Lost in the news about the heartbreaking death April 19 of Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officer Eugene Wynn of Pine City, Minn., has been the tragedy’s cumulative effect on the agency’s enforcement division, which, with Wynn’s loss, has registered four field-officer deaths in eight months.
Wynn’s fatality was particularly heartrending because he died in the line of duty while helping a deputy sheriff respond to a report of a body possibly floating in a lake near Pine City.
Wynn and the deputy were thrown into the water after launching a boat, according to reports. The deputy was rescued by bystanders. But Wynn slipped beneath the surface before he was reached.
Wynn, 43, had been a conservation officer 18 years.
Deaths of the three other DNR conservation officers who have died recently date to last summer, when Kyle Quittschreiber, 26, was killed Aug. 24 while operating a skid-steer loader at his home in Frazee.
Quittschreiber was an unlikely victim of such an accident, because he made a hobby of buying old tractors and similar equipment and repairing them for resale.
A conservation officer for three years, Quittschreiber worked out of the DNR’s Detroit Lakes station.
Ed Picht, 40, was a conservation officer 11 years, living in and working out of the agency’s Montevideo station when he died Oct. 1. The cause was suicide.
Picht was well-liked in the DNR and in his community. He also recorded a number of noteworthy fish- and game-violation busts, and once walked a long way across a plowed field to check a pheasant hunter’s license — that hunter being me.
Picht and I had a few laughs about the fact that I had my license and was otherwise legal, so he had no pinch. But I had no birds. So we both came up empty.
Subsequently, Picht pointed on a map to a public hunting area not far away, where he had seen a few roosters that morning. “You might want to give it a try,” he said.
Conservation officer Chelsie (Leuthardt) Grundhauser, 30, meanwhile, died Dec. 7. She had been with the DNR four years and was a southeast metro regional training officer living in North St. Paul when she succumbed to complications from breast cancer.
A western Minnesota native, Grundhauser suffered her first bout with the disease shortly after graduating from the DNR conservation officer academy. She won that round and eventually returned to duty, where her supervisors described her as “a hard-charger who didn’t want to take her uniform off.” She was married to a St. Paul police officer when she died.
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DNR Enforcement Division Director Rodmen Smith said this week that the four deaths so close to one another in a department with fewer than 200 employees is unprecedented, from what he can determine.
Counseling efforts, he said, have been ramped up for field officers as well as support staff.
“We’re doing what we can, because our employees are not just our co-workers, they’re our friends,” he said.
Conservation officers’ jobs are unique in law enforcement, which can be good — or not so good, depending, oftentimes, on an officer’s viewpoint and temperament.
Most conservation officers work out of their homes, and in many instances — particularly outstate — as licensed peace officers they’re asked to back up county deputies on domestic disputes and other actions that have little or nothing to do with wildlife.
In fact, the fast-changing nature of conservation-enforcement work has in some instances added to officers’ stress, Smith said.
“We started in 1887 as game wardens,” he said. “Since then, we’ve always had the core responsibilities of protecting game and fish, and also until the 1980s, acquiring and maintaining public accesses.
“Then in the 1970s came snowmobiles and their enforcement, followed by ATVs and their enforcement, and then, in the 1990s, wetland-law enforcement. Now, after 9/11 and more recently with school shootings, our officers are often the first on the scene in these events, particularly in rural areas.”
The “million-dollar question,” Smith said, is how his officers are reacting to the division’s string of colleague losses.
The DNR Enforcement Division two years ago joined the State Patrol and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in a program that trains officer volunteers to be peer counselors to fellow officers who are stressed or otherwise have mental health or related issues.
The meetings aren’t reported to DNR supervisors.
Smith is hopeful his division’s fortunes improve, and soon.
“We have a training academy starting May 20 with 15 candidates attending,” Smith said. “But like other law enforcement agencies, we’ve seen the number of applicants for these jobs drop. We’re still finding high-quality candidates. But it’s getting more difficult. We used to turn away high-quality candidates because we had so many. Not so much anymore.
“Two years ago,” he added, “we created an honor guard. Now, in eight months, we’ve laid four officers to rest. Watching the spouse and kids of your friend and co-worker grieve the loss of their family member is hard on everyone.”