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An officer shortage: DNR enters opener down 25 COs statewide

Alexandria conservation officer Mitch Lawler docks his boat on Lake Victoria in Douglas County on May 5. Lawler will be busy patrolling waters in the area this weekend for the Minnesota fishing opener. (Eric Morken | Echo Press)

Alexandria conservation officer Mitch Lawler will drop his boat into the water for the Minnesota fishing opener Saturday morning and head out for one of the busiest weekends of his year.

Lawler didn't know exactly which lakes he would hit Saturday, but he'll visit as many of the area's most popular fisheries as possible. Even so, he figures that will be anywhere between four and seven lakes - and that's if his phone doesn't take him elsewhere.

"If nobody's calling in that needs safety assistance then it's going to be a contact game," Lawler said. "Where can I go to be most effective in checking the most number of fishermen? Just patrolling, checking anglers for licenses, life jackets. Once the lake is covered, then it's load the boat up and go on to the next."

Lawler is the lone conservation officer for an area of Douglas County from the Pope County line in the south to the Otter Tail County in the north and east to west from Brandon to Nelson. There are days like fishing and deer hunting opener he could use another officer on staff, but Lawler says for the most part, he's confident he can cover that area effectively.

"I would say I'm comfortable with the way my call load is, but the frustrating thing is there's a number of vacant stations in the state with no officers assigned at all just due to shortages and retirements," he said.

It's a message that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has made clear as an impending budget crunch has left a lot of enforcement positions vacant.

Asking for help

The DNR is asking for help from the state Legislature this session through an increase in license fees and a boost from the state's general fund.

Two more conservation officers retired May 2, putting the number of vacant positions at 25 statewide, said District 3 supervisor Mike Shelden.

"If we had those stations filled, we'd have the same number of officers we had in 1952, which is a little bit of a shocker," Shelden said. "In 1952, there were no personal watercrafts, there were no ATVs, none of these recreational vehicles we work with now."

Shelden supervises nine conservation officers in the seven counties of Otter Tail, Grant, Douglas, Todd, Traverse, Stevens and Pope. Much of the region is in the heart of lakes country known for the recreational opportunities it provides.

"There's more lakes in Otter Tail County than any county in the United States," Shelden said. "That's a fact. I could certainly use more officers to get the work done. Statewide, we're looking at another 12 retirements in the next year. In theory, we could be down 35-37 positions."

Along with a shortage of officers, Greg Salo, assistant director of the DNR's Division of Enforcement, says the demand on conservation officers is as big as it's ever been. Tasks of today's officers include certifying thousands of students in various safety programs, enforcing water laws dealing with issues such as aquatic invasive species, and enforcing recreational vehicle laws.

"When you talk about numbers from the 1950s, 1960s, the big difference is back then it was truly game and fish," Salo said. "There's a lot more added to the plate."

License sale increases

The DNR says the game and fish fund will go into the negative in 2019.

Revenue from license sales and registration fees makes up much of the funding for DNR wildlife habitat projects, fisheries research, wildlife research, boat landings, state park campgrounds, trail maintenance, invasive species prevention and enforcement efforts.

Salo said things are about as urgent as they can get when it comes to needing more help from the state Legislature this session. He pointed to the fact that fee increases in Gov. Mark Dayton's original budget plan wouldn't go into effect until the 2018 hunting and fishing seasons if passed.

"We try to use work crews to hit some of these areas, but the simple answer is there's a large chunk of the state that is not getting the enforcement that it should for game and fish and natural resource protection," Salo said.

Under Dayton's budget proposal, a deer hunting license would rise from $30 to $34. A fishing license would go from $22 to $25. Several other licenses would also be affected. But neither the environment finance bills that passed the Minnesota House of Representatives and the Senate included the license increases that the DNR wants.

Almost 50 of the state's hunting, fishing and environmental groups signed a letter in March sent to legislative leaders urging action on the fee increases before the DNR has to cut staff or programs.

Despite that, the increases have not been able to gain majority support in St. Paul. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria is co-chairing a conference committee with Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau that will finalize the environment finance bill. Ingebrigtsen said in an interview with the Echo Press on March 31 that the fee increases are necessary in the future, but an oversight committee determined there is enough money to make it through this coming biennium.

Dayton's budget proposal in late March asked for $5.5 million from the state's general fund to assist in filling the empty conservation officer stations at a time when the state has a $1.65 billion surplus.

"The economy is pretty good, and we need to hire some officers," Shelden said. "You wouldn't think it would be like pulling teeth right now, but it is."

Salo said the conservation officers they currently have are responsible for an average of about 800 square miles. Vacancies mean neighboring officers have to pick up that work zone.

"There are multiple officers covering a vacant station, so they're covering 1,600-2000 square miles," Salo said.

He added that he's hopeful something can still be worked out before the legislative session ends May 22

"I'm very hopefully that we get to somewhere where it has a positive impact and we can move forward in putting on more officers and making these funds sustainable," Salo said. "I don't know. There's still a lot of work to be done in the Legislature as far as these bills go. I think every Minnesotan wants to protect the natural resources, so I'm hopeful that we get somewhere. If we don't, we work with what we have."

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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