Some unvarnished truth about conservation officers
Henry David Thoreau, the famous American author of the 19th century, said, "It takes two to speak the truth -- one to speak, and another to hear."
The firearms deer hunting season that begins Saturday is treated like Mardi Gras by people in these parts. Families get together, old buddies get together. It is a great time. It is time to dust off those old stories of hunts gone by and perhaps embellish them with a few touches of your own. A pal of mine, who is great at making people laugh but has an indifference to the truth, has been telling a story for more than 30 years about a time the duck boat "we" were both in sank. He gets great laughs whenever he tells it. So here is the truth once and for all -- the boat sank all right, but he was not in it.
Conservation officers are assumed to have the kind of power reserved for kings, dictators and NFL quarterbacks at this time of the year. That is one reason why it is a good time now to hear a few facts to counter the fantasy that people enjoy spewing regarding the power of conservation officers.
Interviewing a few DNR conservation officers earlier this week led to some interesting answers.
I asked one conservation officer if there really is a CO behind every tree?
"Absolutely!" he declared.
That was good for a laugh for both of us but what he said next was not so far-fetched.
It seems that cell phones in the hands of good citizens are one of the best crime-fighting tools that law enforcement people have these days. It is not illegal to carry them into the woods as it is walkie-talkies.
You often come across game law violations when you are out hunting or fishing.
My son and I were driving down to gravel road during the deer hunting season one year and we saw four deer crossing a field to our right. As they approached the highway in front of us we caught sight of a car screaming up to intercept them. I stopped the pickup because I knew what was coming. The deer had just crossed the highway when the driver slammed on the brakes and four young hunters piled out of the car, guns loaded, and started firing away like mad at their running targets. They were so intent on what they were doing that they did not even know we were there.
Today, people reporting game violations to the TIP (Turn in Poachers) Line are just a click away from helping to pin the hides of game violators to the barn door. That guy sitting in a tree stand near you might not have a badge, but if he believes you are violating the game laws, all he has to do is pick up his cell, hit the pound button and punch T-I-P and he is talking to a dispatcher.
A guy I know got a good taste of that experience one spring day some years ago in the spring of the year when he happened upon a crippled deer, both back legs broken, lying on some black ice in the middle of a small lake.
The deer had been hit by a car on a nearby freeway. It was dying a slow and painful death. There was no way for the guy to get out to it on that punk ice. He called the county sheriff's dispatcher, reported what he had found, and awaited the arrival of a conservation officer. When the officer did not arrive after a half hour's wait the guy decided to end the deer's suffering himself. He took a high-powered rifle down to the lake and put the animal out of its misery. It took about 10 minutes. On the way back to his house he was met by a CO who knew all about what had just happened. Had the officer been watching? No. Some passing motorist on the freeway, a quarter of a mile away, had seen what was happening, pulled over and called in what they assumed was a game violation. The CO had been receiving a blow-by-blow account.
For what it is worth, the shooter did not draw a fine, only a very mild rebuke.
It would be easy to imagine that conservation officers would be annoyed by all the tips they receive from cell phone callers, but that is not the case. Some good arrests are made off TIP calls if they have enough information. A license plate number off an offender's vehicle is a good start. A tip that "someone shot a deer off the road south of Miller's barn" is a bit too vague.
Some people will tell you that a CO can walk directly into your house and inspect your freezer if they suspect that you have more than your limit of game.
If a conservation officer has reason to believe that you have taken more than your limit they have to ask to inspect your freezer. If you refuse, they might stake your place out while they send someone else to apply for a search warrant.
Can a conservation officer be on your property without your consent? If they have reason to believe a game violation is in progress the answer is yes.
Who says so?
The Minnesota Supreme Court.
Can a conservation officer seize your vehicle, your equipment and revoke your hunting privileges and put you in jail if you violate a game law?
Depending on the degree of the violation, the answer is yes.
If you are driving around in the middle of the night with a cased rifle and a flashlight in your vehicle during the deer hunting season there might be reasonable doubt, but if that light is attached to an uncased rifle before the season begins the chances are excellent that you are headed for jail and you are going to pay a high price. If you forgot your license at home you will probably be given a chance to produce it. There are guidelines for conservation officers to follow in handling a violation, but whatever happens, a CO is expected to exercise their own good judgment.
Do conservation officers just pop up out of nowhere without a clue that there is a violation in progress?
Conservation officers will generally have an offending party under surveillance before they move in to confront them. If the words of one officer "they have to do their homework."
We were hunting ducks on a Wildlife Production Area one time when a young federal officer appeared and asked to see our licenses. I mentioned that the people hunting on the other side of the lake had been doing a lot of shooting and suggested that he might want to pay them a visit too. It just seemed that with all the shooting they had been doing they were guilty of taking too many birds.
"No, they're OK," he said. "We have been watching them too."
"So why all the shooting?" I asked.
"They just can't hit anything," he said with a straight face.
Are conservation officers out there just to catch you violating a game law?
Most conservation officers will tell you that they consider safety to be the main reason they are in the field during deer hunting. If that surprises you consider this -- there are expected to be nearly 500,000 people carrying high-powered rifles and slug shotguns out and about this weekend. We do not have that many U.S. troops carrying guns in Afghanistan.
Some of those people pick up a gun once a year. Others have never hunted before. Some do not have good eyesight or reflexes. Many are susceptible to a condition called "buck fever." Those who fire at deer will be shooting on a horizontal plane. They may see their target but not know what is behind it.
In addition to transporting a loaded gun, the top four violations that conservation officers see during the deer hunting season are shooting from the roadway, trespassing and baiting. Three of those can lead to someone being shot.
It may be you.