In rough terrain, cadets train as conservation officers

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KARE - LITTLE FALLS, Minn. - Ben Karon inches slowly toward the woods on a gravel roadway, driving a white pickup truck no more than a few miles per hour. Leaving the engine running, he comes to a complete stop and grabs his binoculars.

In the distance, Karon sees two people in orange vests, standing about a football field away from his official Department of Natural Resources vehicle.

"Both have a firearm," Karon immediately says to his lieutenant in the passenger seat. "Older gentleman pointing something out to the younger one."

Karon opens the door, approaches the two individuals and quickly finds that there's no need to be alarmed. It's just a father-son hunting tandem, searching for deer in the woods.

After asking them both to point their firearms in a safe direction, Karon makes small talk: "See anything?"

"Nah, we saw one, but just a flag through the woods," they responded.

The father and son were hardly a threat. This was just a drill, anyway; the two hunters were just actors. It's all part of the Conservation Officer Academy at Camp Ripley, located 40 miles north of St. Cloud near the small community of Little Falls.

But Karon, who is undergoing 15 weeks of training as one of 18 cadets in this year's academy, is taught to be skeptical, even on routine patrol.

State conservation officers work in a unique type of law enforcement, which requires them to patrol extremely isolated areas without much backup. The nearest conservation officer can sometimes be an hour away. And nearly every hunter or fisher they encounter has either a firearm or a knife. The vast majority are not dangerous whatsoever, but there can be concerns about people hunting or fishing under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Karon, who spent the past four years in the Minnesota State Patrol, is used to grueling terrain and large coverage areas.

But nothing like this.

"Here, you're even more remote," he said. "If you're out in the woods, your backup might not even have a way to get to you, except on foot."

Lt. Jeff Johanson, who oversees training at Camp Ripley, said he's looking for cadets who can make quick decisions and act independently.

All cadets undergo use of force training, which takes on added importance because conservation officers typically work alone.

"So firearms, defensive tactics, and not only that, (but also) de-escalation. The community policing side of things," Johanson said. "We live in the stations where we work and we become integral parts of the community, so developing that connection with user groups in our areas has really worked out well for us."

Johanson is a third-generation conservation officer, but he acknowledges the need for creative recruiting. The enforcement division currently has about 150 field officers — about 35 short of the target.

When the 18 newest cadets graduate next week, the agency will receive a boost and cut that gap in half.

For some cadets, like Sauk Rapids native Leah Kampa, working as a conservation officer has been a long-term career goal.

Kampa spent nearly a decade in law enforcement prior to applying at the DNR, including some experience as a tribal DNR officer and a deputy in North Dakota.

But the job of Minnesota state conservation officer gives her the chance to patrol a place that's close to her family's heart.

"I'm from this area. I grew up hunting, fishing, camping," Kampa said. "I’ve wanted to be a state conservation officer since high school. And it finally came true."