Wildlife’s Middleman: Todd Jacobsen ’17

Wildlife’s Middleman: Todd Jacobsen ’17

When animals and people cross paths, he maintains the peace.

Deep in the woods of rural Washington, a hunter and his son return to a 12-foot-deep sinkhole they discovered the previous year. To their surprise, an elk calf is trapped at the bottom of the pit. Springing into action, the hunter contacts the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who deploys Todd Jacobsen ’17. With the help of a tractor and dart gun, he lifts the elk out to safety. 

It’s just another day’s work for Jacobsen, a wildlife conflict specialist for Klickitat, Skamania and Clark Counties with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.  

“Every year, I end up involved in several ‘entangled’ deer or elk calls where these animals have become wrapped up in some sort of fence, or gotten some man-made object stuck somewhere on their body that impedes their ability to move or eat,” said Jacobsen.

In one instance, he had to “dart” a deer to remove a Kong dog chew toy that had gotten stuck around its mouth, prohibiting it from eating. Incidents like this are only a small portion of his work, though. An ordinary day on the job could include fending off bears from industrial timber operations, euthanizing sick or injured wildlife or even cleaning up the aftermath of destructive turkeys. 

“There are roughly 17 conflict specialists around the state. Our primary duties entail dealing with elk and deer damage to commercial crops, handling wolf, bear and cougar depredations on livestock, and responding with our enforcement staff to cougar, bear and moose incidents.”

Jacobsen’s department focuses heavily on implementing non-lethal hazing and deterrent tools to mitigate most conflict scenarios, though he said there are times when lethal removal of wildlife is also necessary to resolve certain conflicts.

With so much of his work revolving around managing people’s values and expectations surrounding wildlife, Jacobsen says the most challenging—and rewarding—part of his job is educating others.

“I enjoy the challenge presented to me with each conflict call, and it gives me the opportunity to help teach people about coexisting with wildlife on the landscape.” 

With a job that closely resembles conflict resolution for animals and people alike, Jacobsen deals with just about every type of human-wildlife conflict situation. Not only does he respond to in-person conflict situations, but also spreads awareness and education to help prevent the scenarios before they occur.  

Growing up in Stanwood, Wash., just north of Puget Sound, unpredictability has always been one of his favorite things about wildlife. Whether it was catching frogs and garter snakes around his house, or hiking, camping and fishing, he spent most of his time growing up outdoors. It eventually propelled him to Seattle Pacific University (SPU), where he received an undergraduate degree in ecology.

“I thought I wanted to pursue some sort of science-based career, based on my past participation with the FFA Natural Resources and Envirothon teams. However, I wasn’t really aware of the different environmental science fields that were out there. Fortunately for me, Dr. Eric Long started working at SPU the same year I enrolled there.” 

After taking a class from Long his freshman year and learning about a deer research opportunity, Jacobsen was hooked. 

“I ended up working on the project capturing and collaring black-tail deer—my first wildlife field research experience—between my junior and senior years, and was sure that this was what I wanted to do the rest of my life.” 

Following his graduation from SPU in 2010, he taught natural resources at his former high school, applied for graduate school research positions and worked as a field technician to monitor bighorn sheep populations in central Idaho for the Nez Perce Tribe.

In 2013, he accepted an offer for a fully funded master’s degree research assistantship in Dr. Steve Ditchkoff’s Deer Lab at Auburn University. For the next three years, he and his colleague, Kevin Wiskirshen, captured and collared white-tail deer to examine deer survival and movement across the state of Alabama.

“My time at Auburn was definitely instrumental in preparing me for a career in wildlife conservation and management,” said Jacobsen. “I gained valuable field research experience while working in the Deer Lab, primarily revolving around wildlife capture and handling.”

In June of 2016, Jacobsen’s experience was put to the test when a black bear was found wandering around a neighborhood near downtown Opelika. Because Ditchkoff’s Deer Lab at Auburn housed extensive wildlife-capturing equipment, the state contacted his office for the job.  

So Jacobsen, Ditchkoff and Wiskirshen left a calm day at the Deer Lab to go track down the bear.  

“It was a large black bear, a male probably looking for a breeding opportunity, and there aren’t many bears in Alabama, so he was going to be looking for a long time before he found another black bear.” 

As local news stations and concerned citizens watched nearby, the three caught, darted and relocated the bear to a rural area in Tuskegee. Eventually, they tracked it as it wandered across the state. Like so many other seemingly normal days, Jacobsen had to expect the unexpected. When the safety of the community as well as the ecosystem is at risk, one has to be ready for anything.   

“I was sitting at my desk, analyzing all my deer data and putting my thesis together, and Dr. Ditchkoff came up to our office and said ‘hey, you guys want to capture a bear?“

Read More Alumni Stories

Read More Auburn Alumni Stories

Fearless in Blue

Fearless in Blue

Staring down a lion, falling down a waterfall and barrel rolling in a plane are all in a day’s work for three intrepid alumni

Bennett Smith ’19 can admit it now. He used to be a little afraid of water. “I was always scaring my parents by jumping off tall stuff or doing backflips on the ground, but I was never daring in water,” he says. These days, though, the water can’t be too deep or too tall for the championship kayaker who loves to go over waterfalls.

Smith is the living embodiment of “a spirit that is not afraid,” and he’s far from the only one. Whether it’s on land, in water or high in the air, Auburn grads are filled with adventure.

We caught up with Smith, hiker Jessica “Dixie” Mills ’12 and acrobatic pilot Mac Cook ’20 to talk about their thrilling


Extreme Paddling

Jessica “Dixie” Mills

Walking Tall

Mac Cook

Out of the box

BENNETT SMITH: Extreme paddling

Its official name is a “Blunt to McNasty,” but this is really what you need to know about Bennett Smith’s signature move. “You do a cartwheel in a kayak and a front flip right after it,” he says.

Oh, and one more thing: “I don’t think anyone had ever done it off waterfall, and I nailed it last year.” Smith began kayaking around age 13, intrigued by a friend,
Davis Moers, who was doing tricks in the canoe-like paddle boat. “I thought it looked cool to go off waterfalls,” Smith says. They started posting videos of themselves doing flips in their kayaks on YouTube. Smith was also taking lessons that would eventually lead him to the U.S. freestyle kayaking team.
He has competed in three world championships, including one with a dislocated shoulder.

At the same time, he spends his weekends conquering big rapids and going down tall waterfalls.

“That’s really what went viral—the videos of me doing that,” Smith says. “I’m combining freestyle kayaking with river-running, and that seems to be what’s caught the public’s attention. It’s what I have the most fun doing.” That includes a video of him doing flips and rolls off Little River Falls in northeast Alabama that landed on Fox News in late December 2020.

It’s safer than it looks, Smith says. “A lot of people think it’s crazy, that you could land on a rock or something, but everything is very calculated,” he says.
“Before I go down, I’ve been there in the summer to swim to the bottom to make sure it’s deep enough and safe enough. People are also stationed at the bottom with ropes and safety equipment.”

Smith chose Auburn in large part because of kayaking. “I’ve been an Auburn fan my whole life—both my parents went there—but it’s also very close to some world-class whitewater,” he says. “I could go after class to Columbus, Ga., or to Lake Martin to the Tallapoosa River.”

At 24, Smith says he’s “just getting started” when it comes to kayaking. He has a coach and continues to train for the U.S. freestyle kayak team and tackle waterfalls yet to be conquered. “I’ve been compiling a list of ones that have never been done before and ticking them off,” Smith says. “I find one on Google Earth, walk miles to find it, scout it out, go back with a crew and do it.”

That’s particularly easy to do from Chattanooga, Tenn., where Smith moved after graduating in 2019 and now lives with his wife, Kathleen. He’s a sales rep for a logistics company, but he’s never far from his kayak.

“That’s really one of the main reasons I moved up here,” Smith says of Chattanooga’s proximity to kayaking waters. “It’s a pretty cool city, but I can also sneak away before lunch or after for a quick kayak session.”

‘DIXIE’ MILLS: Walking tall

And then there was the time Jessica Mills tried to fight off a mountain lion with a harmonica.

