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Facing shortage of conservation officers, Minn. DNR is hiring

Updated: August 18, 2019 10:47 PM

Natural resources are a big deal in Minnesota. But right now, the DNR doesn't have enough conservation officers to protect our public land, water, fish and wildlife.

There are 155 Conservation Officer patrol areas in the state, and 29 positions are currently open. A couple years ago, the legislature gave the DNR $1 million to hire and train more conservation officers. But before anyone can be hired, they must pass the Conservation Officer Academy at Camp Ripley.

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Minnesota has 13 million acres of lakes, rivers and wetlands. Knowing how to handle a boat by yourself is an important skill for a conservation officer.

"This week is boat operation week," said Lt. Jeff Johanson, a DNR training coordinator supervisor for the Enforcement Division. "And they're actually out loading and unloading boats; something that an officer on a busy summer weekend could do, you know, 20 or 30 times."

The DNR said 388 people applied for the 2019 DNR CO Academy, and 14 cadets were selected.

Calie Kunst arrived through the CO Prep Program. She is 23, has no law enforcement experience and serves with the Minnesota Air National Guard's 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth.

"I didn't know much about the DNR," said Kunst. "I like to be outside and I like to fish, so I figured that was right up my alley."

Brett Wiltrout took a more traditional path to get to the academy. He is 38, has a family and left a secure job as a sergeant with the Worthington Police Department. How did his wife feel about giving it all up to make a big move?

"She was all on board," said Wiltrout. "She knows that everything works out in the end and she's been extremely positive throughout this whole process."

Each cadet is chasing a dream. Lt. Johanson once did, too, and now he runs the academy. His father and grandfather were Minnesota DNR conservation officers.

"I kind of knew from an early age that this is what I wanted to do," said Johanson.

The DNR looks for a certain type of individual because the work is often done alone, in remote areas, with no backup, and it can be dangerous, according to Johanson.

"Most of the people that are hunting in the fall are armed," said Johanson. "And a lot of the fisherman we are contacting are armed, usually with a knife as well."

"You have to be able to use your communication skills," said Wiltrout. "You have to be able to think on your feet really quick. And that's what this academy is teaching and building."

Kunst agrees.

"The academy here is really where it all starts," he said. "You have really got to put your mind to it. You have to study up and know what you're getting into."

Conservation officers wear more hats than most cops do.

"We throw a lot at the cadets," said Johanson. "We kind of coined the phrase, 'drinking from the fire hose' because we're throwing something new at them every week."

Other than enforcing laws on the water and in the woods, CO's teach hunter and recreational vehicle safety courses, and they give a lot of talks at schools.

"The education program was extremely enticing for me," said Wiltrout. "And that's one reason I decided to join this team."

After 15 weeks at the academy, there's another 16 weeks of field training. Then the new conservation officers are stationed and on their own. Wiltrout will be stationed in Hutchinson, Kunst will be in Remer.

"I feel very proud," said Kunst. "It's very humbling. It was amazing when I got the phone call. I teared up; I just couldn't believe it. It was my dream job. So I'm happy to be here."

The DNR is not currently accepting applications for conservation officers. For email updates and information on the hiring process click here.

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Kevin Doran

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