Minnesota’s conservation officers are most closely identified with enforcement of hunting and fishing laws, but their role has evolved significantly since the state’s first game warden was appointed nearly 130 years ago.

“Over the years — the decades — the job has constantly changed,” said Col. Rodmen Smith, director of the Minnesota DNR’s enforcement division. “The job has always been evolving, and it’s based on the priorities of the people of the state and the Legislature.”

Historical records show the state’s first wardens stocking “walleyed pike” and “black pheasants,” for example, and up until the 1980s, they were responsible for coordinating development of public accesses. As snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles increased in popularity, COs took on the task of enforcing recreational vehicle laws. With passage of the state’s Wetland Conservation Act in 1991 — aimed at protecting wetlands — they focused more broadly on natural resources.

It’s still common to see COs in the field checking to make sure hunters have proper licenses and on the water to ensure anglers don’t have too many fish. They still investigate and make poaching cases, but they also spend time enforcing regulations for invasive species, timber theft and more. The enforcement division has made outreach a higher priority in hopes it will lead to voluntary compliance with natural resources laws and regulations.

“There will never be enough COs to just go out and check to make sure everybody is doing everything right,” Smith said. “If we do a good enough job on outreach and safety education, the law enforcement part of our jobs is going to be a lot easier.”