CAMP RIPLEY -- Within a mile, there was a fisherman without a license, a pheasant hunter without a stamp and an all-terrain vehicle operator whose vehicle had an expired license plate.
Had area outdoorsmen run amok?
Rhonda Wendell, a conservation officer candidate, was evaluated by Officer Jeff Halvorson after she completed a check on an all-terrain vehicle. Halvorson gave Wendell a passing grade.
Hardly. Each was a volunteer hired by the DNR to help train conservation officer candidates. Conservation officers perform law enforcement duties for the DNR. By handling simulated "real-life" situations, the candidates learn what it takes to become a full-time officer. The role players, who are paid $25 per day plus mileage and meals, don't anticipate the questions from the candidates, thus making the simulations more real.
The DNR presently is training 24 officers, the largest class in department history. In addition to in-the-field training, the 12-week course includes computer, ethics, safety, self-defense and physical training. After graduation May 8, each successful candidate will accompany a veteran conservation officer on rounds for 16 weeks.
Conservation officer candidate Greg Verkuilen checked a fishing license as part of field training at Camp Ripley. The DNR hired actors to portray outdoorsmen.
"The job of being a conservation officer is tremendously complex," said Maj. Bill Everett, a DNR training manager. "We've identified the core functions a conservation officer must perform every day. After 12 weeks here they should reach a level where they can go into the field and competently perform all the basic aspects of the job. Then we build on that during the 16-week field training program."
The basic job duties for much of the year are checking hunting and fishing licenses as well as vehicle, boat and fish house registrations. Candidates performed these tasks on a road in Camp Ripley on March 15. An ice fisherman, pheasant hunter and ATV operator were positioned at different stations along the road and candidates approached each one as if they were doing routine inspections. DNR evaluators graded the students on the following:
-- Were they courteous? Did they try to put the person at ease?
-- Did they stand far enough way and keep their gun sides away from the person?
After all conservation officer candidates had completed the round of check stations, they were given a group analysis by the officers who observed them. In general, the group earned high marks for friendliness and attention to protocol.
-- Was their tone of voice too officious or too meek?
"The officer wants to convey the image that he's in control," Everett said. "His whole attitude and bearing should say 'Let's work through this together.' We teach them not to approach people as if they're breaking the law because most people aren't."
Greg Verkuilen, a former Nebraska conservation officer who recently moved to Minnesota, was the first candidate to be graded. The ice fisherman he checked said he had a license but that he must have forgot it at home and that he couldn't remember where he had bought the license. Verkuilen issued a warning and told the man to stop fishing.
"In Nebraska you call it a permit?" evaluator Bruce Hall asked when grading Verkuilen's performance.
Verkuilen returned a quizzical look.
"You asked him for his permit," Hall explained. "In Minnesota we call it a license. And remember to ID yourself immediately as a conservation officer. Look around for tip-ups."
Hall suggested to call the records office to determine whether the person has a license. "Typically we let people continue fishing," he said, noting to stamp the back of the warning.
At the hunting station, candidate Bruce Lawrence checked a hunter who said he didn't know he needed a pheasant stamp and that he and his buddy had stopped for a quick check of an area they heard had some pheasants. Lawrence issued a ticket for pheasant hunting without a stamp. Evaluator Jayson Hansen commended Lawrence for his approach and said he did an "all around fine job."
Down the road a man picked up trash as he rode along on an ATV with an expired license plate. Candidate Rhonda Wendell approached the man and asked for his license.
"Don't have it with me," the man said.
"Do you have your registration?"
"Do you remember where you bought your registration?"
"Now be straight with me,' Wendell cautioned in a friendly tone. "You would remember if you bought one."
The man had no evidence of vehicle registration, so Wendell issued a citation and told him she would follow him home to make sure he parked the vehicle. Later, evaluator Jeff Halvorson said Wendell handled the situation well with a few exceptions.
"First thank him for picking up litter," Halvorson said. "It's always good to compliment somebody if possible. Then ask him to take off his helmet. You can hear him a lot better and smell if he's been drinking."
In coming weeks, the candidates will learn how to enforce laws on trespassing, illegal dumping and snowmobile operation, how to investigate wildfires and handle vehicles in emergencies, and how to identify fish and game. On graduation day they will pledge to serve "diligently, faithfully and with honor." Then it's out into the real world, where the people they check won't be actors.
When the new graduates are assigned nearly all of the DNR's 149 field stations will be fully staffed for the first time in several years.
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