NORTH KEY LARGO -- Steve Klett, 57, has been a virtual recluse for many of his 30 years as a biologist and refuge manager for the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service.
After more than 14 years as manager of the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, where he says he would often spend entire days without seeing another human being, Klett is hanging up his wading boots and retiring to a tiny island in the Caribbean Sea.
"Refuges are where people aren't," he told the Free Press last week. "I need to get back with the living. I've been a hermit."
But considering that he was raised in the wilderness near Las Animas, Colo., miles from his nearest neighbor, it is not surprising that Klett chose a life of seclusion, with wildlife as his primary wards.
"I grew up on a cattle ranch 15 miles from the nearest neighbor. I had a pet raccoon named 'Albie' and a magpie named 'Maggie.' Albie would follow me around like a dog. I would walk outside and call Maggie and she'd come perch on my shoulder," he recalled.
After graduating from Colorado State University, he joined the Fish Wildlife Service. In 1980 he served as a biologist at the National Key Deer Refuge in Big Pine Key and later served at a refuge near San Jose, Calif.
"I worked with waterfowl there and nearly half of my career has been with endangered waterfowl," he said.
From 1990 to 1995 Klett was manager of the Cameron Creole Watershed in Louisiana near Lake Charles.
"I worked on a 64,000-acre marsh restoration project," he said with a hint of nostalgia. "But I'm big on restoration."
It was restoration that he brought in 1997 to Crocodile Lake along County Road 905 in north Key Largo. The 6,700 acres of hardwood hammocks and mangroves were peppered with disturbed areas that required someone with Klett's do-it-yourself ingenuity.
During his tenture, he has completed eight major restoration projects, including constructing nest stations throughout the refuge for endangered wood rats (he extends credit for this to volunteers Ralph and Clay Degayner); demolishing and removing over 100 dump truck loads of concrete at the former NIKE missile site near the three-way stop at the north-east end of CR 905; demolishing a two-story cockfighting arena with a small attached restaurant and bar built in the 1980s; removing the last remaining asphalt and fill of the old Card Sound Road; removing two maintenance buildings and the concrete helicopter pad that was built for the defunct Port Bougainville housing project; filling a keystone pit; assisting in filling the abandoned five-acre lake at Port Bougainville, which is now state park land; and clearing exotic vegetation from the Madeira Village area.
Klett said he is most proud of the Madeira Village project because of the waterfowl that now use the restored area.
"This was an area that was grown up with exotics," he said. "There was a dog hair stand of lead trees that was choking out everything else. We removed two acres of fill and returned it to a tidal flat where herons, egrets, northern harriers, osprey and even wood storks feed."
When it was suggested that completing eight major projects showed his passion for restoration, the low-key Klett demurred.
"I'd call it being dedicated," he said. "I've been able to keep my eye on the prize."
Klett's boss acknowledges that he is a throwback to the traditional refuge manager of old. She refers to Klett as "the Lone Ranger," a fitting tag she bestows as a complimentary nickname.
"He doesn't like the 'adminis-trivia,' the memos and paperwork. He isn't that kind," said Anne Morkill, manager for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex, which includes Crocodile Lake. "He's the kind who gets his hands dirty and his boots wet. He doesn't stop at the boundary. He works both sides of the road. He's looking out for the species."
The two-lane CR 905 separates the federal refuge from Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park.
"The amazing thing is that he's able to work independently and organize volunteers," Morkill added. "That's the sign of a true leader. He inspires and motivates people to get things done."
Volunteer Clay Degayner, reached at his Flint, Mich. summer home, lauded Klett for allowing him and his brother to become true students of the refuge.
"His philosophy is to give us room to learn and improve, and we've learned a lot," Degayner said. "Because of Steve we believe we have discovered the reason for the decline of the [endangered] wood rat. Feral cats have been breeding in the refuge and every feral cat captured has been pregnant. They have to eat something and our cameras indicate that the cats have been eating not only the wood rats but the endangered Key Largo cotton mouse."
Just a month before his Dec. 2 retirement date, Klett said he doesn't expect his replacement to stay as long as he has. He's been the only manager stationed at the refuge during its 31-year history.
"There's no way in hell you'll find anyone who will stay for 14 years," he said. "This [refuge] will be a stepping stone for managers who want to advance through the ranks."
That seems to trouble him.
"Refuge management is not a sprint. It's a long-distance run. You have to be committed to the long haul," Klett said. "You need the history and the consistency to manage this area. You have to learn by your mistakes."
Next month, Klett plans to move to Saba, a five-square-mile island near St. Martens that is mostly a 3,000-foot mountain sticking out of a pristine sea. He has owned a cottage there for several years.
"The population is about 1,000 people, and it's the friendliest place I've ever been. There are no taxis and no buses. You sit on a wall in front of your house and someone will come by and give you a ride. I've never waited more than five minutes for a ride. It is the only place I've ever been that exceeded my expectations."