"There's only one rule in life," says Ranney McDonough. "Treat people as you want to be treated." With a philosophy like this, McDonough can't help but be a good neighbor. It also makes him an effective conservation agent.
Caring about the community is one of the most important aspects of a conservation agent's job. For McDonough, it meant starting a volunteer fire department and joining the Lions Club in Wayne County, where he was first assigned as an agent. It also meant coordinating an annual education event at the local school and organizing fishing clinics for kids and their parents in his current assignment of Mississippi County. All of these things help McDonough know his neighbors, and in turn they know him and feel comfortable calling him when they need help with a nuisance animal or spot a wildlife violation.
McDonough firmly believes that when law enforcement officers are friends and neighbors to the people they serve, they can do their job more efficiently. "Because the people know me, they know I'm not against them, personally, but against wildlife violations," says McDonough. He cites instances of people he has arrested who later helped him do his job.
Earning the community's support has been the key to the agents' success since 1938, when the Conservation Department assigned its first agents to protect Missouri's wildlife.
"Instead of working full time in law enforcement efforts, these new agents were expected to develop support and cooperation for the Conservation Department and its programs," says Larry Yamnitz, a Conservation Department agent programs supervisor. Today that community support is just as important for the 160 agents, who each patrol an average of more than 500 square miles.
"Since I'm the only agent in my county," says Dennis Ritter, "it's important to be pointed in the right direction. It's not enough to do your job. You have to let the public know what you are doing and why." Ritter is an agent in Livingston County.
People know he is the person to contact about conservation issues because Ritter gives talks to many civic and sporting groups and serves as president of the local chapter of the Wild Turkey Federation. He also does a radio show on a local station every Friday and Saturday, and his column runs every other Friday in the Chillicothe newspaper. Conservation agents around the state join Ritter in educating the public about conservation issues by doing 13,800 radio programs and writing 4,000 newspaper articles each year.
An agent for 38 years, Don Shilling knows firsthand the value of becoming involved with the community. While assigned to Vernon County, he and his wife, Evelyn, became 4-H leaders. Shilling also set up hunter safety and fishing classes in the local schools.
"You aren't going to change old violators," Shilling says. "The best way to make a change is to reach the children."
Now in Jasper County, Shilling continues his youth programs. Some of the students he taught in hunter safety classes are now in law enforcement. They help him protect Missouri's resources and catch hard-core violators. Some of the judges and prosecuting attorneys also are his former students. Agents and other instructors train approximately 30,000 students to handle firearms safely and to hunt ethically each year.
Chris Capps, the agent in Lafayette County, also reaches out to children. He and the other law enforcement agencies in the county get together to sponsor Conservation D.A.R.E. Day each May. Area businesses donate prizes, so Capps gets to know the store owners, as well as the more than 600 fifth- and sixth-graders who attend each year.
"Through this program, we will eventually reach all the kids in the area," Capps says. He likes to work with the other law enforcement officers so that the children can see them and will feel more comfortable approaching any of them with a problem or for information.
Although talking to large groups is important, agents also know the value of spending time with individual landowners. Gary Cravens, now a supervisor, was an agent for nine years. He emphasizes the importance of making contact with people around the area - just as police officers in cities used to know everyone on their beat. "When I see a landowner in a field, I stop and visit to see what their concerns are and how we can work together to protect Missouri's natural resources."
One landowner on Cravens' "beat" wanted to lease his land for hunting but was concerned about a group of poachers who were taking deer and turkey and running dogs on his land. After getting to know Cravens, the landowner allowed the agent to come and go freely on his property to look for illegal hunters. This type of cooperation is essential for agents to do an effective job. A study by Ron Glover, chief of the Conservation Department's enforcement arm, showed that 75 percent of the arrests for poaching came from information provided by the public.
In McDonald County, Chris Campbell meets people through neighborhood watch programs. "My county is rural, she says, "so it's important to enlist the help of as many people as possible." She talks to individuals and groups about how they can help stop crime, such as getting a license number or description of a suspect. She tells them to call her anytime, and they don't hesitate to do so. A phone call she recently received at 1:30 a.m. resulted in the arrest of a deer poacher.
To make community policing work, agents must be seen around town, not just at crime scenes. Scott Burger, an agent in Jasper County, helps coach his children's baseball and basketball teams. He gets to know parents, as well as team members. He also takes time to speak to kids he meets at the mall and at church.
"The more you get involved with a community, the more people talk to you about their concerns," Burger says. "Knowing the people speeds up the process. I get information I need about illegal activity in a more timely manner."
Agents aren't the only ones who benefit from the quick flow of information. Just ask Anthony "Jake" Jakuboski, a retired mail carrier from St. Louis. Three years ago, he moved near Bland and wanted to improve his 80 acres for wildlife.
He worked with Kevin Bryant, a conservation agent, who showed him how to convert pasture into food plots for wildlife and how to make brush piles to attract rabbits and quail. "I saw a difference in the abundance of wildlife in just three years," Jakuboski says. "I have more quail, more turkey and more deer, and I even saw signs of a little bear. Kevin showed me how to make casts of one of his tracks."
The real test, however, came when Jakuboski noticed around 100 bluegill dying in his pond. He called Bryant who immediately put him in touch with Robert Pulliam, an aquatic services biologist, who inspected the pond and diagnosed the problem. Bryant called later to make sure everything was going well and continues to keep in touch with Jakuboski, as he does with other landowners in Gasconade County.
Over the years conservation agents, like other law enforcement officers, have relied on up-to-date technology, but the agents never allowed the faster all terrain vehicles and latest radio communication to replace their contact with the community, says Yamnitz.
Conservation agents contact more than 245,000 people each year who are enjoying Missouri's outdoors. Agents work out of their homes and receive thousands of calls about wildlife damage, road-killed deer and regulations. In spite of all that public contact, less than 30 complaints are lodged each year against agents, and less than 1 percent of them are ever substantiated after a lengthy investigation, Yamnitz says. In addition, conservation agents have a conviction rate of more than 95 percent for all arrests made. This type of success could never be achieved without the support of the community.
"We must manage the resources for the good of the people," Yamnitz says. "Agents can't be too involved with the resource. They must care about people to be a good agent. The hardest thing I ever did was to leave my first assignment. It wasn't the area I miss so much as the people." He and his family still go back to Texas County to visit the good friends that they made there.
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