In a cramped studio at a Columbia radio station, Robyn Raisch adjusts his earphones and checks the clock: 6:07 a.m. His guest reviews the notes spread out before him. Raisch sips steaming coffee from his mug. The radio show host points to him and says, "It's 6:12 and you're on!"
Raisch starts on cue: "Good morning and welcome to the Great Outdoors. I'm Conservation Agent Robyn Raisch and my guest today is Brian Canady, a Conservation Department aquatic services biologist who specializes in pond management."
For the next hour, Raisch and Canady field calls about pond stocking, algae blooms and leaky ponds. They discuss the causes of fish kills, blew holes and fish parasites and offer up information about Conservation Department services.
"I've been doing this show every Saturday morning for the last two years," Raisch says. "It's fun, and it's a great way to get information out to the public." Getting information to the public is just one of Raisch's duties. A conservation agent for the past 16 years, he describes his job as a jack-of-all trades. "From law enforcement to teaching, to public relations work--we do it all."
Equipped with a bachelor's degree in wildlife management and conservation, Raisch entered the agent training class in 1983. His first assignment was in Scotland County. He remained there 11 years before moving to Boone County several years ago. "I switched to Boone because I wanted an urban assignment," he says. "Scotland County is largely rural, and after 11 years I wanted to do something different."
Working in the eighth most populous county in Missouri has several perks for Raisch. He no longer works alone but rather, with agent Jim Schwartz. "It's nice to work with somebody else," Raisch says. "When we are on the road, we usually separate to cover more territory, but we are always in constant contact by radio. If we have a specific problem, we work together to solve it."
After the morning radio show, Raisch parks his blue pickup truck in front of his Columbia office. Schwartz walks in moments later. The two sit down at their desks in the crowded space they share with two forestry and one wildlife technicians.
Raisch pushes the play button on the answering machine. A concerned woman asks what to do about a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest in her backyard. A man inquires about how he can get his pond stocked with fish. A frustrated farmer wants to know how to catch the animal that has been eating the heads off his emus, and several people complain about a den of foxes that are killing neighborhood cats.
The two agents begin with the fox problem and call neighbors to get additional information. Next, they make a conference call to Jim Braithwait, Conservation Department wildlife management biologist in Camdenton. "Well, we have many different options for removing the foxes," Braithwait says. The three decide they need more information, so they plan to meet the following day to look at the den and talk to more neighbors.
It is now almost 11 a.m. and Raisch has completed his paperwork for the morning. He gathers his notebook and leaves for the Boone County Courthouse to deliver several court summonses.
Raisch says he enjoys his job. However, like any job, it has a downside. "A lot of activity takes place on weekends, so I only end up getting one weekend off per month," he says. "And that can be difficult with a family." Agents also must have offices at home with listed phone numbers, which means that people call late at night with questions.
"Having a home office can make it difficult to get away from work, but after 16 years, I have learned to deal with it," he says. "Conservation agents do a lot of good and that makes it such a worthwhile job."
In 1905, Missouri had 40 politically-appointed game wardens and 5,000 special deputy wardens who worked temporarily for $4 a day. Today, Missouri has over 150 conservation agents--certified peace officers who enforce the wildlife laws throughout Missouri and state laws on lands owned and operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Their duties are varied and include conducting hunter education classes, appearing on television and radio programs, writing newspaper and magazine articles, providing educational programs for schools and clubs, acting as information specialists for the public and patrolling for illegal fishing and hunting operations.
A 65-year-old man sits on a cardboard box, his fishing line dipping in the Missouri River. His daughter and grandson stand next to him, attaching bait to their own lines. As David Guntli, conservation agent in St. Charles County, approaches the family, the woman checks her pockets and pulls out a fishing permit. "Hi, have you caught anything?" Guntli asks the family of three. They shake their heads.
The woman hands Guntli her fishing permit. "I'm sure you want to see this," she says. Guntli thanks her, looks at it and returns the white piece of paper. He then turns to the grandfather and requests his fishing permit. "I'm 65 and don't need a permit," he says. "Here, look at my license. I'm too old to need a permit."
While Guntli looks at the license, the grandson spots a school of small fish in the river. "Look mom, I can get those fish with my BB gun." Embarrassed, his mother leads him away from Guntli and puts her arm around his shoulder. "Now, honey," she says, "you can't do that with the game warden here. It's illegal!"
Guntli, an agent since 1979, has seen a lot of illegal activity, but he says that most are misdemeanors that are not life threatening. "Police officers tell me that they would not want my job because we work with guns during hunting season, but I don't think of it that way," he says.
However, Guntli says he wears a bullet proof vest "just to be safe." He says that he used to wear one only in special circumstances, but began wearing one on a daily basis after hearing several agents speak about the vest saving their lives. "I have two young children and I figure this is just one extra safety step," he says. "I know a lot of guys who don't wear vests because they are uncomfortable, but I think they make you more aware of what you are doing. The vests don't necessarily make you feel invincible, but when I wear one, I am reminded that sometimes I do deal with violent people."
Before becoming an agent, Guntli had no law enforcement background. He entered the training class immediately after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fisheries. "My degree is useful for this job, but I think it's only one aspect," he says.
"We deal with so many different kinds of people that it's really a communications job mixed with law enforcement. A lot of people get through the agent training and end up not liking the job because of all the law enforcement work."
Raisch agrees that law enforcement is the most important aspect of an agent's job. "We do a variety of things each day that are law enforcement-related. When we patrol in our uniforms, we are a deterrent for people who would otherwise ignore Missouri's Wildlife Code, and when we work on covert operations in plain clothes, we catch more serious violators," he says.
"In addition to this type of police work, we also teach classes and answer questions from the public, which educates people about wildlife enforcement. This in turn helps us get to know them and makes the public feel comfortable reporting violations. It is important that we have this type of relationship with the public. To conserve Missouri's resources, we all need to work together as a team."
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