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Minnesota's 2020 class of 13 conservation officers are in the field in a heightened period of need for protecting the state's natural resources. Their arrival fills vacancies at field stations across the state and helps monitor the masses who've flocked in greater numbers outdoors during the pandemic.

Rodmen Smith, their boss, is upbeat about the group as the director of the Enforcement Division of the Department of Natural Resources, and mindful of what all of his ranks are up against. Minnesota is cycling through seasons of next-level activity. Like spring, summer and fall, winter has been busier than normal, from more ice anglers to more state trail users behind motors and on skis. Many of the people are newcomers, too, making education paramount, Smith said.

The field vacancies that remain are relevant, Smith said. The new group is part of 186 conservation officers, but he projects there will be eight to 10 officers eligible for retirement annually over the next several years.

The division isn't molding a new class of officers in 2021, and Smith is hopeful for funding amid a challenging legislative budget period.

"It's imperative we are able to come out on the other end to hire in 2022 and years beyond," he said, adding that the division's conservation officer prep program has helped recruit applicants and mitigate fewer people applying for law enforcement jobs. The program also has helped add people to a force more reflective of a state becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.

"These new people we're hiring have been fantastic," Smith said.

Five of the officers corresponded about taking on the job of "CO" (edited for length and clarity):

Vincent Brown, 32, Northome station

Your background? My whole life I have been involved in some type of outdoors activity. I grew up hunting deer, ducks and grouse, and spent a lot of time fishing, snowmobiling and riding ATVs. I am a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and have spent my life in northern Minnesota. Before joining the Enforcement Division, I served proudly with the Leech Lake Tribal Police Department for more than nine years, patrolling the Leech Lake Reservation. I spent eight years as a K9 handler and five years as a patrol sergeant/K9 handler.

Why did you apply? What do you think makes you uniquely qualified for the work of a CO? I applied because I wanted to remain in law enforcement, while being more involved with the outdoors. The experience I've gained over the years as a police officer, along with my knowledge and passion for wildlife and the outdoors, are what made the DNR Enforcement Division a perfect fit.

What excites you about the job? How do you think about its challenges? I will be able to spend every day in the outdoors, while still continuing to serve the community and focusing my efforts on protecting wildlife and our natural resources. I look forward to a long career with the DNR Enforcement Division.

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Ryan Brown, 26, Karlstad station

Your background? I grew up taking yearly trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I also enjoy hunting and fishing with my family. In 2012, I enlisted in the Marine Corps as an 0311 (infantry). I served for four years on active duty. After the military, I attended Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead. I graduated with an associate's degree in criminal justice.

Why did you apply? What makes you uniquely qualified for the work of a CO?

I grew up hunting and fishing. After the military, I wanted to put on a uniform again to give back to this country, state and community I live in. I want to help preserve the natural resources so future generations can enjoy a similar upbringing.

What excites you about the job? How do you think about its challenges? I'm thrilled to be able to work in the outdoors and to see parents introducing their children to hunting and fishing for the first time. I enjoy the challenges, from protecting the resources to helping someone in need.

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Victoria (Tori) Griffith, 29, Isle station

Your background? Before coming to the DNR, I worked for the Department of Corrections as an officer at the prison in Lino Lakes. I enjoy photography and spending time with my husband and 8-year-old daughter. We have always enjoyed spending time in Minnesota's outdoors: camping, riding ATVs, and walking with our dogs along the Mississippi River.

Why did you apply? What do you think makes you uniquely qualified for the work of a CO? I have always been interested in law enforcement. I applied to be a CO because it is a dream job. We live in a beautiful state, and I believe it is important to protect the natural resources and promote recreational safety. Working for the DNR gives me the opportunity to have many positive contacts with people. I like the idea of combining a traditional law enforcement job with the twist of being outdoors protecting our resources.

What excites you about the job? How do you think about its challenges? Managing natural resources gives future generations the same opportunity to enjoy them. As much as I believe it is important to get out there and find the violations, it also is important to make positive contacts with people enjoying the outdoors.

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Cassie Block, 25, Willmar #2 station

Your background? I grew up in a family that spent a lot of time outdoors. Camping and fishing trips were my favorite thing. Having developed a passion, I knew I wanted to work in the natural resources field. I obtained a bachelor's degree in wildlife biology from Bemidji State, where I had the opportunity to explore different career paths. During and after my college career, I worked with wetlands in Iowa, aquatic invasive species in Minnesota, and birds in Wisconsin. I always knew that a career as a CO, in my home state of Minnesota, was my ultimate goal.

Why did you apply? What do you think makes you uniquely qualified for the work of a CO? Because it had always been a dream to help preserve the natural resources and serve my community while doing so. This career encompasses both aspects and provides an ever-changing workday.

What excites you about the job? How do you think about its challenges? I enjoy how the job changes with the seasons, and no day is ever the same. I also enjoy the multitude of challenges the job presents. The variety you get is second to none, and it keeps every day interesting.

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Meng Moua, 29, Spring Valley station

Your background? I graduated from Minnesota State Mankato with an environmental science degree. My goal was to work outdoors. I enjoy fishing, hiking, camping, photography, and watching wildlife.

Why did you apply? What do you think makes you uniquely qualified for the work of a CO? I felt like I needed a career change and wanted to go back to my roots of wanting to become a law enforcement officer. I think my experience of working with diverse groups (at Northern Star Scouting) helped with understanding people and having a patient demeanor.

What excites you about the job? How do you think about its challenges? Protecting Minnesota's natural resources excites me. Being able to catch those who don't abide by the laws, because they're making it unfair for everyone following the rules. There will always be challenges. A recent experience reminded me that not all people have the same views. I asked an individual about trash (plastic wrappers, bottles, tissues, etc.) outside the individual's vehicle, with some of the trash on the person's running board. The individual, irritated, told me I was taking my job too seriously. I explained I grew up using these public accesses. I've spent time picking up trash while out fishing or camping.

Bob Timmons • 612-673-7899