This month, with nearly 500,000 deer hunters wading into field and forest, they are joined by about 150 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources field conservation officers.
These men and women - each with about 650 square miles to patrol - conduct search and rescues, respond to public safety calls, and protect wildlife by helping hunters understand and obey laws.
It's a big job, averaging one officer for every 3,300 hunters afield.
Hunters help pay for this service. That's because a portion of each hunting license dollar is dedicated to law enforcement. In fact, revenue from licensed hunters and anglers accounts for about 60 percent of the DNR's law enforcement budget.
Conservation officers spend about 35 percent of their time on hunting enforcement. This compares to about 43 percent for fishing. Fishing is higher than hunting because there are more anglers, hence more license revenue targeted at angling and invasive species enforcement.
This is the busiest time of year for conservation officers. Hunting is in full swing. Open water fishing is still under way. Trapping season is on, too. It's also the time when trespass complaints go up and the occasional snowmobile goes down while trying to cross freshly formed ice.
Conservation officers also spend considerable time in the fall investigating Turn In Poachers complaints. Typically, these calls result in more than 300 convictions per year. Conservation officers appreciate the help provided by the public, because they can't be everywhere. In fact, Minnesota ranks near the bottom of the nation in terms of conservation officers per hunter and angler.
Though the largest percentage of your hunting license fee goes directly to the DNR's Section of Wildlife (and license fees represent that section's main source of funding), conservation officers put these and all other dollars they receive to good use. Examples from this part of the state include:
- Rainy River compliance project. The Minnesota fishing opener draws huge numbers of anglers to the Rainy River area. A concentrated enforcement effort by conservation officers insured proper licensing, compliance with laws on special regulation lakes, invasive species education, and boating safety.
- Invasive species protection. Efforts to keep invasive species from infesting more of Minnesota's lakes and rivers ratcheted up on July 1 when a new law went into effect requiring boaters to drain all livewells and bilges in their boats before they leaving lakes and rivers.
The law also made it illegal to trailer a boat on a public road with its drain plug in and made it illegal to dump minnows, leeches, nightcrawlers or any other bait into waters. As part of a kick-off for this new law, conservation officers and watercraft inspectors took to Minnesota lakes and rivers on the Fourth of July weekend to spread the 'Pull the Plug' message in an effort to help prevent the transportation of aquatic invasive species.
- Limiting the spread of fish diseases. With viral hemorrhagic septicemia being confirmed in Lake Superior, conservation officers worked to ensure that smelt in Lake Superior were not being transported as bait to other water bodies, thereby creating the potential for this fish-killing disease to spread.
- Off-Highway Vehicle enforcement. Conservation officers focused efforts on Limited State Forests, in which they reinforced the rules of legal operation and encouraged safety precautions. They also protected state forest natural resources, targeted complaint areas, and worked with local law enforcement agencies to enforce regulations and conduct trainings.
- Game and fish protection. Conservation officers conducted numerous investigations involving wolves, deer shining, baiting, and the taking of game and fish in closed seasons.
- Boating safety. The Lake Superior Marine Unit provided excellent harbor security during the "Tall Ships" event in Duluth with few problems reported. Conservation officers also implement special boating safety projects in the BWCAW and in other high-traffic boating locations.
I've been a conservation officer for many years. I've long seen first-hand the breadth of hunting opportunities, the depth of passion that hunters possess, and the quality experiences that friends and families enjoy.
I've also seen our world change. Exotic species have invaded our waters. Wild animal health has become a bigger concern due to diseases such as chronic wasting disease, bovine TB, and avian influenza. Natural resource awareness and protection has become increasingly important, especially for our wetlands that provide water quality and habitat benefits.
Whenever you buy a hunting license or enroll in a safety course you are investing in enhancing safety and enjoyment of outdoor recreation, and protecting our natural resources for everyone's future use. Thank you for your support.