DNR anticipates 18 recruits at academy

Role of state COs continues to change

By Tim Spielman

Associate Editor

St. Paul A kind state Legislature and concerned top brass in the
DNR have resulted in a CO academy slated for February, 2004,
according to Mike Hamm, the Division of Enforcement’s new
chief.

“We’re looking to place two pilots and 16 would-be conservation
officers in field offices,” he said. “Eighteen is about the load we
can handle in an academy and place in field training.”

There currently are about 27 vacancies in the field; a full
complement of field officers would be about 150, he said. Besides
field conservation officers, Hamm said the division is currently
short five regional training officers, two pilots, and three
wetlands officers.

Hamm expects the ebb and flow of retirements to slow this year.
COs may retire at age 50, but may work until age 60. “Most have
been going right around age 55,” he said. “There are several now
between 50 and 55, and they could retire this year, but that’s not
likely.”

Hamm said the state Legislature granted funding this year to
begin restoring the ranks of the CO force. “The Legislature has
been very kind to us,” he said.

Duties of today

Hamm became a CO more than 25 years ago as a field officer in
the Worthington area. He worked in various parts of the state and
up the Enforcement ladder before becoming director this year.

Since the late ’70s, the biggest changes in CO duties have been
the advent of ATVs and the growth of the snowmobile industry, Hamm
said. There are now bigger boats, and more of them. The DNR says
that as of Dec. 31, 2002, there were more than 830,000 boats
registered in the state, along with another 38,000 PWCs. And
there’s been an explosion in personal watercraft use.

And that’s just scratching the surface of CO work.

“Even the camouflage has changed,” Hamm said. “This year we’ve
got a new prairie chicken season, and there are two turkey seasons
that weren’t there (when he started). And we have all these seasons
for deer.”

In the recent past, one court decision has changed the way COs
conduct business, and another could, Hamm says.

Last August, the state Supreme Court ruled that a CO “is subject
to the same state and federal constitutional search and seizure
constraints as other law enforcement officer in the performance of
his or her duties,” specifically when checking fish houses. As a
result of the ruling, COs need permission or probable cause to
enter a fish house.

“We’re just working within the confines of the court decision,”
Hamm said. He said the DNR has some concerns regarding these work
requirements when it comes to lakes with slot limits or
experimental regulations.

Another case has yet to be decided by the court. This one
involves COs’ ability to check anglers’ livewells. The Court of
Appeals ruled COs cannot search the livewells of boats without
consent or probable cause.

“That one is still in the hands of the Supreme Court, but we’re
working within the confines of the lower court ruling,” Hamm
said.

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