All in a day's work for Michigan conservation officers
March 27, 2014
After a short foot patrol in Mecosta County's Haymarsh State Game Area, conservation officers Brian Lebel and Mike Wells - who had been looking for trap sets near active beaver dams - returned to their snowmobiles. Upon revving up for the day's next mission - crossing the lake to check for hunters and snowmobilers elsewhere in the area - Lebel's snowmobile wouldn't move. The tracks had seized and, despite their best efforts, neither officer could make the tracks budge.
Wells jumped on his machine and headed back for the truck in order to haul the disabled snowmobile out of the woods.
"It's just a typical day in the life of a conservation officer," said Lebel, who is assigned to Mecosta County. "There are constant adjustments."
The pair was already adjusting a bit by simply working together. Ninety percent of the time, the officers said they work alone. Lebel said he really enjoys going on snowmobile patrols with a partner, however, because sometimes snowmobiles have mechanical issues that are much easier to deal with when a partner is there to lend a hand.
Once the disabled machine was loaded in the back of Lebel's truck, the conservation officers changed their plan yet again. Instead of heading into the woods, they decided to make their way to Croton Dam in Newaygo County - Wells' home turf - to check open-water anglers fishing the Muskegon River.
The two had started the morning on foot at the upper end of Hardy Pond, making contact with area ice fishermen. Between them, the officers talked with roughly 30 anglers, and each officer encountered at least one person who said he had purchased a fishing license but just didn't have it with him. Quick radio checks confirmed this to be the case.
Although not carrying your license is a citable offense, both officers simply informed the anglers of that fact and told them to be sure to carry their licenses in the future. The anglers were cooperative and several noted that they were glad to see conservation officers out and about checking on the fishing activity.
"The majority of our contacts are positive," said Lebel, a 15-year veteran of the DNR. "It's pretty typical for us to hear someone say, 'I appreciate you being out here.'"
At Croton Dam there were fewer anglers than either officer anticipated, considering the warmer weather. Standing at a distance, Lebel and Wells surveyed the area's activity, noticing little details. Maybe a rope was tied off on a log and in the water. Was it a stringer? Did he have fish?
After approaching the anglers, checking licenses and inspecting a fish, the two conservation officers returned to their truck. Everything was on the up and up.
That's not uncommon, said Lebel, who in addition to the tickets he writes, gives out a lot of warnings.
"You could write a lot more, but I also give a lot of warnings," he said. "Part of the job is helping to educate the public."
Lebel said becoming a conservation officer was a lifelong dream, having officially adopted the goal when he wrote an eighth-grade essay on his future career. He studied fisheries and wildlife management at Lake Superior State University with an eye on a job as a CO. Though he worked summers for the DNR's Wildlife Division, Lebel said he still yearned to be a conservation officer.
Wells' path was a bit different, but once exposed to the possibility of life as a conservation officer he was hooked.
"I've always been the kind of person who reads the rules every year," said Wells, a 16-year DNR veteran who decided he wanted to become a conservation officer after a ride-along with a CO in another state. "Many times we encounter people who simply haven't read the season and licensing regulations, and we take the time to educate them."
Wells began his career as a Macomb County sheriff's deputy and worked for a few years as a police officer in Big Rapids. Later, faced with the opportunity to go to the Michigan State Police academy, Wells said he turned that down in order to pursue his goal of joining the ranks of Michigan's conservation officers.
Both men, clearly, have found their professional calling.
"I appreciate my job every day," Lebel said. "I love it. I can't imagine doing anything else. I love being outside and I love helping people with things - everything from rescuing people to helping a kid field-dress his first deer."
Wells said it's the variety of the job that most appeals to him.
"It's a job that changes with every season, the focus is always shifting," he said. "The constant rotation of duties and experiences - that makes it exciting and it never gets monotonous.
"The job, in my mind, is perfect," Wells said. "I'd probably go crazy behind a desk."
Not that there aren't - as with any career - downsides to the work.
"It's very demanding on family life," Wells said. "You get called out when you're just getting ready to put the steaks on the grill. We work out of our homes and we have people from the community stopping by to ask work-related questions - it's more of a lifestyle than a job. Sometimes it's hard to get away.
"But I get the opportunity to interact with people who have the same love for the outdoors as I do," he added. "There are a lot of positive contacts."
With winter winding down, hunter and angler activity is low right now, but both officers said it is sure to pick up with the spring steelhead run.
"During the fish run, you're as busy as you'd want to be, and deer season is non-stop," Lebel said. "In Michigan, people are so passionate about their deer, in the fall they're more likely to pick up the phone to ask a question or file a complaint. We encourage those calls, because every call is one more opportunity to educate the public about the resources that we're all working so hard to protect."
Wells said he works to be proactive instead of reactive, and it's often the nature of the contacts with the public - by phone or in person - that helps all COs to better determine where they can be most effective.
"We get complaints, but we also spend a lot of time on patrol," he said. "We get to know areas where illegal activity may be more commonplace."
Wells and Lebel are - like all conservation officers in Michigan - fully commissioned peace officers. In addition to enforcing game and fish law, they also provide critical assistance on rural police matters throughout the state.
Lt. Creig Grey, who heads the DNR's law enforcement training program, said it's not uncommon for conservation officers to face a wide range of law enforcement duties on any given day.
"Your day could include a morning checking waterfowl hunters, being called to respond to a traffic accident, heading out to investigate a felony crime scene, and then checking anglers for licenses," Grey said. "Our officers have to cover a vast amount of law enforcement training and be able to switch gears quickly."
That's exactly what Michigan COs do every day, in the woods and on the water, all on behalf of the state's natural resources and the people who enjoy them
The DNR currently is training its first academy of conservation officer recruits since 2007. To follow the recruits' academy experience and to get more information on Michigan's conservation officers - including how to apply for the next recruit school - visit the DNR website www.michigan.gov/conservationofficers.