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Throughout its 120-year history, Wisconsin's conservation warden service has been called upon to moderate difficult situations. Individuals or groups competing for the same resource, cultural practices of ethnic groups that don't mesh well with Wisconsin rules and laws, or reports from people who have misinterpreted what they see, all put the conservation warden smack dab in the middle of controversy.
One of the oldest competitions places the wardens between commercial fishers and sport anglers vying for the same fish species. In the early 1970s, complaints from sport anglers spurred the Department of Natural Resources to ask its wardens in Racine and Kenosha counties to check perch nets set close to shore by part-time commercial fishermen. The "beachcombers," as they were called, were catching a lot of brown and lake trout in their nets, according to complaining sport anglers. The wardens kept records of the numbers, approximate weights and condition of the trout and salmon ensnared. The documented damage warranted a rule change requiring gill nets to be moved away from areas where they were prone to catch large numbers of trout.
In recent times, the harvest of Lake Superior's lake trout had to be allocated among tribal commercial fishers, state-licensed commercial businesses and sport anglers. Mike Vogelsang, warden supervisor at Bayfield, has been involved in forging the Lake Superior Agreement used to make the allocations. Vogelsang also spends time with clubs and individuals explaining how and why the agreement works. A big part of Vogelsang's job involves monitoring the commercial catch and equipment used by commercial fishermen. He accomplishes this, in part, by twice weekly joint patrols with both Red Cliff and Bad River tribal wardens. "It's hard to please everyone, but I feel the Lake Superior Agreement works," says Vogelsang.
Two undercover investigations that showed illegal perch sales by Lake Michigan's commercial perch fishers led to a Commercial Fishing Task Force in 1998. Conservation Warden Tom Solin was assigned to the task force to answer questions and provide direction on law enforcement issues. The task force also includes a DNR fisheries representative, two legislators, four sport anglers, three commercial fishers, a wholesale fish dealer and four members of the public at large. Their goal? To devise a viable method of regulating commercial fishing. Solin and Charlie Henrickson, a task force member and commercial fisherman from Bailey's Harbor, are both pleased by the progress. Henrickson says he's encouraged that law enforcement staff is willing to consider new and different ways to regulate commercial fishing. "I'd like to see a more efficient way to make the system work," says Henrickson.
Wardens are also caught in the middle when people with diverse cultural backgrounds use public resources. Dick Wallin, the conservation warden at Viroqua, works with the Amish community – a group he judges as violating natural resource laws less often than average. Yet Wallin receives a fairly high number of unfounded complaints involving the Amish. Some complaints are clearly due to Amish cultural practices that others don't understand. A good example is the Amish dress code, which calls for a dark coat, pants and cap during the fall and winter seasons. Amish hunters wear blaze orange during the deer season, but immediately remove that clothing when they are done hunting. Consequently, Amish hunters have been seen standing around a wagon or loading a deer in their traditional black clothing. Others assume the Amish have been hunting deer without blaze orange clothing.
Wallin has worked with Amish leaders to help them understand the need for hunter education courses. Until a 1985 law mandated hunter safety classes for all hunters born after Jan. 1, 1973, Amish youngsters didn't take the courses because Amish law required that their youth wait until they turned 16 to hunt. When the 1985 law took effect, Wallin worked with elders to identify and train Amish hunters to provide safety instruction. Each year Amish instructors conduct a class and invite Wallin to attend.
There are other challenges wardens face when working with people whose traditional practices are different than those generally accepted by society. "I remember the first time I was going to put Amish witnesses on the stand," recalls Wallin. "When told of the procedure and the swearing-in oath, the Amish said they could not take the oath because of its wording. That meant a criminal deer case was going to be lost. The D.A. and I researched the statutes and found an alternate oath of affirmation which proved to be acceptable."
John Buss, conservation warden at Sauk City, also works with the Amish community. Buss says he set out to educate the Amish to our resource laws and ended up being educated himself. "We go through life seeing things through our own eyes," says Buss. "Yet, if we take the time to gain an understanding of someone else's culture, it makes our job so much easier."
