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Like a flock of startled turkeys, the group of young people erupted in a flurry of activity as my patrol truck entered the clearing. I watched as flailing legs and arms disappeared into the shadows of nearby woods. The dancing flames of their campfire illuminated abandoned ice chests, beer kegs, and an assortment of beverage containers. My late night patrol of a public hunting ground had apparently disrupted an underage beer party.
If you thought a warden's job consisted merely of checking up on wayward hunters and anglers, think again. As the state's population rises and more people have more free time to enjoy an ever-greater variety of outdoor activities, conservation wardens increasingly are called upon to "referee" when people want to use the same resource at the same time for different purposes.
For instance, state properties in the Mazomanie Unit receive heavy use, with several thousand people drawn to the area annually to enjoy the sandbars of the Wisconsin River. Some visitors come for the sandbar camping, others for volleyball, photography, fishing, walking pets, picnicking, sunbathing, reading, campfire talks, wildlife observation – and just about any other sort of recreation you can think of that can be conducted outdoors on sand.
Sandbar campers vie for the same space as sunbathers and volleyball players. Nude sunbathers feel uncomfortable in the presence of people with cameras or binoculars. Shoreline anglers blame the swimmers for scaring away the fish. Parents canoeing with children take offense when they see nudists on the islands. Picnickers become irritated when dog owners allow their pets to run unsupervised. Observing wildlife is more difficult as people and traffic inundate the environment. Litter, unsanitary conditions and trampled vegetation mar the scenery. And people simply seeking quiet relaxation resent the noise from other groups. The fragile sandbar ecology can't support that wide a range of uses, and people can't always find the experience they seek in the same place.
That's part of what lead the DNR to conclude traffic patterns at the property needed to change and the parcel should be restricted to daytime use.
Wardens still police traditional hunting and fishing beats, of course, but today basic law enforcement has become part of a warden's daily routine. I've seen violations beyond the usual fish and game infractions float by during on-water patrols.
From a vantage point concealed by the leaves of an uprooted tree along the sandy Wisconsin River shoreline, I watched as canoes drifted slowly by. In one canoe, a long tube like a miniature smokestack of a ship was visible above the piles of camping equipment. A person in the bow of the boat was using a smaller version of the tube to smoke what I knew to be marijuana. "Hi!" I said, "I'm a state conservation warden. I'll be pulling alongside your boat to check your life preservers among other things."
In the past, disruptive and abusive behaviors at the Mazomanie Unit warranted phone calls for back-up help from law enforcement staff. One day, a frantic woman ran to meet me at the parking lot. Two men had been drinking all day and were picking fights with people on the beach. I followed the trail of discarded beer bottles for some distance and found the intoxicated men, who were not overjoyed to see me. I placed them under arrest, and fortunately, assistance from the Sheriff's Department was quick to arrive.
On another evening, while walking among the shadows of a remote parking lot, I heard the sound of something rustling in the brush behind a car. My flashlight beam revealed a man crouched low to the ground attempting to escape detection. "State conservation warden!" I shouted, "Slowly, let me see your hands!" The contents of a woman's purse littered the ground as he rose. After placing the man in handcuffs, I located the purse that he had stolen from a tent on the nearby sandbar.
It's all in a day's work. A warden's charge is to protect natural resources, but increasingly, it's people that we must protect from each other to keep the outdoors safe and prevent damage to the environment.
Scott A. Thiede is a conservation warden stationed in Trempealeau County at Osseo. His former beat included the lower Wisconsin River.