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A day in the life of a conservation officer: If you love the outdoors, no better way to make a living

Who takes a duck from a snapping turtle?

Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Alexander Birdsall chuckled when asked about the duck hunters vs. snapping turtle incident.

The hunters were trying to recover a downed duck when a snapping turtle grabbed it and pulled it underwater. In his weekly DNR report, Birdsall cited the snapping turtle incident. After the hunters began hitting the turtle with a pole, “It realized it got more than it bargained for,” Birdsall said, “and finally gave up the duck.”

While the hunters got the best of the snapping turtle, Birdsall ticketed them for not having a small-game license; having an unplugged gun; transporting a loaded firearm; and no state stamp.

Ouch.

Welcome to a day in the life of a DNR conservation officer.

Birdsall is one of nine officers who patrol the DNR’s central district, which includes Carver and Hennepin counties. Technically, Birdsall can work anywhere in the state, but routinely responds to calls in Carver County and the surrounding area.

“The amount of officers on duty at any given time in the district really depends on the seasonal activity,” Birdsall said. “Sometimes all of us are on during big events like the opening day of deer season. Ideally, there will always be one officer on between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., 365 days a year.”

I took a ride along with Birdsall in October.

He reminded me to wear warm layers, as we’d be out in a boat. I didn’t know if he was joking when he said I shouldn’t forget to wear hunting camo. I played it safe, and borrowed a camo jacket from a duck hunting friend.

I met Birdsall at 6 a.m. at a Lake Waconia boat launch. A small motorboat was hitched to his 4x4 pickup truck. I climbed inside the toasty cab, outfitted with a radio, computer, emergency lights and a siren.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

As we settled in and drove to our first stop, I had to ask the obvious. “Ever think that with a name like Birdsall, you’d end up as a conservation officer?”

He laughed. “Yeah, I get a lot of comments about it. They say ‘That’s a fitting name for a CO.’ Maybe that’s the reason why they hired me.”

Birdsall has been a conservation officer (CO) since January 2016.

Birdsall earned a four-year degree in history and political science from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana before enlisting in the U.S. Army. (He’s currently a member of the Minnesota National Guard.) Near the end of his army service, he began looking for civilian jobs, saw a posting at the DNR and decided to give it a try.

Although he grew up in Indiana, his mother’s side of the family is from International Falls and he’d visit Minnesota to hunt and fish with his grandfather, an avid outdoorsman.

“I got hired under the CO prep program where they take people with four-year degrees and nontraditional backgrounds,” Birdsall said. He attended an accelerated law enforcement training program at Hennepin Tech, followed by 15 weeks at a DNR academy, followed by four months of field training.

“Most COs come from traditional law enforcement,” Birdsall said. “They’re usually deputies, city cops or troopers, who then come here. But there’s a percentage of us that come from nontraditional backgrounds.”

GOOSE LAKE

We headed to Goose Lake, one of several small western Carver County lakes, marshy, swampy, good for duck hunting.

By the time we get to the rustic boat launch at Goose Lake, there are already two trucks and boat trailers parked up the hill.

In the glow of his pickup’s red brake lights, Birdsall pulled on his waders, life jacket and camo jacket, then launched the motorboat. We headed across the small lake to a thicket of cattails.

“I set us up for the wind to blow us against the cattails so we don’t drift,” Birdsall explained, moving the boat into position. He checked his cell phone for the time of sunrise.

“Today’s sunrise is 7:32-33 a.m. so you can start legally hunting a half hour before sunrise. So hunters would already be on the water. They can start shooting in about 50 minutes.” He picks up his binoculars to look across the lake. There are two other nearby hunting parties.

“I’ve never once had someone shoot early, mostly because you have no idea what you’re shooting at, looking at this time of morning. You have to know what species of duck you’re hunting and shooting at.”

As we watch and wait, Birdsall offers a doughnut and pours himself a cup of coffee from his Thermos.

“It’s beautiful. You can see the sunrise here,” Birdsall said. “Duck hunting is my favorite activity working. I never was a duck hunter myself until I got this job. Now it’s the one I’m most passionate about. I don’t even care if I shoot a duck, I just like being out here.”

He also enjoys bow hunting deer and described being out earlier in the week where he had an eight-point buck in his sights.

