• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

A love for the outdoors began on banks of Kentucky River

A BUTTERFLY captures the attention of wildlife biologist Joe Lacefield - and his camera - during a recent visit to a farm in Woodford County. Lacefield especially takes pride in being able to document the existence of rare wildlife and plants, including the Kentucky clover. (Photo by Bob Vlach)

Wildlife biologist Joe Lacefield grew up along the banks of the Kentucky River in Clifton, where his love for the outdoors blossomed. Lacefield can vividly remember when he - a third-grader at Millville School - spotted his first deer in Woodford County. "It jumped the fence and lay down in the grass," he reflects, "and I sat there and stared at it out the window. And I didn't pay any attention (in class) that day because I was watching that deer. I was enthralled by that deer that I saw. It was just amazing to me to see deer." What was a rare sight when Lacefield was a young boy is no longer so uncommon. Deer are now plentiful in Woodford County and across the state because of conservation efforts undertaken by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. As a private lands wildlife biologist, Lacefield offers guidance and recommendations to landowners who want to improve their properties' wildlife habitat. Landowners may choose to nurture habitats for grassland birds, which Lacefield says have declined in numbers over the past 50 to 60 years in Kentucky and across the country. Other landowners may want to focus on promoting habitats for deer and turkey, with Lacefield sharing his expertise on what they can do to maintain a stable wildlife population. Lacefield also enjoys leading nature hikes at Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary and elsewhere in Woodford County so he can expose others to "the beauty and diversity that we have right here." In his first job with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife - "right out of college" - Lacefield was a wildlife technician. Doing hands-on work in wildlife restoration programs - grouse in the fall and deer in the winter - "didn't pay very well, but it was an awesome opportunity," explains Lacefield. "I got to see all parts of the state, from Land Between the Lakes in Western Kentucky to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, where we were releasing deer." Lacefield was helping an Eastern Kentucky grad student gather data for a wood duck research project in Henderson County when he wasn't busy doing his seasonal job with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. "I got to meet a lot of people in the department," says Lacefield. "They saw my interest in various areas of the state, and wildlife as well." After spending two-plus years as a wildlife technician, Lacefield became a seasonal wildlife biologist - working closely with the Kentucky Division of Forestry before the creation of the state's private lands program. "Working as a wildlife technician got my foot in the door to become a biologist," he says. Since 1998, Lacefield has worked full-time as a private lands wildlife biologist. He offers guidance to landowners in Boyle, Clark, Garrard, Jessamine, Madison, Mercer, Washington and Woodford counties, who can sign up for a habitat improvement plan on the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife's website: fw.ky.gov or contact Lacefield. The Woodford County native describes becoming a private lands wildlife biologist as an opportunity to provide natural outdoor experiences "for our future generations." "I was pretty knowledgeable as a teenager about the trees. I knew what they were called," says Lacefield. "I didn't know the scientific names, but any time I saw something, I wanted to know: 'What's that?'" His tree knowledge was nurtured as a youngster by listening to Mr. Whitaker, his principal at Millville School, who also happened to have a keen interest in nature. Lacefield credits his high school science teacher, Nancy Fouser, for encouraging him to further his education. She saw potential in him, and went as far as driving Lacefield to the University of Kentucky so he could take his ACT. "I wanted to be either a wildlife biologist or forester," says Lacefield, "and I went towards wildlife biology just because it was more interesting to me. And I knew I could have more hands-on (experiences) with our customers." Now, Lacefield cannot imagine his life without being able to identify what's happening in the natural world around him. "It's made my life much richer," he says. So identifying a new species of clover in Woodford County excites him. The Kentucky clover was previously unknown to science, which makes that find "really, really cool," says Lacefield, 51. On a recent morning, Lacefield met up with two scientists - lepidopterist Loran Gibson and invertebrate biologist Ellis Laudermilk - about a rare "purple hairstreak" butterfly species that he spotted in Woodford County. The scientists also saw several other rare butterfly species during their walk through high weeds on the back side of a farm. Lacefield remembers helping to bring "some of the first elk back to Kentucky . That was amazing to see. Five-thousand people there to watch seven elk run off a horse trailer," he says. Elk were reintroduced to the state along the strip-mine areas of Eastern Kentucky, where there are not a lot of roads or crops. Small-game trapping - selling the furs of muskrats, raccoons, foxes and coyotes - allowed Lacefield to pay his way through college. But because of a steep decline in fur prices, a college student could not earn enough money to help pay for his or her tuition today, he says. With fewer trappers in Kentucky, Lacefield says he's amazed by the state's growing turkey population. He does not know why these large nesting birds' "clutch(es) of eggs" are not being regularly raided by raccoons and other predators. "Turkeys have done very well," says Lacefield. "There were nine turkeys stocked in Woodford County in 1989 at Buckley (Wildlife) Sanctuary." He says 100 male turkeys - toms - were harvested by hunters in the county this past spring. "When I harvested my first deer in 1980 there were eight deer taken in Woodford County," says Lacefield. "And now we have seven- or eight-hundred deer taken every season in Woodford County." In addition to supporting wildlife conservation whenever they purchase hunting licenses and permits, hunters help manage deer populations to reduce crop damage and automobile collisions caused by overpopulation, he says. Lacefield, whose father was a conservation officer in Woodford County, describes hunting as "almost a spiritual thing for me." "I sit out there in a tree, gather my thoughts, clear my head, and just marvel at everything that's there," he explains. "And I'm somewhat of a naturalist in that I know just about everything that I've seen." Yet, he still appreciates watching squirrels harvesting nuts from a butternut hickory and migrating warblers coming through the trees. "Right here," he says, walking on land where he started hunting as a kid, "the other day I was sitting in tree and had a bobcat walk under me. And it was like: That's cool." The Eastern Kentucky University grad says his childhood home was destroyed in the flood of 1978 when he was only 13 years old. His family rebuilt, and he cannot imagine living or raising his two children anywhere else. When Lacefield finally decides to end his career as a wildlife biologist, he anticipates spending more time with his six-year-old daughter, Samara, and three-year-old son, Ashton Archer, who both enjoy the outdoors. They're already helping their dad put leg bands on migratory birds to collect data on where they live and where they're flying.

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