To Protect and Conserve

By Kristie Hilgedick | September 1, 2016
From Missouri Conservationist: September 2016




These three words embody the values Missouri’s conservation agents are expected to embrace.

Of all the employees who work for the Missouri Department of Conservation, the 187 men and women who solemnly swear the Conservation Agent Oath are likely to be the people that Missouri residents encounter most frequently.

“You are designated as official ambassadors of the Conservation Commission. You are the tip of the spear,” Field Chief Randy Doman told a classroom of fresh recruits last spring. “We hold you to a higher standard, both on duty and off duty. We expect a great deal from you.”

The job isn’t always easy.

On some days, an agent may have to wade through a field of stinging nettles in the scorching July heat, Doman told the recruits. At night, he or she may be the only law enforcement officer available to arrest an intoxicated poacher cradling a high-powered rifle.

But the position casts more than its fair share of spellbinding magic.

“You’re paid to work with waterfowl hunters and watch jobs out there. So enjoy it,” Doman said.

From day one, conservation agent trainees are told their jobs are more than merely enforcing the law. Encouraging voluntary compliance with the Wildlife Code of Missouri is the real goal, Doman said.

“How do we do that?” he asked. “Through enforcement education, outreach, and positive landowner contacts.” On any given day, Missouri’s conservation agents might arrest a poacher, assist with a controlled burn, offer advice for eradicating invasive plants, help a homeowner handle a nuisance animal, investigate a fish kill, lend a hand creating habitat at the edge of a field, participate in a bald eagle survey, instruct a hunter safety course, chat with a reporter, or teach a child how to fish.

“All agents are encouraged to forge strong relationships in their own communities by engaging in local civic life and treating others with respect,” Field Chief Dean Harre told the recruits. “Success is based on teamwork, cooperation, and professionalism.

“We pride ourselves on community policing at its finest,” Harre added. “If people respect what you do for a living, it will be more difficult for them to violate the Code. Even some of the fiercest poachers are going to respect you if you conduct yourself with integrity.”

Writing tickets for hunting and angling violations is part of every agent’s workweek, and receiving one is certain to be an unpleasant reality check for some violators. But when the interaction goes well, agents often receive thanks and a handshake for respectfully explaining the rationale underpinning every regulation.

“Allowing citizens to see officers in their communities engaged in positive activities, including law enforcement activities, where they are perceived as people and not just government, goes a long way toward our success,” Harre said.

Protecting and conserving Missouri’s fish, forests, and wildlife is the Protection Division’s top priority. “One poacher can do a lot of damage,” Harre said. “Enforcement of the Wildlife Code of Missouri is necessary because people will not regulate themselves. Without enforcement, rules and regulations are nothing more than advice.”

Leading a Team

As a Protection Division District Supervisor, Russ Shifflett oversees a team of seven conservation agents assigned to the northwestern corner of the state.

Because his seven-county region covers 3,837 square miles, Shifflett typically launches into his day with a series of telephone calls to his team — dispensing advice, answering questions, and determining who needs assistance with the tasks at hand.

As their leader, his mantra is twofold: he frequently encourages them to “lead by example” and reminds them “it’s a personal choice to be positive or negative.

“I’ve got a good crew,” he said. “But we’re in a career that is image based, and we’re held to a higher standard.”

Shifflett spends 80 percent of his time engaged in administrative tasks and training activities. The remaining 20 percent is spent in the field, with duties that include helping on opening day of deer season or assisting when illegal spotlighting is suspected.

Understanding the history behind why Missouri’s wildlife laws were originally enacted, and enforcing them judiciously, is important to him. He cautions his team about writing tickets that may be technically correct, but ill-considered. Experienced agents know even honorable hunters make mistakes on occasion, he said. Shifflett said when a mistake happens — the wrong species of duck is shot, for example — it is better to call your agent and let him or her know.

“It says something about your character. When people call us, it gives us options. It doesn’t mean you won’t get a ticket. But it might be a warning, as opposed to a fine,” he said. “We know if you hunt long enough, an ‘Oops!’ is going to happen.”

Shifflett encourages his team members to respond professionally, but compassionately.

“Compassion gains respect,” he said. “More than ever before, my concern about inappropriate behavior is how it reflects on the entire profession.” Although many hunters and anglers view agents as strictly law enforcement officers, they actually take on many duties beyond strictly enforcing the Code, such as reaching out to the public with educational programs, talking to local media outlets, and providing assistance to landowners.

It’s been that way since 1938, when Director Irwin T. Bode broadened the concept of a game warden’s job by renaming the position conservation agent. No longer solely concerned with law enforcement, agents were expected to be forces for conservation in their assigned territories in any way possible. It was expected that each agent would serve as a wildlife-fisheries-forestry manager on the ground, and perform conservation education work as well.

Today, scientists typically manage the Department’s land. But the Protection Division’s emphasis on engaging the public through outreach and education — often called “community policing” — is still very much the Department’s philosophy.

Shifflett said it’s critical for agents to communicate why conservation is important.

“It’s our job to make sure wildlife is around for future generations,” he said.

Wildlife is a public trust resource. According to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, natural resources are managed by government agencies to ensure current and future generations always have wildlife and wild places to enjoy.