“For a minute and a half, this mountain lion and I were staring at each other,” says Mills, a 2012 graduate in biosystems engineering. “I thought, what if I can make a noise to let it know I’m not its food. I had this harmonica, so I pulled it out and blew into it. Then I thought, what if this sounds like a dying
bird or something? So, I stopped and stood there a minute, and it went away.”

Such is a day in the life of Mills, who quit her job in 2014 to hit the trail—literally. She started working on her website full time and now gives advice to hikers around the world, all the while chronicling her own hikes with blog posts, photos and videos. Mills, who grew up in and still lives in Opelika, dreamed from about age 5 of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. (Thruhiking means finishing the trail in a 12-month period; section hikers might do it over several years).

“We’d go to North Carolina on a vacation, and I remember seeing a sign saying ‘Appalachian Trail,’” Mills recalls. “I asked my mom about it, and she explained that it was what crazy people walked from Georgia to Maine. I said, ‘Wow, let’s go do that.’ She said, ‘Someday, when you grow up.’”

That day came in 2015, when Mills—given the trail name “Dixie” by those in the hiking community—hiked the 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail from March through October. “I didn’t know if I’d do another one, but within two months, the trails were calling again,” she said.

Since then, Mills has completed hiking’s “triple crown” by thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (2,650 miles in 2017) and the Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles in 2018).

But there are other hikes to walk, and Mills chronicles all her exploits, from the Camino de Santiago in Europe to the Florida Trail she started in February.

“There is something about walking somewhere that you can’t drive, knowing that the only way you can enjoy something is by walking there,” she says. “Those long hikes take me about six months. I do go slow and smell the roses. If you’re watching my videos, I want you to feel what it’s like on the trail.”

The 34-year-old walks alone and in groups. Aside from an encounter with a black bear and the aforementioned mountain lion, plus some snakes and alligators along the way, she’s remained safe. But it’s still difficult sometimes for Mills to convince people of the allure of hiking.

“A lot of people think you’ve lost your mind,” Mills says. “It’s not that people don’t want to see you chase your dreams— they’re concerned for your safety. So many people have a lot of fear about anything outside of their comfort zone, and they kind of put that on other people.

“But I’m very happy and fulfilled now,” she adds. “You can’t listen to the naysayers.”

MAC COOK: Out of the box

Twenty to 30 degrees nose up or down. Sixty degrees of roll or pitch.

That’s “the box” Mac Cook says private pilots are contained in, unless they take it upon themselves to learn more. “When you’re getting your license and learning how to fly, those are your constraints,” he says. “Anything outside of that is considered aerobatics. They don’t teach you that. It’s not a
required learning experience, but when you do, you begin to see what the plane can do.”

Cook has known for a while what an airplane can do. He grew up in Waverly, outside of Auburn, flying with his father, who is an acrobatic pilot. The younger Cook earned his pilot’s license in high school and graduated with a degree in professional flight management from Auburn last year. He’s now a flight instructor at the Auburn airport, and he likes to get a bit more adventurous on the weekends—doing rolls and other acrobatic moves.

“I’ve always liked doing things that are a little bit more adventurous or a little bit far off for some people, I guess,” says Cook, 22. “I’ve always had that speed and thrill bug inside of me.” That’s what led him to break out of the box of being a pilot and take it a step further to do acrobatics.

“The best way I can explain it is expanding the envelope of what an airplane can do and seeing what I can do,” he says. Cook also teaches others to do just that. On a recent weekend, he took a fellow pilot out to give him “upset recover and prevention training.” “We went through a set list of maneuvers and put him in all sorts of positions he probably had never been in,” Cook says. “He had to figure out how to get out of those situations.”

When he’s flying acrobatically—usually in a Russian trainer plane owned by his father—Cook says he “doesn’t do anything too crazy.”

“It’s big, slow maneuvers, not crazy stuff you see in air shows,” he says. “We do barrel rolls and loops—things that keep the airplane flying instead of it running out of energy. I kind of know my limitations, and people I fly with know their limitations, and we tend to stick to that. We stay pretty safe.” Cook has a younger brother who is following in his and his father’s footsteps, but his older sister is “completely disinterested,” as is his mother.

“My mom doesn’t like it at all,” he says. “She doesn’t try to discourage us, but she won’t partake in the activities…not everyone has the stomach for it. That’s what makes it unique, I guess.”