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Though viewed as rugged individuals, DNR's conservation wardens take great pride in teamwork, especially the partnerships built to help the public safely enjoy outdoor recreation.
Partners have been important since the first warden, Rolla Baker, was hired in 1879 to stem illegal traffic of Great Lakes fisheries. Wardens continue to rely on law-abiding conservationists to report poaching, over-bagging and dangerous behavior in the outdoors.
That's the part of the job most of the public knows well. Two other aspects are equally important – environmental enforcement and safety programs.
The wardens have almost as long a history of enforcing environmental laws. Since 1915, state law has prohibited waste disposal into state waters. These early laws regulated common wastes from Great Lakes shipping, leather tanning and sawmills.. They prohibited the disposal of lime, oil, tar, garbage, ship ballast, tanbark, acids, chemicals, slab wood, decayed wood, sawdust, mill refuse, manufacturing wastes and "substances deleterious to game and fish." Later revisions stemmed organic wastes like whey from cheese factories and creameries. These small plants developed near streams that could provide a ready supply of clean water to process dairy products.
In the 1970s, wardens were trained as first responders to oil and chemical spills since their field work often brought them onto the scene of accidents. In the 80s, the warden force added vigilance for "midnight dumping" of hazardous waste and the illegal burial of barrels of chemicals. Telephone hot lines, citizen tips and big fines helped stop that practice quickly.
Surely, the greatest satisfaction comes from successful collaboration to reduce accidents in the outdoors. In the 1950s and early 1960s the number of hunting accidents rose dramatically, in spite of the fact that fewer people were hunting. The Legislature was equally concerned about the rising injuries and deaths from recreational hunting, and in 1966, authorized hunting safety courses.
DNR law enforcement staff and experienced hunters developed course materials to teach old and new hunters alike safety tips, outdoor judgement, shooting skills and safe gun handling. Along the way, students learned to plan their hunt and appreciate many aspects of the hunting experience from packing for the trip through enjoying fresh game meals.
Community volunteers across Wisconsin who are committed to safe, enjoyable hunting have trained themselves to train others, and they do their job well. A network of 4,300 volunteer instructors now annually teach 1,200 gun safety and bow hunting safety classes in every Wisconsin county. Since courses were first offered in 1967, hunting accident rates have dropped more than 90 percent.
The volunteer spirit is similarly strong in providing other training. More than 1,000 snowmobiler safety instructors, 1,000 boating safety instructors and 250 all-terrain vehicle instructors provide classroom lessons and practical experience to novices of all ages as well as seasoned enthusiasts. Many volunteers are also getting involved in teaching outdoor skills like camping, orienteering, fishing and bird identification.
To plant the seeds of safe outdoor enjoyment and to extend partnerships, conservation wardens have made a commitment to meet with children. For the last five years, wardens have annually sought invitations to visit every fifth grade class in Wisconsin. The program, Joining Forces, introduces the students to a local conservation warden to learn about his or her job. The wardens discuss why society passes laws to provide clean air, clean water and protect resources. They also explain the Department of Natural Resources' goals to give everyone a chance to enjoy healthy outdoor experiences in their own way.
The program is targeted to fifth graders as 10- to 11-year-olds are developing their own interests that can become lifelong hobbies or habits. Children at this age are also forming values, making independent judgements and drawing on their experiences.
Each year, the 185-member conservation warden force meets with these 70,000 students to encourage outdoor appreciation, foster tolerance of other people in the outdoors, nurture respect for nature, and make allies of youngsters who, perhaps, will one day volunteer as adults to teach about outdoor traditions.