TPWD mourns loss of 3 biologists in helicopter crash
In a year filled with tragedy and sorrow, it’s been a particularly somber week for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department after three agency employees died in a helicopter crash last weekend.
According to a TPWD news release, lost in the crash on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020 were wildlife biologist Dewey Stockbridge, fish and wildlife technician Brandon White, and state wildlife veterinarian Dr. Bob Dittmar. The pilot, a private contractor, survived the crash according to TPWD, and was transported to El Paso for further treatment.
The crash reportedly took place in a steep canyon as the biologists were doing survey work for the desert bighorn sheep herd located within TPWD’s Black Gap Wildlife Management Area in Brewster County.
"Our hearts ache today for those who died in this tragic accident,” said Texas Governor Greg Abbott in a statement about the deaths of the three men. “Cecilia and I are deeply saddened by this loss and we extend our sympathies to the families and loved ones of the victims. I ask all Texans to keep these families in their thoughts and prayers."
For TPWD executive director Carter Smith, it’s an almost incalculable loss.
"No words can begin to express the depth of sadness we feel for the loss of our colleagues in this tragic accident," said Smith in a news release. "Wildlife conservation in Texas lost three of its finest as they so honorably and dutifully carried out their calling to help survey, monitor and protect the bighorns of their beloved west Texas mountains. We will miss Dewey, Brandon, and Dr. Bob deeply and dearly.”
On Wednesday, TPWD reflected on the loss of the three men through a series of social media posts.
“Dr. Robert Dittmar was the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s first-ever staff wildlife veterinarian,” stated the TPWD social media post. “Originally from Harper, he began with the agency in 2014 with more than 30 years of veterinary experience under his belt.
“During his tenure, he helped the agency diagnose and respond to the complexities of health and disease issues that affect Texas wildlife. In this role, he worked with big game animals such as bighorn sheep, pronghorn, white-tailed and mule deer, as well as small and non-game species. Dittmar worked closely with wildlife biologists, hunters and landowners to conserve and protect Texas wildlife.”
Stockbridge, who like Dittmar was a Texas A&M University grad, was also remembered fondly for his work on behalf of wildlife across Texas.
“Dewey Stockbridge was the lead wildlife biologist at Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area just south of Alpine,” said TPWD. “His office was 23,000 acres of wild Trans-Pecos habitat, where he helped manage and conserve the wildlife who called it home.
“Originally from Mason, he began his career with TPWD in 2005. Stockbridge was instrumental in restoring pronghorn and desert bighorn sheep to their native range.”
Finally, the agency paid fond remembrance to White, another tireless worker for wildlife conservation across Texas.
“Brandon White was a fish and wildlife technician based out of Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area,” stated TPWD. “Originally from Spur, White began his career with TPWD in 2016.
“During his time with the department he played a vital role in preserving the health of Texas wildlife. In this role, he assisted with surveys and translocations for bighorn sheep and pronghorn, activities that are essential to ensuring these animal populations thrive for years to come.”
All three biologists were working to further the agency’s ongoing efforts to help restore desert bighorn sheep numbers in the region.
While 19 Texas Game Wardens are known to have lost their lives in the line of duty, the most recent in 2008, it’s unknown how many of the state’s biologists have been lost through the years.
TPWD’s website (www.tpwd.texas.gov) shows that the last biologist lost in the line of duty was Grayson County’s own Wes Littrell, the Tom Bean native who passed away in May 2010 after he was involved in a tractor-related accident at the Gus Engeling WMA where he served as the lead biologist not far from his Athens home.
Tragically, that very WMA in Anderson County is named for Gus Engeling, another TPWD employee lost in the line of duty. Engeling, both a game warden and a biologist for the agency, was murdered by a duck poacher in Anderson County in 1951 near the current site of the WMA bearing his name. The poacher was apprehended, convicted of murder and eventually received the death penalty for his crime.
Last weekend’s tragic accident may be the deadliest day in TPWD history. According to the agency’s web page concerning the Texas Game Warden Memorial in Athens, game wardens Joe Williams and Harry Raymond—the agency’s first employees lost in the line of duty—drowned near Port Aransas as they tried to reach their boat during the deadly Category 4 hurricane that devastated Corpus Christi in 1919.
In more recent years, game wardens Barry Decker and Bruce Hill both drowned in 1990 while on patrol on Lake Murvaul in Panola County.
While there’s no information just yet about what may have caused Saturday’s fatal crash, TPWD indicates that the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Federal Aviation Administration and Texas Game Wardens are currently investigating the accident.
Rest in peace, gentleman. And thanks for a job well done.