“But it was about 20 yards farther than I could responsibly shoot my bow. To watch this big brute just walk around, I was like, ‘Awww. Just come a little closer, but it never did.”

The sun inches over the horizon, backlighting a barn and silo across the lake.

“This is my favorite part, right now, seeing the sun rise, and if it’s a good morning, you get to see the ducks fly like crazy. It gets real action-packed,” Birdsall said. It’s not like deer hunting where you’re sitting there quietly waiting and waiting. The ducks come in, the hunters will be calling the ducks. Some of them will come out at 2-3 a.m. in the morning, super early for the good spots and set out decoys. That’s why I don’t want to be too close because they’ll be upset,” Birdsall said.

Birdsall was nearly shot once before. “We were working on the other side of cattails; someone shot across them at the ducks and it went right past us,” he said.

“It’s pretty common to have shot rain down on you,” Birdsall said, “but it’s harmless. It basically feels like raindrops.”

Conservation

While waiting for the sunrise, Birdsall provides some background on how conservation and duck hunting are intertwined.

“Duck hunting is the whole reason we even have conservation and conservation officers and the DNR,” Birdsall said. “Because in the late 1800s, early 1900s, there was commercial duck hunting. They’d come out here with, essentially cannons, all over the Midwest and blow hundreds of ducks out of the air at one time. They’d fill up rail cars and ship them to processors on the East Coast. It was a huge commercial entity, and they saw there was a huge decline in ducks. So that’s why the Minnesota DNR was created. The first game warden was hired in 1887.”

Birdsall described the conservation group Ducks Unlimited which got its start in the 1920s and 1930s, and how the sale of federal and state duck stamps help fund land conservation efforts for duck habitat.

“If you look at the National Wildlife Refuge in the Minnesota Valley, a lot of that was funded by duck stamp sales.”

It’s a slow day for duck hunting, and only three shots have been heard.

Birdsall decides to check in on the two hunting parties.

He motors across the lake to where Brad Whiting and his black Labrador retriever Tank have parked near another thicket of cattails. Whiting’s boat is covered with a canopy of camouflage; Tank barks announcing the approaching officer.

Birdsall wades into the lake, greeting Whiting. “How’s the hunting today? Get any shots?”

He checks Whiting’s license, his guns, looks for any ducks in the boat. Whiting shot one duck, but it dove and Tank wasn’t able to retrieve it.

Another hunting party, the Leens from Waconia, decided it’s not a good day for ducks and headed to shore where Birdsall met them, again checking for licenses and their firearms.

NEVER BORING

In the pickup, with the boat trailered behind, Birdsall heads farther west in Carver County, driving down gravel roads along farm fields. This time, he’s looking for pheasant hunters.

As he slowly drives, he points out areas of federal land that’s being restored to prairie and as waterfowl protection areas. His job gives him insight on how area farmers are doing, pointing out that farmers are still harvesting soybeans since all the rain delayed their work.

He also pointed out areas where he’s aware of poachers. He’d gotten a good tip earlier this fall. “So now they’re all paranoid. Fortunately around here, it’s hard to sneak into places and not be seen.

“No pheasants out here today. That’s crazy,” Birdsall said, scanning the fields.

We head back to check three other duck hunting lakes — Patterson, Rice and Tiger lakes.

No hunters, no vehicles. In between, we talk about shows on Netflix, his family — married with three boys ages 5 months, 3 and 5.

“It’s a really fun job,” Birdsall said. “Every season is different. When I get burned out doing a certain activity, the season changes, and I can change gears. Once deer season wraps up in November, I get ready for ice fishing and snowmobiling.”

Any on the job incident that sticks out in his mind?

He laughed and shook his head remembering.

“One time when I was still in training, out with my training officer, we came across a hunter who’d shot a deer but it ran off. We said, ‘We’ll help you out.’

“Well, I found it. It was still alive and I said, ‘I’ll put it down for you.’

“I tried to take a good clean shot with my pistol. It went right over the head and missed. I shot three more times and kept on missing and then it got up and ran away. I tracked it again, and this time I ran up real quick and shot it to put it down. It was so embarrassing, because there I was blasting away with my pistol. We do have to, from time to time, have to dispatch animals, but after that, I’ll use my rifle or my shotgun. It’s more effective.”


Mark Olson / Photo by Chuck Rupnow  

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