rescuing a woman and her baby from a snowstorm, he did. At that moment, the woman’s daughter ran up and gave Keefer a big hug and they both thanked him for saving them that snowy day.
“I didn’t do anything that any other officer wouldn’t have done, but you couldn’t have given me a medal that would’ve meant more than that hug,” Keefer said. “What we do, is we take care of people. That’s what law enforcement is about, that’s why I’ve stayed in it for 40 years.”
Keefer’s passion and love of people comes through in his everyday work, Marriott said.
“For someone to hold that passion and drive for 36 years is no small feat,” Marriott said. “Steve is a fixture in the local community and will always be highly regarded. He will be missed.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is celebrating its 125th Anniversary throughout 2022 to honor the legacy of our agency and the talented staff who make fulfilling CPW’s important mission possible. For more stories like this, please visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 125th Anniversary web page!
Written by Joseph Livingston. Joseph is a statewide public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.