By PATRICK SLACK
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officers are not park rangers.
“That’s a totally different job,” Paul Kuske said.
Instead, DNR officers are part of a largely independent branch of law enforcement that plays an often unrecognized but vital role in maintaining public safety.
“One of the biggest things that the public has a misnomer about is that we’re not park rangers,” Kuske said. “We are licensed peace officers just like state deputies and troopers, we carry the same licensing and responsibilities. It’s just that our job focuses in a little different area.”
“Conservation officers are responsible for the enforcement of all outdoor activities, from snowmobiles to ATVs, wetlands, state parks, fire and pollution,” Kuske said. “We do a little bit of everything.”
Kuske said that comparing the DNR to other local law enforcement agencies is “Kind of apples and oranges.”
“Both are licensed peace officers,” he said. “They concentrate on a different area of law than we do. We will work together on certain cases and back each other up in emergencies, but for the most part we have two very different areas that our focus of work is on.”
Kuske started in his current position as a conservation officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Morrison County in 1988.
Twenty-four years later, he still works primarily alone stationed in Pierz, trying to maintain the same environment he protected a generation ago for the one ahead.
“As conservation officers we cover huge areas, 650 square miles and we’re it,” Kuske said. “When I’m on a day off there’s no one to fill in. We cover a lot of area and we do it all on our own.”
Kuske’s passion for the outdoors started at a young age while growing up in Dodge Center in Southeast Minnesota.
“I was always interested in conservation, just having an appreciation for the outdoors,” Kuske said. “I had a high school science teacher that was really instrumental in educating me in the outdoors at a young age and growing up in a rural community.”
He took that experience and passion to the DNR, seeking to help others enjoy the same opportunities he had.
“The DNR plays an important role in creating equal opportunities for hunters and fishermen,” Kuske said. “The bigger role is protecting the resources for present and future populations to have.”
“Without the DNR a lot of our natural resources would be lost, damaged or be of poor quality,” he said.
“The DNR is very important because of the things we’re responsible for,” he said. “Boats and water, ATVs, snowmobiles … a lot of those things relate more to public safety and the fact that we work in such rural and remote areas that very commonly public safety issues come up in, we end up having to be the main contact.”
DNR officers are also key in assisting local law enforcement agencies in remote areas because of their access to ATVs and four-wheel drive trucks that many locations do not have.
Given the limited staff and the wide area of land and activities they must cover, conservation officers also have to be capable of handling several different areas of public safety.
“In the fall, a lot of our work is concentrated on hunting activities,” Kuske said. “In winter, it’s snowmobile patrols and checking ice fishermen. In spring, we deal with a lot of fire issues and in summer it’s ATVs, boats and when we administer a lot of our safety programs, giving talks to kids.”
“There really isn’t a typical week,” he said. “Every day practically is different. The neat part about our job is that it changes with the seasons.”
“We’re a bunch of self-motivated officers,” he said. “It takes a lot of self-initiative to get the job done. Those are the kind of people we hire, people that are very self-motivated.”