What's the best job in the outdoors? Many people think it is being a conservation agent. If the number of applicants for that job in Missouri is any indication, they are right. Applications for a dozen openings in the Conservation Department's 1996 training class numbered about 1,000.
Today's conservation agents are skilled fish and wildlife experts, top notch law enforcement officers and fluent communicators. They may arise at 4 a.m. to go on a poacher stake-out or to be the host of a local radio show. They are skilled with firearms, but also know the psychology of dealing with people caught breaking the law.
They lead classes of youngsters on Stream Team outings, help reintroduce wildlife like otters and grouse and teach hunter education classes. And unlike days past, some are women.
The applicants selected for training are those who do well in interviews and who have good work experience in their backgrounds. Most of the trainees in conservation agents classes are not fresh out of college. Some have worked for the Conservation Department in other positions before applying for conservation agent training.
Requirements for these Conservation Department positions are an age of 21 by graduation day (to qualify as a peace officer) and a bachelor's degree in wildlife, forestry or fisheries management, criminal justice or journalism.
There is no maximum age, and the physical requirements are simply the ability to do a conservation agent's jobs - arresting wildlife violators, launching a boat, handling outboard motors or working with wild animals, some of which, like deer, can be heavy.
People selected for an agent class have six months of training ahead of them and, given the fact that they work on some weekends and most holidays, the training is all-consuming. Classes are certified by the Department of Public Safety's Peace Officer Standards in Training Program (POST) at the 1,000 hour level, although conservation agent trainees easily exceed that total during their six months of training.
Much of the training is done at the Conservation Department training building in Jefferson City. Trainees also work 200 hours in the field with conservation agents, and they spend two weeks at the Conservation Department's Fish and Wildlife Research Center in Columbia, a week at the Lake of the Ozarks for boat training and several days at the state forest nursery near Licking.
The bulk of the training is conducted by Conservation Department staff members. Conservation agents who work with the trainees are certified by the Department of Public Safety to teach POST-approved classes. The Missouri State Water Patrol, Highway Patrol and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also help train applicants.
While attending classes, trainees live and eat at the Highway Patrol Academy in Jefferson City, where they get comfortable rooms and good food. They are often housed there with Highway Patrol recruits, Water Patrol trainees and other law enforcement personnel.
A trainee's uniform is the same colors as an agent's uniform, but not the same style. Trainees are also supplied a car or truck to use in traveling to training assignments around the state; if several are going to the same area, they share the ride. The Conservation Department divides the state into nine protection regions, and trainees work in each region at least once.
Trainees do not have much spare time during the six months of instruction. They spend mandatory study time two nights per week, and must study for exams and produce book reports. They may get one-third of their weekends off, when they are free to leave Jefferson City, but they have to work holidays, as they will after graduation and assignment to a county or area.
Larry Yamnitz, a Protection Division programs supervisor, oversees the agent trainee's six-month introduction to the Conservation Department. In the field (often on weekends), trainees accompany a field training agent.
"Working with an agent gives the trainee the opportunity to see what they are learning in the classroom being put into application in the field," Yamnitz says. "Then, as time goes on, their participation increases to where, eventually, the conservation agent is a shadow in plain clothes, while the trainee fully does the job.
"We keep grades for certification, so everyone knows what their grades are, what percentage they are making on exams," Yamnitz adds. "At the end of training we usually recognize and honor the top academic student and the top firearms qualifier with a trophy or plaque."
New agents are assigned to whatever Missouri counties or areas are in need. "That decision is made well in advance of graduation so they can start planning and looking for housing, but it just depends on what is available and where the Conservation Department feels they will do the best job, based on their education, experience, background and how they performed in training," Yamnitz says. "We also consider their desire."
The candidates for conservation agent training come from all over. Melany Lamb, 30, is from the Chicago area. She was in the work force for several years after high school before starting college at Purdue University, where she received a bachelor of science degree in wildlife management. She then went to Oregon State University and completed a master's degree in forestry.
Lamb's passionate interest in animals led her to Purdue and Oregon State. Her curiosity about conservation was sparked by reading about the illegal trade in endangered birds, and she worked in the veterinary school while at Purdue. She also worked as a teaching and research assistant.
After graduating from Oregon State, she filled a variety of wildlife-related jobs for the Conservation Department at the August A. Busch Memorial Wildlife Area near St. Charles; many involved working with visitors to the area.
Lamb was not the oldest person in the class - there were men 39 and 34. "The youngest was 23, and he was real hard to keep up with when we jogged," Lamb says with a smile.
Her eyes light up when she talks about wildlife. "At one time I was interested in the federal enforcement of wildlife regulations," she says. "I enjoyed my work in the wildlife field, but when I saw the conservation agent training class come open, it reminded me of my original interest."
Lamb says she likes the hands-on training in the class, which includes role-playing, where the trainees are introduced to situations with wildlife law violators, going to the shooting range and a one-week waterfowl school at the Conservation Department's Fountain Grove Conservation Area near Chillicothe. "I was surprised at how much I could learn in such a short time," she says. "Waterfowl school was fun, and valuable, too." She looks forward to the contact with people she will have in the community where she is assigned.
Ken Sowers, 28, is from St. Louis. Sowers went to Arkansas State College in Jonesboro, majored in communications and graduated in 1992. He has worked for United Parcel System, was a merchandiser for a soft drink company and also worked as an installer for a cable television company.
Sowers was a combat engineer with the Army National Guard, and is now a telephone specialist with an Air National Guard unit in St. Louis. He braced himself for another boot-camp type experience in conservation agent training, similar to the one he had at Ft. Leonard Wood, but soon discovered he would be treated as a student rather than as a recruit. "Our instructors keep our spirits up," Sowers says.
"I really liked hunting and fishing when I was growing up in Arkansas," he adds. "I also saw people hunting and fishing illegally there and thought I would like a job to help conserve wildlife." Sower's search for increasing job responsibility, and its attendant awards, brought him to conservation agent training.
Like Lamb, Sowers also enjoyed his introduction to waterfowl at Fountain Grove. He also likes weekend assignments with working agents and traveling to several sections of the state. "You can see the difference in visualizing this work in the classroom and then going out and actually doing it," he says. "I like working outdoors and working with the people we encounter in the field."
Jeff Scott, 27, is from Benton, south of Cape Girardeau. He is a graduate of Southeast Missouri State University, where he majored in law enforcement but also studied wildlife biology and agriculture. He is married and says one of the toughest aspects of the training was being away from his wife, a junior high school teacher.
"I knew at an early age that this is what I wanted to do," Scott says. "I began working summers on a wildlife management area for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission as a junior in high school." Since then he has spent each of the past ten summers working for either the Missouri Department of Conservation or the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission in wildlife management, in fish hatcheries or in fisheries research.
Scott enjoys firearms training and the field work at the waterfowl school at Fountain Grove Conservation Area. He says the classroom work is vital, but he loves getting outside. He has a lot of hunting experience with firearms, but training with a handgun was new. He says he looks forward to being able to work lakes or streams or in the woods.
"Through this work," Scott says, "I want to protect our natural resources. I recall hunting or fishing with my dad. It sounds kind of corny, but I want my kids to have that same opportunity... I want these resources to be there when my kids are old enough to enjoy them.
"As a conservation agent, I think I can make a difference," Scott says. "It's not just punching a clock and going home at the end of the day and not thinking about it until tomorrow. It's rewarding, and you can see differences you are making ... I think that's the important thing about this job."
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