Buss recalled a buggy ride to a hunter safety class provided by an Amish bishop. He said he learned so much from the experience that warden recruits now spend time on an Amish farm as part of their training.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, Wisconsin has become home for many Southeast Asian people whose cultural traditions and practices at times put them at odds with our state's resource laws. Don Mezei, warden at Wausau, sums it up this way: "These folks come from a culture where they spent the majority of their day hunting and gathering food. They didn't recognize such things as size limits, bag limits and closed seasons."
Mezei and Roy Kalmerton, the warden at Sheboygan, focus on education to help tackle the problem. Mezei has used a Hmong radio station and a facility called The Neighbor's Place in Wausau to reach area Hmong. Hunting and fishing regulations were printed in both Hmong and Laotian. Kalmerton worked with Judy Powers, the Dean of Public Safety at Lakeshore Technical College, to bring the concepts of natural resources conservation to the Hmong. Powers calls the Hunter Safety Program "the best thing we ever did. Not only did it provide very useful information to the students, but it really helped establish communication and trust between us."
Mezei and Kalmerton note that at least 50 percent of complaints about alleged violations involving Hmong are unfounded. Kalmerton remembers one complaint accusing Hmong hunters of sneaking out an untagged buck during the gun season. The hunters had covered the animal's head with a pillowcase, which the witness believed was done to mask the lack of a tag. Kalmerton found the group, found the buck properly tagged and learned that in their homeland, Hmong often traveled far to hunt. It was their custom to cover the eyes of the dead animal so it wouldn't know it was being removed from its home area. "It was out of respect," says Kalmerton.
"There seems to be a perception that Hmong people violate conservation laws at every opportunity," says Mezei. "That's just not the case. We've spent a lot of time working to change the Hmong view of wildlife as an unregulated food source and feel we're definitely making headway."
Over the years, the number of people competing for space on our lakes and rivers has skyrocketed. One northern Wisconsin warden recently mused that in summer water conflicts were so prevalent he thought he should change his warden grays for a referee's striped shirt and whistle.
Wardens spend a lot of time working with lake associations, local units of government, boat manufacturers and boaters to resolve on-water conflicts. Bob Tucker, retired law enforcement safety specialist for the DNR's Northern Region, advocated that one lake bay where loons nested needed protection, and he worked with town officials to achieve that goal. The township subsequently enacted an ordinance restricting motorboats in the bay to slow-no-wake speeds during the nesting period.
"Many times, the answer to an on-water problem is a compromise that modifies the offending activity by local ordinance," Tucker says. Limiting high-speed motorboat operation and water-skiing to midday hours, establishing slow-no-wake areas to protect wildlife, limiting nearshore access to fragile aquatic vegetation, or barring boats in narrow bays used by swimmers are examples of local ordinances resulting from the field warden's involvement.
Wisconsin wardens faced one of their most difficult challenges in the team effort to keep the peace during Northwoods spearfishing protests. Demonstrations began in the mid-1980s after appellate courts reaffirmed Chippewa treaty rights to fish off the reservation. During the height of the unrest, state troopers, sheriff deputies and police officers from across the state were summoned to northern Wisconsin. Access to boat landings was tightly controlled. Wardens were assigned to keep peace on the water, as well as enforce state boating laws and tribal spearfishing codes.
Then Assistant Chief Warden Rollie Lee briefed the wardens about their difficult assignment. Lee said that he, like them, had spent numerous hours protecting spawning game fish, but the wardens would now protect individuals spearing those same fish. Lee went on to say that we are a nation of laws and the court had ruled in the tribe's favor. As professional law enforcement officers, wardens now had to fairly and firmly enforce the court's decision.
Unfortunately, some protesters were not content to demonstrate peacefully. Rocks were hurled along with ugly racial slurs. Gunshots occasionally rang out along the lake to intimidate the spearfishers and the peacekeepers. Protesters took to the water to block landings and disrupt spearfishing by creating large wakes and roiling the shallow water. At times each spearboat had a warden boat assigned to protect it. One warden was struck in the head by a rock and had to receive emergency treatment. Gunshots and threats of violence made body armor and riot helmets standard issue.
In the end, with the help of Wisconsin lawmakers who passed a "hunter harassment" law, the conservation wardens were able to continue fulfilling their sworn duties in the midst of a contentious issue.
James Blankenheim retired in January 1998 after 30 years of service as a Wisconsin warden.