Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Hunter and warden standing by pickup with buck © Joanne M. Haas

Sauk County Warden John Buss' golden rule approach to enforcement earns him respect and results.
Joanne M. Haas

October 2012

Life at its longest is short

Enforcement using the golden rule doesn't always end in a ticket.

Joanne M. Haas

Conservation Warden John Buss of Sauk County has been on the outdoor beat in Wisconsin for 27 years – time all spent in one location. Has he seen changes? Plenty.

During his career he's learned that enforcement can occur with education and a handshake. He's learned conversational phrases in new languages to work with an ever-changing Wisconsin population. He's cultivated a friendship and respectful understanding with the Amish community. He's fought to earn the trust of county residents. And he's lived through changes in hunting and hunters.

For Buss, being a warden is more than a job. It's part and parcel of who he was, who he is and who he'll be tomorrow.

Hunting today is different than in 1985

It is just before dawn the day after Thanksgiving 2011. Lights are on in Buss' rural Sauk County kitchen. He is working on his coffee and paging through patrol reports, notes and citizen tips collected over the first days of the annual gun-deer season.

Gone are Wisconsin's wildly crazy hunting days when cars and trucks lined road shoulders, blaze orange dotted snow-covered fields and hillsides from dawn to dusk while gunshots echoed. Yet, the nine days of this annual Wisconsin tradition still fill the hours for Buss.

"It's still nine days – nine straight days. You know what Sunday is?" he adds with a quick smile. "The last day of deer season."

Like other conservation wardens, Buss' office is in his home. The quick commute from his front door to the driver's seat of his warden truck means more time to be with his wife Pam and their two children. But it also means work literally comes home – or stops by with citizens who have come to know well the warden with the golden rulestyle of enforcement.

Known in DNR's law enforcement bureau as the guy who often gets a handshake after he issues a ticket, Buss has been the Sauk County warden for more than 27 years. "It's pretty unheard of to stay this long in one station," Buss says.

But stayed he did in a county where he feels deep connections he worked hard to create. "I just love this whole area."

And with that, the 6-foot or so warden is just about ready to start day seven as he picks up his black bag and computer and heads to the door of his warm home while the kids still sleep. He walks with Pam down the paved driveway to his truck. They exchange best wishes for a safe, productive day and part with a pledge to stay in touch.

Wild child's epiphany

Buss was something of a wild child playing outside along the Oconomowoc River in Jefferson County. But his dad was a calming influence and taught him a lot. The lessons came not so much by what the man said, but from how he acted. They'd spend hours fishing together at the summer cabin and that taught the young Buss a lot about patience, the outdoors and how to be a good person and enjoy life.

Buss' mother also was very influential, allowing him to hunt, fish and trap as much as he wanted.

"I dragged more dead animals and fish into the basement than most kids will dream of," he recalls. "My mom was the greatest."

One fishing trip, his dad turned to him and said something that Buss has never forgotten: "Life at its longest is short." And that may have been the day Buss picked his life's career.

"I was 13 or 14 when I knew I wanted to be a game warden," he says.

In 1985 he became one.

A life-changing case

Today, Buss considers his career and wonders aloud what life will be like after shelving the warden uniform. "It's been a good ride. It's been a good gig. Along the way, it's been difficult."

Difficult arrived with a case that changed Buss forever – it began with a call to assist another officer on Sept. 16, 1986, at 3:05 p.m. in a drug case.

Buss kicked into gear and started following a truck with Texas plates. He followed the driver, believed to be hauling marijuana, to a Sauk-Prairie home. There, Buss waited for the local officer – John Mueller, 40, of the Sauk-Prairie Police Department – who would take the lead.

From there things went fatally haywire – and turned into a national story.

Buss helped Mueller arrest and handcuff the suspect, John Graham, 49. Buss went to the rear of the suspect's pickup truck to look for evidence. Then he heard a gunshot.

