New warden works his first deer opener
Conservation officers around Duluth see a mostly quiet Minnesota deer hunting opener.
KETTLE RIVER — The woods in western Carlton County were just getting light Saturday morning when four pickup trucks carrying five state conservation officers pulled off a county road and onto a two-rut trail and killed their lights.
They already had formed a game plan, based on an anonymous tip that a group of deer hunters would be hunting over illegal piles of bait on the Minnesota firearms deer hunting season opener.
In the lead was Ben Ulrich, a conservation officer trainee for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, working his first case of his first deer season as a warden. Ulrich would make the first contact, be the voice of the DNR to any hunters they encountered.
In the half-hour drive out of Duluth, Ulrich and his training officer, Andy Schmidt, had been going over scenarios of what they might encounter. Cooperative or belligerent suspects carrying loaded high-powered rifles? How would evidence be recorded and firearms seized? What violations were involved? What if the person hunting was a teenager?
The officers had scouted the illegal bait earlier in the week and, sure enough, on opening morning they split up and found four family members, each in different deer stands, hunting over commercial blocks of deer food, illegal under Minnesota deer hunting statutes and among the most common violations each deer season.
Two of the four hunters also did not have a valid hunting license.
“If they're found guilty, that’s upwards of $600 in fines and more with court fees with the two violations,’’ Schmidt noted.
Each of the hunters' rifles was confiscated as well and, if they pay the fine or are found guilty in court, their guns will be auctioned off. They may also lose their deer hunting privileges for up to three years.
It was an expensive lesson in Minnesota hunting regulations.
“We don’t want to ruin anyone's hunt, or their season,’’ Ulrich noted. “But we have to make sure everyone is doing things right.”
Also on this case were Lt. Brent Speldrich, the local conservation officer supervisor, officer Tony Elwell, newly assigned to the Cloquet station, and officer Mike Lerchen, who usually works in the Twin Cities but who was on loan to his northern cohorts for the deer opener.
“It went pretty much as planned,’’ Ulrich said when he came back to the truck to use his laptop computer to print out the violation tickets. “They aren't happy. But they’re cooperating… These aren’t bad people. People just make mistakes.”
A different path to the job
Ulrich, 29, grew up in the Twin Cities suburb of Richfield in a family that fished but didn’t hunt.
“I’ve always loved the outdoors, fishing and hiking, and I thought it would be an interesting profession,’’ Ulrich said of being a warden.
After high school he served a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, got a college degree in criminal justice and started work in the construction business.
“I had thought that you had to be a police officer first to become a conservation officer,’’ he noted.
But then he found out about the DNR's conservation officer prep program that helps candidates study for and pass their Board of Minnesota Peace Officers Standards and Training certification and get paid while they do it. The prep program is aimed at recruiting non-traditional candidates — like construction workers or firefighters or teachers, along with women and minorities — into the officer corps traditionally dominated by former cops. Ulrich passed the state law enforcement test this past spring and then attended the DNR's conservation officer academy this summer, where candidates focus on natural resource law enforcement.
Ulrich started training with a veteran officer near Brainerd in late summer and moved to Duluth to pair with Schmidt in time for hunting season. He’ll then move on to train with veteran officers in Wabasha and then back to Brainerd before taking his permanent post in Cambridge in January.
A long day
After sorting out the violations at their first stop, Ulrich and Schmidt hit the road again, cruising the back roads of Carlton and southern St. Louis County, looking for blaze orange and anything that might foretell a game law violation.
They in fact found none; the closest thing being one hunter who had left his license in his truck which was just down the road. He was reminded to keep it in his pocket next time.
“Most people we talk to are obeying the laws,’’ said Schmidt, a former state trooper who has been a warden since 2008. He’s one of several officers who regularly request training candidates to tutor.
“I really enjoy the training part of the job,’’ Schmidt said. “It’s rewarding to see them progress.”The two officers had been in the field working for 25 of the 30 hours leading up to the deer opener, staking out potential shiners (poachers who use bright lights to aid shooting deer at night) and baiting violations. They would start their day at 7 a.m. Saturday and likely still be working a case in northern Pine County past 7 p.m. Saturday night.
Still, Ulrich seemed to enjoy every encounter he had with the public, and seems to have the knack for treating people with respect in what can be uncomfortable confrontations.
Giving up construction for the warden’s job appears to have been a good career move.
“Absolutely,” he said with a grin. “Best choice I’ve made in a long time.”
In over 7 hours of driving and talking to hunters, Ulrich and Schmidt and their newspaper guests didn’t see a single downed deer Saturday — not one hanging at a deer camp or in the back of a pickup truck or being dragged down a trail. (We did see a couple bucks running across roads, apparently chasing does, as the rut seems to be in full swing.)
A quick radio check by Schmidt of other officers in the area found the same thing; few deer shot.
Saturday in Carlton County dawned cool but calm, and the forecasted rain held off for much of the Northland until after noon, offering hunters at least a few good hours in their stands.
“I saw three bucks in here yesterday when I was bowhunting but, today I didn’t see a thing,’’ said hunter Steven Hanson of Esko, hunting just north of Esko.
On their way to another deer hunting area, Schmidt and Ulrich came across a couple of duck hunters, Bud Tessier and Zach Shaw of Proctor, who had shot a couple geese and had all their licenses in order.
Then it was on to the Lost Lake Road north of Duluth and the Thompson clan hunting camp, a hodgepodge of camper trailers, tents, ATVs and pickup trucks on county land along a two-rut road. They've been erecting a temporary camp in the same spot for every deer season since 1949, and this opening day was among the quieter ones.
“Nobody in our group fired a shot,’’ said Brad Zumbach of Racine, Minnesota “But we’re having fun.”