DNR Law Enforcement Division Celebrates 125 Years

In this undated photo, a conservation officer helps a youngster bait his hook.

March 1, 2012

The Ides of March is best known as the day that Julius Caesar was assassinated, but it's a big day in Michigan conservation history, too. This year, March 15 marks the 125th anniversary of the first day on the job for Michigan's first conservation officer.

In 1887, Michigan had been in the business of making game laws for 50 years as a state, and even more as a territory, but had never really had a means of enforcing those laws. Enforcement of game and fish laws fell to the county sheriff (who likely thought he had more important things to do) or to private sportsmen's groups that would observe violations and file complaints with the courts.

That changed when Gov. Cyrus Luce appointed William Alden Smith as Michigan's first Game and Fish Warden. Smith, who reported directly to the governor, was empowered to hire up to 10 assistants to put on the state payroll and up to three deputies per county, though there was no provision to pay the county officers.

In about half the cases, the counties paid the local wardens. Sportsmen's clubs paid others. And even some private citizens, such as William B. Mershon, a conservation activist and a founder of Michigan Sportsman's Association (perhaps the state's first conservation organization) paid others.

Smith was Michigan's first statewide law enforcement officer (the State Police were not formed until many years later). He went right to work. By the end of April, he reported, his crew had made 35 arrests.

Conservation Officer Harry Plotts with confiscated pheasants in Allegan County in 1950.

At the time, it was believed (here in Michigan, at least) that Smith was the first of his type in the United States. Subsequently, others states have laid claim to having appointed the first game warden.

Smith, who served for eight years, went onto a career in politics, becoming a U.S. Senator. He served for 20 years in Washington, where his claim to fame was chairing the hearings into the sinking of the Titanic.

As with many professions, deputy game wardens were exclusively males in the first years, but that changed within a decade. In 1897, State Game and Fish Warden Chase. S. Osborne (who later went on to become governor) appointed Huldah Neal of Grand Traverse County the first female deputy warden. Neal, who reportedly weighed 108 pounds, was said to have been frustrated by the lack of attention to the game and fish laws.

In 1907, wardens were made responsible for forestry protection and forest fire suppression as well as game and fish laws and became Game, Fish and Forestry Wardens, but they continued to report to the governor. Then in 1909, the Public Domain Commission was formed.

Rueben S, Babbitt was one of Michigan's early wardens.

Made up of the auditor general, the commissioner of the state land office, the secretary of state and three members appointed by the governor, one from the University of Michigan board of regents, one from the state board of agriculture, and one from the board of control of the Michigan College of Mines at Houghton (now Michigan Tech University), the Public Domain Commission oversaw game wardens until the Conservation Department was formed to in 1921 to oversee natural resources and natural resources law.

The Conservation Department's first director was John Baird, who, himself, was a Game, Fish and Forestry Warden.

In 1923 Michigan boasted 180 wardens, but the number was cut to 115 the following year because of budget issues.

In 1925, Michigan had 150 paid deputy Game, Fish and Forestry Wardens, who were assisted by 400 voluntary game wardens. Wardens officially became "Conservation Officers" that year, too.

Conservation officers did not have uniforms or badges, and were largely unarmed, until 1928. Accounts from the times said virtually every encounter between game wardens and citizens "ended in a fist fight."

Conservation Officers were authorized to carry firearms, but were required to obtain their own firearms as was well as concealed weapons permits issued by the county.

In 1938 the Conservation Department began issuing firearms to conservation officers. There are two stories about how that came to be.

Conservation officer Roosevelt Haken patrolled Drummond Island in the 1930s.

One story says that deputy warden Maurice Luck, who was carrying a cheap handgun, dropped his firearm, it discharged and killed him. The other recounts that three conservation officers, who were attempting enforcement action on the Sable River in Mason County on April 28, 1938, were set upon and beaten by a club wielding gang.

The department subsequently appropriated $5,000 to purchase pistols, according to a 1938 Ludington Daily News account.

As conservation law enforcement progressed, there were setbacks as well. In the 1950s, the Michigan Supreme Court decreed that conservation officers were not only not fully empowered peace officers, as they are today, but that they had no right to carry firearms.

Then Gov. G. Mennen Williams went to bat for the conservation officers. He spurred the Legislature to pass a law designating them as fully empowered peace officers and restored their right to carry firearms.

This photo, from the 1940s, shows conservation officers working during deer season.

Today the Department of Natural Resources has 187 commissioned conservation officers, 129 or whom are assigned to specific counties. The remaining officers are investigators or supervisors with regional responsibilities. Seven are assigned to administrative or management duties in Lansing.

"We have a great mission," said Law Enforcement Division Chief Gary Hagler. "We're protecting the natural resources and environment as well as the health and safety of the public. I'm very pleased with the high caliber of dedicated officers we have in Michigan."

Learn more about this unique class of hard working law enforcement officers at www.michigan.gov/conservationofficers.