Conservation officers' work is 'dream job' for many; DNR looks ahead to new recruitment opportunity

DNR conservation officer Greg Drogowski congratulates successful sturgeon spearer Ed Crawford.

Feb. 14, 2013

Ask many little kids what they want to be when they grow up and you frequently hear responses like "explorer," "police officer" or "teacher." Not too often do they answer "conservation officer." As most conservation officers (COs) in Michigan learn, their work is actually a pretty great mix of those first three occupations.

Now, as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) steps up its efforts to add more COs to its ranks, even more men and women will get the chance to pursue what most COs easily call their dream job working in Michigan's great outdoors. DNR conservation officer Greg Drogowski congratulates successful sturgeon spearer Ed Crawford during the 2012 season opener on Black Lake. (Image on the right.)

Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed a fiscal year 2014 budget that includes $2.9 million in ongoing General Fund (GF) money for additional COs and $600,000 in one-time GF dollars for a CO school.

DNR conservation officers Danny Walzak and Ken Kovach on a patrol boat on the St. Clair River.This is a good time for interested men and women to learn what the work of a conservation officer is all about.

"For 125 years, Michigan conservation officers have shared and upheld a tradition of service and excellence," said DNR Law Enforcement Division Chief Gary Hagler.

"Our officers are fully commissioned peace officers who are sworn to protect Michigan's natural resources and the citizens and visitors who cherish them," Chief Hagler said. "It's really a unique class of law enforcement officer – one that's focused on ensuring that people understand and follow regulations while enjoying outdoor recreation activities like snowmobiling, boating, hunting and fishing and protecting the natural resources where these all take place."

Because COs are responsible for enforcing all Michigan laws (not just the ones that pertain to natural resources and outdoor recreation), they cover a lot of ground, interact with a lot of people, and - despite fairly lean ranks - make quite an impact, especially in many rural areas where local law enforcement is limited.

DNR conservation officer Shannon VanPatten displays poached walleye from a fishing operation.In 2011, Michigan COs came into contact with roughly 350,000 residents and visitors. Of those interactions, just 7 percent - or 25,000 - involved unlawful activity. Only about 8,000 of those contacts resulted in any actual enforcement action - a result Chief Hagler said may surprise many.

"While I think most people respect the work that COs do, there are some who see us as only about enforcement," Chief Hagler explained. "In reality, we're committed to community-oriented, customer service-based efforts that are aimed at education and voluntary compliance.

"If we have the chance to teach people the safe and correct way to do something, or why certain decisions are better for Michigan's forests, streams and wildlife, those are the best possible outcomes for everyone."

Because the state's roster of conservation officers has steadily declined over the years - dropping nearly 30 percent from 243 in fiscal year 2001 to 173 in fiscal 2013 - there have been some missed opportunities to connect with customers.

DNR conservation officer Mike Bomay chats with a trapper while patrolling Mecosta County (2010).For new recruits and veteran COs alike, who have the chance every day to be in nature, protect Michigan's natural resources and educate people about those resources, it's a pretty compelling draw.

Todd Thorn, a conservation officer who hired on in 2010 after several years working in a different career he wasn't enjoying, said he now looks forward to going to work every day and loves the freedom and flexibility that come with his position.

"Now that I am a conservation officer, I find that I am consistently challenged and always learning and I think that is my favorite part of this job," Thorn said.

"This career is not all about law enforcement. Much of our work revolves around education and public safety," he added. "I assist the county and the state police, especially with calls in the rural areas. I also attend a number of educational functions throughout the year, ranging from school presentations to hunter safety classes to Cub Scout meetings."

Thorn said although he thinks he underestimated just how much choosing this career path would change his life, becoming a conservation officer is something he would "do over again in a second."

Veteran CO Dan Walzak agreed.

DNR conservation officer Charles Mc Pherson stops a snowmobiler in Crawford County."Nothing is perfect in this world, but on the subject of career positions, this may be as close as you can get," said Walzak, a conservation officer with nearly 32 years on the job.

"I have been extremely fortunate to have this career and experience the things that I have. I truly believe that I would not have been as happy working for any other agency," Walzak said. "I get to be outdoors, work on the water in a motorized vessel or paddle a stream in a kayak – my choice.

"I am involved in the training of our officers and that gives me the high privilege of meeting everyone who comes into the Law Enforcement Division as a new conservation officer," he added. "Being an instructor in several different disciplines, there is also the opportunity to help mold the officers that will ultimately serve the state of Michigan in future years."

With more than three decades of service, Walzak has seen firsthand a remarkable evolution of equipment and resources that aid COs in doing their jobs. For Walzak, a few of those changes include:

  • Patrol vehicles that have changed from sedans to four-wheel-drive pickups and SUVs;
  • Patrol vessels that have changed from 16-foot aluminum vessels with a 35 horsepower outboard motor, to 21-foot fiberglass vessels with 225 horsepower motors and 25-foot SAFE boats with twin 225 horsepower motors on the back; and
  • Plenty of marine vessels with, as recently as 15 years ago, no electronic navigation equipment, to today's Great Lakes patrolling vessels where nearly all are outfitted with 800 MHz radios, VHF radios and advanced navigational equipment consisting of GPS, AIS or radar or a combination of the three.

"Several of our newest patrol vessels are even equipped with forward-looking infrared technology," Walzak said. "Stuff that would have been considered 'space age' some 30 years ago."

DNR conservation officer recruits training for an ice rescue on Higgins Lake.Every new officer will participate in a 22-week DNR Law Enforcement academy, followed by 18 weeks of field training in the Probationary Training Program with an additional four weeks of specialized break-out sessions in the areas of marine, off-road vehicles, fish and game, and waterfowl identification and enforcement.

Chief Hagler said the DNR's last conservation academy was held in 2007 and graduated 14 officers. He is hopeful the DNR will soon be able to put a much-needed crop of new COs in Michigan's great outdoors.

"More COs on the ground means more opportunities to talk with Michigan's outdoors men and women," Hagler said.

"It also means faster response times on complaint calls, the ability to better patrol more area, and greater opportunity to connect with the public," he added. "It's a great feeling to help a new hunter, congratulate a successful angler, or help a young person understand how their decisions have a direct effect on our natural resources."

For the lucky individuals who take on the challenge, the chance to become a Michigan conservation officer may just be a dream come true – and the start of a very rewarding career.

To learn more about the important work of Michigan's conservation officers, visit www.michigan.gov/conservationofficers.