Without laws protecting game on the books, human nature would lead to overharvesting and diminished wildlife resources. And without agents prepared to enforce those laws, the rules lack power.

“The reasons why we became agents is we have a passionate respect for wildlife. We want to protect it. And we want to maintain that balance in nature,” he said.

After 30 years in the profession, Shifflett harbors not a single regret.

“It’s been who I am, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “I don’t mind people asking me regulation questions while I’m at the grocery store. It’s not an eight-houra- day gig. It’s a lifestyle. It’s the greatest job ever.”

Experience Guides Him

Where are the good fish? It’s a common question every conservation agent wishes he could answer.

“I always point at the water,” joked Agent Rob Farr. On the opening day of paddlefish season, Farr and fellow Conservation Agent Chase Wright patrolled the waters downstream of Truman Dam, checking anglers’ licenses and measuring each boat’s harvest to ensure no one was exceeding the state’s possession limits.

For Farr, working on opening day of paddlefish season has been an annual rite of spring. On March 15, hundreds of anglers gathered east of the U.S. 65 bridge in Benton County to snag these primeval creatures.

Enforcing the Wildlife Code of Missouri is Farr’s primary duty; however, he takes time to get to know the people he serves.

On opening day, Murl and Ray Stull, 93 and 86 years old, respectively, were steadily casting their lines. As he pulled alongside their vessel, Farr declared, “I’m pretty sure you don’t need permits, but I’ve got to say ‘Hi!’ to you.”

“We need to rest a little anyway,” said Murl Stull, reminiscing that the fish he caught two years ago “was longer than I am tall. It wore me out!”

All of Missouri’s agents, including Farr, are prepared to serve as first responders when necessary. In 1992, he rescued a waterfowl hunter whose body temperature dipped dangerously low when his boat capsized. He traveled to Louisiana in 2005 with other conservation agents to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Farr brings a firm, but friendly, approach to his work. “I always try to be as nice to people as they will let me be. Sometimes it’s fantastic and I make new friends. But I can’t always rely on it to be that way. Sometimes it’s not good at all,” Farr said.

A case in point came during a permit check on paddlefish opening day. Farr pulled up to a fishing boat with an individual who erupted into a profanity-laden tirade upon being checked. Farr went on alert but remained professional throughout the contact. It was a vivid reminder of how quickly a routine contact can turn south.

Farr also relishes playing a role in special investigations — such as the 2013 case that caused more than 100 suspects to be cited or arrested for paddlefish poaching. He said such work takes patience.

“I like to catch the bad guys. I like it when a plan comes together,” Farr said.

Without enforcement, Farr fears Missouri would return to the bad old days of market hunting when fewer than 100 wild turkey remained in the state and deer numbers were estimated at not more than 500. Today, scientists estimate 1.5 million deer live in Missouri. Farr believes people are better educated today about the Code, and more willing to call their neighbors out for breaking the law.

“They don’t put up with other people violating the Code,” he said. “It’s not tolerated.”

Representing a Diverse Workforce

Agent Lexis Riter, one of 16 women serving as an agent, believes policing begins when she shows a gaggle of third graders how to bait a hook or helps a group of Girl Scouts better understand which lizard species make their home at Victoria Glades Conservation Area.

“To me, that’s where community policing begins. You build these relationships,” she explained. “It trickles into law enforcement. Students I taught about nature will return to me 10 years later with information about a hunting violation.

“It takes trust to build those relationships.” Riter knows it’s important to be a contributing and visible member of the Jefferson County community.

Whether she greets a clerk with a friendly smile at a convenience store or takes the time to engage an angler in a long conversation, she realizes those positive contacts earn the Department goodwill.

Conservation agents work in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies, helping one another when necessary.

Few people realize the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Protection Division plays a critical role in reducing vandalism and keeping the state’s landscape and waterways clean of refuse. “We make more littering cases than all the other law enforcement agencies combined,” Riter said.

Missouri’s agents work out of their homes and treat their vehicles like mobile offices. Calls come in from a variety of sources: directly from the public, from their supervisors, the Operation Game Thief hotline, and more.

Unlike most law enforcement officers who work in pairs, conservation agents usually work alone. Often their duties require working at night, and they face more armed citizens than any other field of law enforcement. Nationwide statistics show their chances of assault with a deadly weapon are seven times that of a typical police officer, yet Missouri is blessed to have a good safety record.

Since 1937, only three Missouri agents have been wounded by gunfire in the line of duty. Riter said she has not experienced a life-threatening situation since she was hired, but noted the job has a dangerous edge, which can be stressful.

“We have to find a way to cope with that and go and do our jobs the next day. Humor is a coping mechanism,” she said.

But she added the job affords her the opportunity to watch the sun rise and set almost daily from some of Jefferson County’s most beautiful vantage points.

“As someone who loves being outdoors, that’s a great part of the job,” she said.

Out of 800 applicants, Riter was one of nine people selected for the 2014 academy class.

“I worked really, really hard to get here,” she said. “I’m biased, but I feel I have the greatest job in the world. I’m very passionate about my work. I love helping protect Missouri’s natural resources.”

Also In This Issue

Rabbit Hunting
Non-hunters take to the woods well into adulthood

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler