Highwires, Bowling Pins, and Other Duties as Assigned
"So, you're a conservation agent, huh? Great! Now, what do you do, exactly?" This is the kind of question people often ask when I tell them what I do for a living.
My usual reply is that I enforce Missouri's fish and game laws, as well as promote conservation through landowner and media contacts and school programs. I also enforce all state laws on lands owned, leased or managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
That only scratches the surface. The job responsibilities of a conservation agent are too diverse to describe with just a few words. The combination of law enforcement and non-enforcement duties can make this job as challenging as juggling bowling pins while walking across a high wire.
And, like the high-wire juggler at the circus, everybody watches a conservation agent to see how he does it.
Part of the balancing act occurs while checking hunting and fishing activity in the field.
As a state-certified peace officer, my primary duties involve law enforcement. I deal with both wildlife violators and other criminal offenders. Unlike other law enforcement agency contacts, however, the overwhelming majority of the people I check are honest, law-abiding sportsmen and women. The others just try to look that way. While I try to keep most of these contacts positive, I'm always looking for subtleties that separate the two groups.
In the southern Ozarks, summer activity includes checking fishing permits and creels, arresting litterbugs and looking for illegal speargunners. Spearguns may not be possessed on unimpounded waters or adjacent banks. These devices give an unfair advantage to the user in harvesting fish. The deep pools of clear Ozark streams usually hold concentrations of big walleyes and smallmouth bass. Poachers equipped with a speargun can swim within inches of these fish and completely decimate a hole in short order.
The first cold front of late summer usually signals the start of deer poaching season. From then until late winter, I keep busy catching spotlighters, deer doggers and others who don't respect established deer season dates, bag limits and other regulations in place to wisely manage our state's deer herd.
To a few outlaws, these activities are family traditions that have been passed down for generations. Some don't think poaching is wrong, even though it's against the law.
A case in point occurred one October. Two brothers, one a juvenile, were walking their dog home when they spotted a "spike" buck limping through the woods. The younger brother shouted for his older brother to release the dog and "sic" it on the deer. The dog eventually caught the small buck and dragged it to the ground. The brothers weren't far behind, and after a long struggle they (with some help from their father and a friend) subdued the deer and killed it.
As they were carrying the deer home across city property, they were arrested.
After a brief interrogation, the older brother abandoned his "self defense" argument and confessed to how he actually killed the deer. Even then he asked to keep a photo of the deer.
"It's my first deer," he explained when I asked him why. "I'm kind of proud of it."
In early spring, closed-season turkey hunters are the catch of the day. Like a handful of deer poachers, some turkey poachers have contests to see how many birds they can kill each spring. They'll try everything from spotlighting gobblers on the roost to shooting them with deer rifles. When caught, most of them confess immediately, but a few turn tail and run through the woods like flushed bunnies.
To catch turkey violators during the spring season, we often conduct multi-agency wildlife roadblocks. During one four-and-a-half hour roadblock conducted recently in Oregon County, we checked 60 hunters heading south out of Missouri. By the end of the day, we made nine wildlife arrests involving illegal possession of turkeys and fish. Most of the violations were for failing to tag, or for possessing an overlimit of turkeys.
A conservation agent's duties extend beyond enforcing the Wildlife Code. I'm occasionally asked to participate in multi-agency projects that don't necessarily involve fish and wildlife violations, and I'm always happy to oblige. Assisting other law enforcement agencies is an integral part of the job, especially in rural areas. In return, they help us when needed, too.
An example of these "other" law enforcement responsibilities occurred near Alton, Mo. For nearly three weeks one February, a suspected murderer had eluded authorities in the rugged woods and caves of the Mark Twain National Forest. The manhunt began after the suspect allegedly shot and killed an associate with a .30-06 rifle and then fled on foot.
The Oregon County Sheriff's Department and the Missouri State Highway Patrol called the Conservation Department and the U.S. Forest Service for assistance. The Oregon County dispatcher called the sheriff over the radio and exclaimed, "The same thing has happened again. There's been another shooting at the house!" Every available officer converged on the area and established a perimeter around it.
An Alton police officer and I headed down an old logging road and took up a position, using a stacked wood pile for cover. I watched the southwest hillside while the other officer watched the southeast side.
This second shooting occurred just before dark, and I couldn't help but marvel how, despite more than 20 officers searching the area all day, the guy actually returned to the scene and shot someone else. It didn't calm my nerves to know that the guy I was looking for was a methamphetamine user armed with a .30-06 who would soon have the advantage of darkness as cover.
Apparently, my partner was thinking the same thing. As fading sunlight reduced our visibility to 20 yards, we traded a look that telegraphed our concerns about our growing vulnerability.
With no further sightings, we returned to the main road and rejoined the other officers. By that time, my heart rate had returned to normal, and the tension had eased somewhat.
"So, this is what they mean by, 'Other duties as assigned,'" I thought, referring to that infamous, all-inclusive line in the job description of every Conservation Department employee.
A conservation agent's non-enforcement duties are quite diverse, as well. Some, of course, are more pleasant than others. The wildlife surveys, for example, are hard to beat. Where else can you get paid to count bald eagles, rabbits, doves and quail? I also have a monthly radio program and a newspaper column. Both media outlets generously assist in promoting conservation. With their help, I cover everything from controlling vegetative growth in farm ponds to the latest changes in deer season regulations.
Outdoor education programs, hunter education classes, Wildlife Habitat Improvement Programs (WHIP) and Landowners Assisting Wildlife Survival (LAWS) programs also keep me busy.
Most Missourians appreciate different kinds of wildlife, at least, up to a point. That's when animal nuisance complaints become a part of my job. Once, I got a call from a local police department just before midnight. The dispatcher had a lady on the phone who was frantic because snakes were coming out of her ceiling. My first impression as I emerged from my sleepy fog was that the illegal drug situation was really getting out of hand.
As it happened, the caller wasn't hallucinating at all! A pair of adult black rat snakes had entered her home through a hole in the soffit and taken up residence in the attic above the ceiling tiles. The first "guest" stayed within an opening long enough for me to catch it, but the other one eluded me. Finally, at 3:30 a.m., I apologized to the lady and told her I couldn't capture the snake. Fortunately, a local deputy removed it the next day. The dispatcher still gets a kick out of that one.
The least enjoyable part of my job is the paperwork. As with many jobs, paperwork is a necessary evil and with this job, it's also a vicious cycle. The more work we do, the more paperwork we generate.
I've only been an agent for a few years, but during that time, I've learned that my effectiveness depends on staying focused on law enforcement duties while also keeping up with my non-enforcement responsibilities. When the action gets too intense, I know it's time for some quality time on the water with a fishing rod in hand before the next high-wire act.