Buss saw Mueller standing over Graham's handcuffed body, stomach down on the driveway. Mueller's gun was pointed at Graham's head. And Buss watched as Mueller fired a second bullet into the suspect's head. Mueller then turned, kept his weapon drawn with both arms and aimed as he walked toward Buss.

"You're not going to shoot me, are you, John?" Buss says he asked Mueller.

Mueller lowered his weapon and told Buss there was no point in looking for evidence because it was a case of resisting a federal agent.

Buss went to his warden truck and made a call for assistance on the police radio, knowing Mueller was listening. Then, Buss backed his truck 50 yards, placed his warden's gun across his lap and played turbo-speed mental gymnastics.

"If I leave, John (Mueller) will shoot me and say I shot the suspect. If I stay, he could shoot me," Buss says of his choices that day. "So I made up my mind that I was going to sit there and survive. That changed me forever."

Mueller pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. Attorneys said the officer had stopped taking medication to control his psychosis and had gone into a state that had him believing he was an agent in the national war against drugs. Mueller was convicted and sentenced to life in a mental health institution.

"That incident and the weight of this job affected my life," Buss says of the realities a law enforcement officer faces each day. It is a public service job loaded with the possibilities of violence and death along with the satisfactions of working with and for people. The ability to handle surprises and the unknown with a level head is crucial.

Success is measured by education and empathy

Buss says he used to write a lot of citations. There was a time 20 years ago when writing 300 tickets wasn't uncommon.

"That's how you measured your success," Buss says of a time gone by.

Today though, his success is no longer judged by the citation count.

"I tell recruits to put themselves in their (citizens') shoes. How would you want to be treated?" asks Buss. "At the time I put pen to paper to write that ticket, I ask myself would nine out of 10 sportsmen and sportswomen want me to write that ticket? That really keeps me grounded."

Nowadays, wardens have to sort out complaints. You either have something substantiated or not founded. "I'm going to spend enough time with the person to make sure he or she knows why I am there. The treatment of people is extremely important."

Warden in car talking to man standing at his window © Joanne M. Haas
Buss enjoys hearing hunting success stories such as this one from local hunter George Alt.
Joanne M. Haas

Take the case of a grandfather in a boat with his grandson. They are short a life jacket.

"I could write a ticket for that," Buss says." But where would I have the greatest impact? How about I take them to the shore, provide them a life jacket and say: ‘Hey, we just want you to be safe.'"

Not that Buss puts up with any nonsense, such as swearing at him and answering his attempts at respect with disrespect.

"I'm going to look at the man and say, ‘we're done.' I'm not going to put up with the screaming. Treat everyone the same. Add in some common sense. You roughshod someone and that's on the street," Buss says. "I'll always say to the person I stop and issue a citation: ‘Do you have any questions? Here is my card, please call me if you do later.'

"One percent of the people will be mad they got the ticket. And they might go out and do more things because they are mad at you," Buss says. "But, if you make it part of an educational process, the impact is different."

Chief Conservation Warden Randy Stark says: "John Buss is one of those wardens who can give a citation to someone and by the end, more often than not, the person is thanking him."

Checking in, checking up

The phone rings. It is Warden Wade Romberg of nearby Adams County checking in. Cell phone coverage is spotty on the Sauk County back roads. More often than not, Buss has to try and find an open sky spot to return calls or complete one that was dropped midconversation.

This is especially frustrating as about 80 percent of Buss' work with citizens' tips comes through telephone calls.

Up and down a few more country hills, Buss pulls into a driveway to talk with a friend and former neighbor, George Alt, who is still beaming about bagging a big buck the other day with his 11-year-old grandson in tow. The big event happened within the first hour of the day's hunt.

"We got in our tree stand about 6:20," Alt says. "And he (buck) came up to the woods about 10 to 7." Alt says he kept an eye on the roaming deer, thinking it was the smaller buck spotted days earlier walking his property. But once the deer turned a certain angle, Alt knew that was the big one.

"Now, I am not a good shot," Alt says. "Once they (deer) start moving, it's hard for me. But somehow I hit it!"

