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Hunting license dollars help fund conservation law enforcement

This month, as nearly 500,000 deer hunters wade into field and forest, they will be joined by about 150 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) 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 a 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 do receive to good use. Examples from this part of the state include:

--Red River Flooding - Conservation officers with specialty watercraft from across the state were assigned to the Red River Valley area to support local law enforcement and meet public safety needs during the record setting flood of 2009 and the flood of 2010.

--Aquatic Plant Management Permit Enforcement - A formalized interdisciplinary project with local DNR Fisheries staff conducted annually since 2007 involves fisheries inspections of aquatic plant management permitted locations, documentation of suspected permit violation sites, and suspect violation site information provided to conservation officers for follow-up. This highly successful initiative resulted in nearly 100 percent of suspect violations documented with enforcement action.

--Invasive Species - Within the last two years several lakes were found to be infested with zebra mussels (Pelican Lake and Lake Le Homme Dieu chain of lakes). Conservation officers worked closely with other DNR personnel to provide public education and in attempts to stop the spread of the mussels. Enforcement efforts were refreshed to deal with other invasive species, including spiny water flea, faucet snail, and Eurasian watermilfoil. Officers have prioritized time to work on invasive species education and enforcement. Officers also participated in the "Pull the Plug" campaign; spoke to lake associations, angler groups, fishing tournament organizers, and lake service providers (dock/lift services, watercraft mechanics, and commercial weed harvesters); and included invasive species information during many media contacts.

--Bovine TB Management Project - Conservation officers worked closely with DNR Wildlife staff in managing the deer herd reduction efforts in the Bovine TB area of northwestern Minnesota. This included attending public meetings, supporting intensive aerial deer removal projects for two years, and supporting the contracted sharpshooter program for multiple years, including 2010.

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.