VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE -- At a massive 99,600 acres, Vandenberg Air Force Base is home to a wide variety of plants, wildlife and terrain. With the amount of acreage, protecting the wildlife can be a challenging task. Luckily, the 30th Security Forces Squadron conservation team, and more specifically the Military Working Horse law enforcement unit, provide the installation with conservation support.
This unique component of law enforcement is the only equine patrol unit within the Department of Defense and is one of four conservation units in the U.S. Air Force. The equine team consists of four registered quarter horses and six patrolmen, who are an essential part of responsible installation conservation when it comes to patrolling areas that are not as easily accessible by motor vehicle.
“We are able to go through creeks and water with the horses, high hills that we wouldn’t be able to get through with off-road vehicles,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Michael Terrazas, 30th SFS conservation patrolman. “There are places we’ve gone where the water is so deep that my boots are wet while on horseback, but the horses can walk through with no problems.”
While conservation is their main goal, the team is also crucial to the mission when the installations environmental footprint is a factor, such as during the Western Snowy Plover, a threatened species, nesting season. During plover season, specific portions of the beaches on Vandenberg AFB are closed off to allow a safe nesting environment for the threatened species. Violations during the season are tracked by the Military Working Horse law enforcement team, and when the beaches reach a certain number of violations, the remaining portions of the beaches are then closed.
“We are allowed to ride the horses in enclosed plover areas to monitor, but we stick strictly to the wet sand,” said U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Payton Mculley. “The reason we are allowed to take the horses and not ATVs is because horses have a smaller biological footprint on the beaches.”
The team also monitors and patrols hunting and fishing areas throughout each respective season to ensure it is done responsibly and safely.
“We enforce fish and game laws and the horses help us walk off the beaten path to complete our mission,” said Terrazas. “We have even responded to lost hunters and hurt animals.”
Along with fish and game laws, the patrolmen are tasked with enforcing California state and federal laws. Each conservation officer attends a four-month land management training program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and receive federal credentials upon graduation.
“People see that we are conservation and assume that we can’t pull them over on the highway,” said Terrazas. “However, we are federally accredited officers and can perform those duties as well.”
For the SFS patrolmen who aspire to join this team, being chosen for the job can be a lengthy, difficult process, but there are a few ways for them to become a more competitive candidate.
“This is unique within Security Forces,” said Terrazas. “We work 12 hour shifts, but we are always on call. Whoever is working feeds and cares for the horses.” Before this program I had never ridden a horse before, but I came in every day and rode and volunteered.”
Along with a program where members across base can volunteer, the unit offers a six month temporary duty program open to SFS members at Vandenberg during plover and hunting season. Throughout the program, members learn about the job and are trained on various tasks, such as how to care for horses, understanding conservation laws and basics of horse riding.
These unique capabilities of the Military Working Horse unit largely enhances the base’s conservation efforts and have proved an invaluable resource to Vandenberg AFB and its wildlife.