Enforcement isn’t the most heavily staffed division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. But for many people it’s the face of the entire agency, in the form of the division’s 160 conservation officers scattered statewide, most of whom traditionally have been white males.

That’s changing, as DNR enforcement brings on more women and minorities to work in the field, an effort that’s been underway for some years and that has been fairly successful in diversifying the officer ranks.

Now, under new DNR enforcement director Ken Soring, other changes are afoot, not just in the makeup of the conservation officer corps, but in the emphasis the division places on protecting the state’s lands and waters, in addition to its traditional duties of checking hunters, anglers, ATV riders, snowmobilers and others in the field for licenses, registrations and possible violations.

At last week’s DNR round table in Bloomington, Soring and a small cadre of officers staffed a booth that was intended to spread the word about the division’s coming changes, and particularly to draw impressions of conservation officers and their work from the 400 people in attendance.

“We’re in the process of developing a strategic plan for the division,” Soring said. “It will be a guidance document that says where we want to be positioned, and which priorities we need to focus on, in the coming decade.”

So many are the responsibilities of today’s conservation officers, Soring said, that conflicts often arise over how best to utilize their time to protect resources.

Speaking metaphorically, Soring referenced an officer who throughout much of his career had watched a wetland on one side of a road, looking for duck hunters who might shoot a bird or two over their limits — while on the other side of the road, a wetland was being drained.

Which hurts the resource more?

Answering that and other similar questions will be at the center of the division’s strategic planning process.

“Our efforts need to focus on those things that guarantee the long-term welfare of fish and game,” said Soring, whose DNR enforcement career spans nearly 30 years.

As part of that effort, a new program intended to attract conservation officer candidates with demonstrable passion for natural-resource protection will take wing this year.

In the past, some conservation officer candidates have been drawn from other law-enforcement positions — such as county sheriffs’ departments — but have had little natural-resource training or education, other than that gained from fishing, hunting or otherwise recreating outdoors.

Now some officer candidates will instead be coming from natural resource backgrounds, but lack law enforcement training.

“The core values that are required to become a successful conservation officer are, first and foremost, a passion for the resource,” Soring said. “Also important are accessibility and approachability — being able to work with the public. We think with some of our new officer candidates who possess these traits but lack a peace officer’s license, we can help them get the required law enforcement training.”

Initial candidates for the new program likely will be DNR employees, Soring said, in fields other than law enforcement. They’ll be paid a “living wage” while studying for their peace officer’s license, and also be reimbursed for school expenses.

Successful recruits then will be sent to the DNR conservation officer academy at Camp Ripley, before serving apprenticeships alongside veteran officers and being assigned field stations of their own.

Soring anticipates “quite a few” retirements among officers in coming years. “So our recruitment efforts will be ramped up,” he said.

Uniquely among Minnesota peace officers, conservation officers are often reached by citizens who call their homes, which also serve as their offices.

But that system isn’t entirely efficient, Soring said, because if officers are home, they’re usually off-duty. And if they’re working, they’re oftentimes in their trucks or otherwise in the field.

“We need to make sure people can reach a DNR conservation officer when they need one, and that we have someone to respond,” Soring said. “And it can’t take five or six phone calls.”

One possibility is that citizen calls in the future would be routed to a central clearinghouse or dispatcher, and conservation officers would then be alerted as needed.

“You don’t normally call an off-duty officer in another line of work to ask them a question,” Soring said. “Up until now, we’ve provided that service, and it’s been fairly unique.

“But I think with the demands that face conservation officers today, we need to look at what is the most efficient use of officers’ time.”


Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com