As the only game warden assigned to a 3,000-square-mile territory in the far northwest corner of Minnesota, Jeremy Woinarowicz is accustomed to answering calls far away from his home in Warren, west of Thief River Falls.
To his north, there is all of Kittson County to cover. To his east, his inflated territory stretches to Upper Red Lake. In other parts of the state where the DNR's Enforcement Division hasn't cut field staff, seven game wardens would normally work such a large space.
"It's not good service delivery,'' Woinarowicz said.
The veteran conservation officer, who once got called away from a family birthday party to euthanize a diseased moose that was circling the house of an elderly woman many miles away, has a clear understanding of why the DNR wants a sizable budget increase from the Legislature to fill 17 vacant game warden positions. The foremost problem in understaffed areas is the lack of "pro-active" patrols to deter anglers and hunters from violating game and fish laws, he said.
If they rarely see a conservation officer, they're more apt to cheat, Woinarowicz said. But there's no time to patrol when you're answering calls from an expansive area.
Lt. Col. Rodmen Smith, the DNR's enforcement chief, said the agency's chronic funding shortfall to keep "boots on the ground'' has worsened. Increased overhead expenses — including salary increases and rising fleet costs — have soaked up capacity in the budget to replace some officers who retire, Smith said. He's eliminated a number of nonlicensed positions and held other non-field positions vacant to make up some of the difference.
In addition, the DNR has eliminated specialty enforcement staffs in areas such as wetland protection — shifting the work entirely to game wardens.
Still, Smith said, "The gap is getting wider.''
By early May, he said, the Enforcement Division will have 23 vacant positions in a conservation officer network of slightly more than 200 licensed positions. In testimony at the Legislature, Smith has said 13,650 square miles in Minnesota don't have adequate natural resource protection. That's an area larger than Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined.
"There isn't an ethical sportsman who doesn't want game and fish laws enforced,'' the DNR has said in its pitch to legislators.
DNR Budget Director Emily Engel said the agency is seeking an increase of $2.78 million a year from the state general fund to bolster the game warden group. That's 7 percent of the proposed overall budget increase of $38 million sought by the DNR for each of the next two fiscal years, 2018 and 2019.
Engel said the DNR wants a general fund appropriation for "delivery of natural resources law enforcement'' because many other funds applicable to conservation officers are projected to run into deficits. That includes the Game & Fish Fund, the major DNR account that draws on license fees from hunters, anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts. Part of the DNR's budget request to the Legislature calls for fee increases in sporting licenses, state park permits, snowmobile registration, boat registration and tags for all-terrain vehicles.
Smith said game wardens do far more than write tickets to game, fish and trail violators. Together, they help certify 44,000 Minnesota students a year in various safety programs, including firearms safety, handle 1,300 public speaking engagements, uphold clean water laws, and police the commercial use of natural resources and provide other environmental protection, including public education around aquatic invasive species.
Without more money, Smith said, the number of vacant conservation officer positions will continue to grow.
Woinarowicz said his response time to answer calls is slower than it should be. For 11 of his 13 years on the job as conservation officer in at the Thief River Falls West station, he's had to cover much of the vacant Thief River Falls East station and stations to the north in Kittson County. Currently, he said, the important Warroad station bordering Lake of the Woods also is vacant.
It's not uncommon, for example, for Woinarowicz to drive 70 miles in one direction to answer a wolf depredation case. There's not much fishing in his area, but deer hunters in the region realize the game warden is too preoccupied with other duties to spend much time checking licenses or responding quickly to a hunter-trespass complaint.
He said state troopers and sheriffs' deputies help him out, and vice versa. But understaffed areas aren't getting the services they deserve, Woinarowicz said.
"Ideally, we'd like more trained officers,'' he said.