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From Warroad to Windom, reports from Minnesota's conservation officers this time of year are a full sheet of recreational law enforcement around popular activities of the masses, such as snowmobiling and ice fishing.

In the last week, a group of officers that works in the Bemidji area encountered a local club ride of about 500 snowmobilers, with a significant number reportedly ticketed and educated on how to correctly display registration.

When the officers, or COs for short, and their state colleagues weren't checking ice shelter permits and Arctic Cat registrations, there were wolf depredation cases and deer-feeding abuses to investigate; meetings with the public on hunting and fishing ethics; and making their presence known at fishing and dog sled events.

"It is great to see everybody out," said Lt. Col. Rodmen Smith on Monday, "but it does add stress on our system." Smith is the director of the Department of Natural Resources' enforcement division.

Their reports read like too much of a good thing these days for COs. The pandemic-fueled explosion of motorized recreation alone — from new boaters and paddlers to off-road highway vehicle riders — has added demands as COs try to keep pace in number.

The DNR currently has 160 officers, but has 25 vacancies across 155 stations, with the majority in the northwest and southwest. Retirements loom, too. Smith said he anticipates from eight to 12 COs eligible for retirement annually in the near term. He said current staffing is closer to that in the 1940s.

"That's problematic," Smith said.

Officers themselves, the COs' union representatives with the Minnesota Conservation Officers Association (MCOA) are concerned that staffing hasn't kept pace with pressures on natural resources and in areas that weren't the domain of past game wardens. COs are stretched thin: covering for dark stations; monitoring the masses outdoors; taking time to train to stay current on rules changes and enforcement reforms; taking on specialized fields in wetland protection and aviation; supporting local agencies and more.

But Joe Stattelman, MCOA president and a water resource enforcement officer, has pride in his colleagues' response.

"I do think there are times when we get overwhelmed," he said, "but one of the best skills we have is being good at dealing with what is in front of us."

A new class of between 18 and 22 recruits that begin academy training in May will join the ranks after graduation next year. They'll get stationed early in 2023. There were no new inbounds this year.

CO Caleb Silgjord welcomes the new class, but said it's a "Band-Aid" for now. Officers still will run at a deficit amid the vacancies and likely retirements.

"It's tough to get caught up with those types of numbers," said Silgjord, stationed in Sauk Centre.

Officer Arnaud Kpachavi, right, talked with John Jankowski after checking his fishing license Thursday.
Officer Arnaud Kpachavi, right, talked with John Jankowski after checking his fishing license Thursday.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune, Star Tribune

Another challenge is interest in the job. Difficulty recruiting new officers is a story line nationally for all law enforcement. The cause is complex, with answers in issues such as public trust, societal stress and new generations with different attitudes about jobs and careers.

The DNR is attracting fewer candidates, too, Smith said, and especially through traditional hiring. For example, the division had 348 applicants in 2016. This year: 133.

The division's CO Prep program, which began in 2015, is a feeder for new recruits and a positive counter to traditional recruitment. Program candidates aren't required to have a law enforcement background, common over decades on résumés in conservation law enforcement. New hires in the prep program learn law enforcement over 20 weeks before continuing with CO-specific training in the division's officer academy at Camp Ripley near Little Falls.

The prep program also has helped meet the divisions' strategic hiring goals. The DNR has hired and graduated more women, minorities and at-risk applicants such as recently separated veterans since 2015. Of the 73 officers hired through the past five academies, 20 were women, 14 minorities and 14 veterans. The most recent academy in 2020 included four women, five minorities and four veterans.

A passion for protecting the state's natural resources is only a part of the equation for a newcomer looking for work, said Capt. Jeff Johanson, training and recruitment manager.

"We really focus on the personal traits and qualities of the individual … such as integrity and courage, decisionmaking and judgment," he said.

Smith is proud of the division's high-quality hires and said it's important that COs look like and identify with the public they encounter on lakes, at trailheads or in a public gathering.

"We have never had more women or people of color or veterans on our team," he said.

That sense of community is what makes their work distinctive, officers say. It's community policing at its essence, said Stattelman and Silgjord.

Now, even amid contract negotiations and stressors afield, Stattelman said COs will look to recharge as winter gives way to spring. Those transitions remind them of their professional — and personal — connections to the outdoors. And there is pride in the public service.

"We know how to step back, rely on each other and lean on each other," he said.