For many people the terms conservation officer or game warden conjure an image of a grizzled man — maybe someone who lives off the land in a cabin somewhere and is something of an expert on all things fishing, hunting and trapping. If that description at one time was accurate — and it may well have been, given the state appointed its first game warden in 1887 — it certainly is less so today.
Consider this: Of the 10 officers who took part in this year’s Conservation Officer Academy, which prepares new recruits for the job in Minnesota, four never had driven a pickup truck. Some didn’t have any law enforcement experience, and some had to be taught how to identify ducks.
And it was all by design. In recent years, the state’s Department of Natural Resources has shifted its approach to hiring new officers and does “a better job of reflecting the community of the state of Minnesota,” said Col. Rodmen Smith, who directs the DNR’s enforcement division. Whereas there historically has been a premium on having a law enforcement background or specific skills related to fish and game, the agency now places a greater emphasis on such traits as honesty, integrity, good judgment and a passion for the outdoors — regardless of background.
“We can’t teach people how to be good people, but we can teach them hunting and fishing,” Smith said. “Nobody was born with a fishing pole in one hand and a shotgun in the other. We all learned.”
He said he believes the agency has hired the correct people in the past, just that today there is an emphasis on bringing in officers with more diverse backgrounds. The division now has a special process called CO (conservation officer) Prep for doing just that. Candidates who are part of that program receive law enforcement education before specific training.
Here are profiles of recent officers added to the ranks:
Eric Benjamin, 42
Originally from: Farmington
Conservation officer: 2014-present
Before he was a CO: Worked for the U.S. Army and spent three years in Afghanistan, and was a sheriff’s deputy.
In the mid-1990s, Benjamin’s intention was to get his law enforcement degree and become a game warden. But at the time, other officers told him he wouldn’t be able to get a job until he had five years of law enforcement experience under his belt. “They weren’t really taking people without law enforcement backgrounds back then, so I didn’t even pursue it,” he said.
Rather, he went to work for the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, where he spent six years before moving on to the U.S. Army. A conservation officer since 2014, he’s also a member of the U.S. Army Reserve.
Benjamin said his military background suits him well, and that he’d recommend a career as a conservation officer to other returning veterans.
“Being in the military, you’re trained to work as part of a team but also as an individual,” he said. “It works out really well. And I don’t know anyone in the military who doesn’t like working outdoors.”
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Leah Weyandt, 35
Originally from: Watertown, Minn.
Conservation officer: 2015-present
Before she was a CO: Worked as a fisheries biologist for the DNR
A part of the enforcement division’s first class of officers who came through the CO Prep program, Weyandt has a bachelor’s degree in aquatic biology and a master’s degree in marine biology.
“Going back to school and learning an entirely new career at my age, and having the job offered to me, was a great opportunity,” he said.
When she was working as a fisheries biologist, people would ask her a wide variety of questions outside her area of expertise, assuming because she was a DNR employee, she’d know the answer. “I’d tell them, ‘Call the conservation officer — they know everything,’ ” she said.
Now she’s the one who gets the calls, and she couldn’t be happier.
“Ninety-nine point five percent of the time I talk to people, it’s positive,” Weyandt said. “It’s like the epitome of community policing. We are out there conversing with everyone — not just people who are breaking the law.”
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Kylan Hill, 24
Originally from: Aitkin, Minn.
Conservation officer: 2016
Before he was a CO: Worked as a recreation and activities leader for the Confidence Learning Center in Brainerd
Hill graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris, where he studied philosophy and political science. He intended to go to law school and planned to take the law school admission council test in the spring of his senior year, but for a variety of reasons put it off.
He had worked summers during college at the Confidence Learning Center. His hope was to graduate and get a job at a law office. Dozens of applications and meetings later, he found nobody would hire someone who’d be leaving for law school in a year or two. It was then his father was reading an article about the DNR’s CO Prep program and told Hill.
An avid outdoorsman, Hill knew about conservation officers but hadn’t considered the possibility of becoming one because he didn’t have a law enforcement background. It took him five minutes to decide to apply.
Now with about three months as an officer under his belt, Hill said he initially had to reprogram his brain a bit. “You have the ability to issue someone a fine, basically take away someone’s liberty for a period of time,” he said. “You really have to think about that when you’re going through day-to-day decisions.”
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Arnaud Kpachavi, 23
Originally from: Fremont, Mich.
Station: Benson, Minn.
Conservation officer: 2016
Before he was a conservation officer: Student at Carleton College; worked in alumni relations and as a YMCA equestrian instructor
Kpachavi knew from an early age he wanted to get into environmental law enforcement. He studied environmental studies at Carleton College and began applying for jobs, knowing his odds of landing one right away were long.
“My original plan was to join the Army for four years, and then do either a law enforcement job somewhere or a natural resources job until I got more experience,” he said. “I got lucky.”
Kpachavi grew up all across the United States — his dad was a YMCA camp director — which cemented his love for the outdoors. “I fished some growing up but didn’t really hunt,” he said. “I had all these activities available to me just to do on my own time. I was always way out in the middle of nowhere with no neighbors — nothing.”
In his young career as a conservation officer, Kpachavi said he has been surprised by people’s politeness. “I thought we might get more people being really unhappy they are getting tickets, or being unhappy that we’re doing a law enforcement activity they don’t like,” he said. “But really, people are very respectful. We have a good relationship with people.”
Joe Albert is a writer from Bloomington. Reach him at email@example.com.