The harvest was enough to get Alt's grandson thinking he wants to hunt just as soon as he's old enough.

"He's already set up cans and done some beebee gun practice in the driveway," Alt says. "I'm hoping it rubs off on the younger grandson."

Photo of caution sign with horse and buggy © Joanne M. Haas
Amish hunters in the community benefit from Warden Buss' face-to-face instruction in hunting regulations.
Joanne M. Haas

Back on the road, Buss decides to see how his Amish friends are doing. Buss' relationship with the Amish of Sauk County is an example of how striving to understand another culture brings a mutual understanding and trust that brings benefits to all.

Up the hill on Highway 154, Buss pulls into the Amish store known as Valley View Discount. Fresh doughnuts and other goodies are on display. Once inside the store the teasing of John Buss by some of the working Amish men and women commences. Buss doesn't wait long to return the friendly fire with some nicknames about their beards. One Amish man turns to the ride-along citizen with Buss and says: "What did you do to deserve this?" More laughter.

Buss gets back on the road, heading to another Amish home where a few young men are outside where some harvested deer hang from the trees. As soon as Buss exits, the young men start teasing Buss who answers back. Laughter and more laughter.

It wasn't always like this. Buss recalls the early days when the Amish clashed with officials about the state laws regulating deer hunting.

"So I had to teach them what the laws were," Buss recalls. As trust was built, the relationship eventually led to an annual August Amish shoot that Buss participates in.

Taking the time to learn the other culture is what Buss also has done to help him deal with people whose first language is not English, and are in Sauk County to fish and to hunt. Buss knows a few conversational phrases or words in Hmong, Polish and Russian.

"That always helps put people at ease," Buss says.

Buss decides the setting sun means it's time to head back to his home. Along the way, Buss makes a second stop at a citizen's home to follow-up on a complaint. The citizen is not home, but about seven minutes from the close of hunting Buss sees some activity from a tree stand in the field across the road from the home.

He's about to end this hunting day with an unexpected thrilling moment for a local 12-year-old girl.

The happy end to a young hunter's season

Buss jumps out of his truck and jogs across the rural road to the field where two hunters are hugging. Just as the hunting day was closing 12-year-old Emily Kieck of Baraboo harvested her second buck of her hunting career. She got her first one last season. Emily's dad was hunting with her sister on another part of the property. Emily was hunting with her father's friend, Leo Bisch of Evansville.

As Buss moves his truck closer to the harvest site so he can use his headlights as a spotlight, Emily decides to call her father on her cell phone.

"Hey, Dad, I shot an awesome buck. You should come over as quickly as you can," Emily says to her father while Buss examines the 10-point buck.

Bisch is so excited for Emily it is hard to tell who is happier with the outcome. Emily's father and sister arrive and the sister wonders aloud who really shot the deer. Emily is all too happy to retell the event to her doubting sister. Buss offers to get a tag for the deer so the family doesn't have to travel to a registration station. About the time the deer is tagged, the sun is nearly down.

"You just made it," Buss tells Emily.

"That was a good ending to the day," Buss says with a big grin, reliving the 12-year-old girl's taking of a buck. "That was pretty great."

Buss says the deer hunting season has changed "dramatically" from as recently as 15 years ago.

"Everyday, I was running around to shootings off the road, from cars. Violations were occurring right in front of you," Buss says. "But it's changed. And it's changed dramatically.

"There will always be violations, but the fabric has changed," he says.

The rampant poaching in Sauk County in his early years has been reduced, along with what he calls his "cops and robbers"days of trying to score citations. And he's proud of that.

Buss calls Pam, asks her about her afternoon and says he'll be home in about seven minutes.

He eases the truck into the driveway and slows to a stop. He gathers his bag and his notes and trudges up the blacktop to the door to become John the husband and dad for a while.

For Buss, life at its longest is short – but it's been a good life and a good gig as a warden with the golden rule touch.

Joanne M. Haas is the public affairs manager for DNR's Division of Enforcement and Science.