In the late 1970s, family members always struggled to understand what I was studying in college. It was painful listening to them try to explain it to others. Not as easy as saying doctor or lawyer, I eventually gave up trying to describe wildlife biology and what working in conservation entailed. Instead, I’d invoked the name of Marlin Perkins and his TV show Wild Kingdom, a reference Baby Boomers will understand. Yet, even then, relatives thought I was going to sit in a tower with Lassie at my side watching for forest fires. The power of television to help explain the unexplainable.
Eventually, I went to work in my chosen field, and I shudder to think about having to explain to relatives what I actually did in my various jobs. Even today, I simply say conservation, and wait to see if the inquisitor dares to know more.
For a while, I considered becoming a conservation agent; a game warden if you prefer old-school lingo. Wildlife biology drew me to school, but conservation law enforcement seemed like a good alternative to consider. So, after a few introductory classes I tried the boots on to see if they fit, becoming a student intern with a county agent during the summer of 1980.
My mentor was John Glennon, a confident, disciplined agent with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). I couldn’t have worked with a better teacher. He had a tremendous work ethic, knew his job extremely well, and gave me, a green summer wannabe, the fullest in experience and opportunity. Not without challenges, the work was good, and through him I learned many lessons and came to appreciate the role and importance of conservation law enforcement; lessons through observation, hands-on experience, and often complemented with a little humor.
Russell Road - My summer assignment would be Kenosha County, the most southeastern county bordering Illinois, 60 miles north of Chicago. An important line of demarcation is Russell Road, the southern boundary between Wisconsin and Illinois aka Stateline Road.
Quickly identified by license plates, out-of-state visitors were viewed as somewhat alien, and the many foreigners from Illinois were viewed with an affection best appreciated by those of us who grew up in Wisconsin. Often from the populated cities and burbs near Chicago, they would come north in droves to play in Wisconsin, fishing and boating on the state’s waters. Many often arrived unprepared, under licensed, and often didn’t burden themselves with knowing or following the rules. Plus, they were Bears fans – nuff said.
It was probably my first day in the cruiser when my teacher smiled and uttered the words, “The heart grows still, and the blood goes cold once you go south of Russell Road.”
No bias, just a humorous acknowledgement of transborder fondness and tradition.
Wilmot Dam - The weekly enforcement tour frequently included a stop at Wilmot Dam. A popular spot for bank fisherman on the Fox River, there was always a healthy mix of residents and non-residents, with non-resident, non-licensed anglers showing up in above average numbers. This meant writing citations was guaranteed, earning this location a somewhat humorous reputation. Because non-residents were required to pay fines immediately, offenders were given a short trip to the local sheriff’s office so they could pay-up or wait until someone bailed them out. These encounters didn’t always go smoothly and were a great opportunity for refining people skills, and except for the fact citation fine money didn’t actually go to the WDNR, before venturing out and about for the day, we would facetiously ask ourselves, “Shall we pass through Wilmot to pay for gas?”
Beat the Dog - On patrol at a county lake, we discovered multiple baited unattended fishing poles. Pulling ashore, we tied up to a dock and looked for the owners. After a couple minutes, a man and woman emerged from a nearby cottage, a third person lingered behind. Technically there was multiple violations – too many poles for two people and unattended poles. The vacationers didn’t like the bad news. Citations were awarded.
The woman, with a thick Eastern European accent was especially perturbed, proclaiming, “Just like Russia, just like Russia! When you want to beat the dog, you can always find a stick!”
She didn’t like the rules and after enduring a few profanities and declaration of legal rights, we departed with the words, “Have a nice day, see you in court.”
The Privileged - Memorial Day weekend brought together most agents from the region for concentrated enforcement on Lake Geneva. A large, beautiful body of water long known as a playground for the wealthy Chicagoans, the shoreline has many well-appointed homes and mansions. Subsequently, we would often encounter people who believed they had some sort of special status or position that gave them privilege above the law. A classic wooden Chris Craft speed boat, with gold chained, suntanned occupants, cocktails in hand, a little buzzed and without required personal floatation devices; an unregistered sailboat, disqualified from a race when we put hands on her because the owner refused to stop; and the skiff filled with so many people it had only inches of freeboard, and no life jackets. The spokesperson for this crew flashed us a Chicago Sun Times ID card and told us no problem, everything is okay.
Not wanting to spoil the holiday, many violators received lectures or stern warnings, but some of the privileged failed to endear themselves. For this reason, a couple of cruisers regularly shuttled a few of the unhappy from the lake to the sheriff’s office.
The Preacher - Meanwhile, back at Wilmot dam we hunkered down at our usual position for observing activities, took a few notes, and proceeded out to make our presence known. These visits were mostly about public relations and deterrent, yet it was always interesting to watch changes in behavior when we emerged from the cruiser and walked the bank to check angler licenses and limits.
As we proceeded upriver, a fisherman waved us closer and told us we should take a look at the guys upriver a little further, he was pretty sure they were doing something illegal.
We encountered an elderly man with his grandson, probably around 17 or 18 years old. Both were from Illinois, and we learned the elder man was a preacher. They were fishing together using a trotline extended across the river. Once pulled in, we saw the line was baited with many more hooks than allowed by regulation, in addition to a couple other violations. The preacher politely explained what he was doing, and that he didn’t know there was a limit on the number of hooks. He was sincere and believable, but the number and seriousness of the violations combined really required some level of citation. After scanning the codebook, John decided on an appropriate violation and fine, while simultaneously applying a modicum of understanding and mercy. The downside, the preacher did not have enough cash to pay the fine and would remain in custody until the grandson could drive home and return with money in hand.
Later in the day we checked back at the sheriff’s office to discover the fine had been paid in cash, a stack of bills with a message written on the top $100 bill, “Shame on you.” Apparently, they felt an elderly man of God should’ve received a pass. I think we did the right thing.
The summer would provide many more interesting opportunities, giving me a glimpse of this extraordinary job. Investigating a report of a local tavern illegally selling fish. A drowning. A restaurant owner dumping waste cooking oil down storm drain that emptied into a nearby lake. Firearms training. Lots of ripe road-killed deer. Court appearances. Livery and boat dock inspections. Stakeout for a man with an outstanding warrant. Enforcement patrols on Lake Michigan.
When summer was over, I had reached a legitimate crossroad. I only had a couple weeks to decide my future direction before registering for the upcoming semester. My mentor and all the other agents I had the pleasure of meeting and working with treated me with respect and gave me an eye-opening full view of what it meant to be a Wisconsin Conservation Agent in the 1980s, and I was excited about the potential.
However, in the end, I would choose wildlife biology; guess it called to me a little more than “beating the dog.” But I would carry the lessons and insight gained from that internship for the rest of my career, and thanks to John Glennon and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, I became a better conservation professional because of it.