It’s only natural for hunters to wonder what it would be like to get paid to be outdoors, actively working to safeguard the game they enjoy hunting and their habitat. Sounds like a dream job, right? But the life of a conservation officer isn’t all trophy bucks and banded ducks. The job, though rewarding, comes with no small amount of risk and long hours, much of it during hunting season (when most hunters want to be in the field—you know, hunting).
The Ultimate Predator had an opportunity to speak to Major Shane Kirlin, a Minnesota conservation officer who’s been with the Minnesota DNR since 2001, to gain insight on what it’s really like to be a conservation officer. During his career, he’s served as a field officer, a regional training officer, a district supervisor, training and recruitment manager, and currently as the operations manager for the MN DNR’s enforcement division.
TUP: What inspired you to become a conservation officer?
MSK: I was born and raised in rural Minnesota and grew up hunting and fishing. As a boy, I attended a firearms safety certification class where I was first introduced to my local conservation officer. As I grew and spent more time in the outdoors, I began to recognize the vulnerability of the resources that I had grown to love. Having the unfortunate experience of witnessing firsthand exploitation of these natural resources ignited the desire to do what I could to ensure my children were able to have the same experiences I had. Throughout these years, I would occasionally cross paths with conservation officers. Each time I was impressed by the knowledge that they possessed and the nobility of the profession that they had chosen. When I had the opportunity to follow in their footsteps, there was no question that I would do so.
TUP: What are the most crucial services provided by conservation officers to the outdoor and hunting communities?
MSK: Conservation officers live in communities small and large throughout Minnesota and they wear many hats in those communities. They are recruiters, bringing people into the outdoors and into the role of protecting the outdoors. They are educators, providing insight at formal events but also answering questions and providing guidance, whether through a phone call in the middle of the night or when approached in the grocery store. They are conservationists, protecting the resources of the state so they are available to be enjoyed by all. Lastly, they are protectors. Oftentimes, conservation officers are some of the first responders to accidents and natural disasters. Whether fire, flood, tornado or other emergency, conservation officers have the equipment, training and ability to respond and will be there to assist their friends, neighbors, and community.
TUP: Were you a hunter/outdoorsman before joining the DNR? Do you still find time/energy/interest to hunt now?
MSK: I was an avid hunter and angler growing up in Minnesota. While I still do so, there is a certain amount of tradeoff that I accepted when I began a career as a conservation officer. Some of the busiest times of the year for a conservation officer are season openers. So I choose to participate in activities that have longer seasons, like pheasant hunting, when I can go out during slower times. It can still be challenging to truly get away when you live where you work, so to do so I also occasionally travel to other states for a change of scenery.
TUP: What are the most challenging aspects of the job? What risks do conservation officers have to navigate?
MSK: Conservation officers’ primary duty is the enforcement of natural resource laws. In order to do so, they must work nights and weekends, openers and holidays, and even birthdays and anniversaries. One of the most challenging aspects of the job is balancing the needs of a natural resource law enforcement career and the needs of being a spouse, parent, sibling or child. Conservation officers are driven by a desire to protect the resources of the state, oftentimes to the detriment of personal obligations.
The role of a conservation officer has changed significantly from the days of the first game wardens. No longer are the duties limited to only fish and game enforcement. Modern conservation officers must navigate rules and regulations related to water quality and appropriation, recreational vehicles such as ATVs and snowmobiles, wetland destruction, invasive species, environmental and air quality, among several others. All of this is in addition to the shared law enforcement responsibility of responding to emergency situations, ensuring the safety of the public, and the protection of constitutional rights of all people.
TUP: What are the most rewarding aspects of the job?
MSK: The most rewarding aspect of the job for me is knowing that I have done my part to speak for those that are voiceless, and knowing the work I do ensures my children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy that same sunrise while casting a line into a still lake, a rooster pheasant busting from the cattails, the view of Lake Superior while hiking the North Shore, or simply watching a few birds visit the feeder in the backyard on an icy December morning.
TUP: In your experience, do many conservation officers stay in that field for the entirety of their careers?
MSK: The demands of a natural resource law enforcement career are not attractive to everyone, but in my experience those who heed the call are a unique set of folks. They would not gain job satisfaction from the professions that others may choose and it is not uncommon for some to experiment with other careers before arriving at natural resource law enforcement. In any case, for those who pick up the mantle, it tends to be a long-term commitment. In the 20 years I have been on the job, only a few officers have left the division to start a career with another organization. People who leave state service as a conservation officer tend to do so through retirement, oftentimes after reaching mandatory retirement age.
TUP: If you were to give a would-be officer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
MSK: A career of serving the people of Minnesota as a conservation officer is not for everyone. The hours are long, and officers work nights and most weekends exposed to all of what Minnesota’s weather has to offer. It sometimes interferes with what others expect of you, like making it to every holiday gathering or fishing trip with the buddies. But for those who choose to serve in this noble and rewarding profession, there could be no other choice. So if you find yourself called to serve as a conservation officer, we are hiring. Do not be dissuaded should you not make it through the hiring process the first time. It is not uncommon for our officers to have applied multiple times before getting that final job offer. Sometimes all that is needed is a little perseverance.
Images courtesy of the Minnesota DNR