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Conservation Wardens Mike Young and Mark Beilfuss watched sadly as urban development encroached upon the rural landscape and waterfronts they patrol. So when Young learned from a property owner that his pristine footage along the Wolf River in Outagamie County was available for sale, Young and Beilfuss went to work.
The wardens brought the parcel to the attention of DNR real estate buyers, contacted Town of Ellington officials and local legislators, talked to local hunting, fishing, and birdwatching groups, and provided boat tours to interested parties. They removed a roadblock to the sale by finding a nonprofit group – the local Whitetails Unlimited chapter – that was willing to lease a building on the property for educational purposes.
"After being on this river 15 years as a warden, you develop a love and respect for the resource," Beilfuss says. "It brings you back to, 'What can you do to maintain it so future generations can enjoy it?'"
Adds Young, "When you see a big piece of property that's going up for sale, you know it's likely to go to a developer and that will have an effect on the environment, the water quality, the basic aesthetic value of the river. If we're able to get it preserved in a wild state, it benefits everybody."
Their efforts – and those of other Department of Natural Resources staff, including Mike Penning and Kay Brookman Maderas, interested public and private citizens – succeeded in preserving the former hunting property. The public now owns 486 acres of largely wild land with 2.5 miles of pristine river frontage that is fast becoming a favorite of birdwatchers, walkers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Whether you're bird watching or bike riding, or enjoying a cool glass of water from the tap, you're probably not pondering the contribution wardens make to society. Yet the work wardens do every day affects the quality of your outdoor experiences – and even the quality of your home life.
Wardens serve as a first line of defense on environmental emergencies; they're DNR's "first responders" to oil and chemical spills, which can contaminate surface waters and groundwater. Wardens see that spills are contained, and they work with DNR environmental specialists to oversee the clean-up of contaminated soils. Environmental wardens also investigate the illegal dumping of chemicals and waste products.
If you do not fish, but enjoy eating fish purchased from a local supermarket, wardens help ensure those fish are safe to eat. They conduct audits of wholesale fish dealers who do business in Wisconsin. Fish suppliers must report where they obtained their fish and keep records of where the fish are sold. When crosschecking these records, wardens sometimes find fishy discrepancies. In one instance, a record-check showed some suppliers were purchasing PCB-contaminated trout and salmon from Lake Michigan and falsely labeling the fish as "Norwegian salmon" that are considered to be contaminant-free. The discovery led to a multi-year investigation resulting in numerous criminal charges against individuals and corporations in Wisconsin and Illinois.
You may see car-killed deer along the roadside as you travel to favorite outdoor destinations. Conservation wardens let bids from private contractors to promptly remove the animals and assure the remains are disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. Wardens also keep your trip more visually appealing by enforcing anti-litter laws on roads, waysides and parking lots at outdoor recreation areas.
Creating enthusiasm and respect for outdoor activities is an important goal for the warden service. Each school year wardens offer to visit every 5th-grade class in the state to discuss outdoor ethics, promote recreational safety courses, and ask for student help in protecting Wisconsin's outdoors. The hours conservation wardens log enforcing wildlife regulations also protect the species people like to watch. Throughout the year, wardens investigate reports of the illegal shooting of protected wildlife like songbirds, swans and bald eagles.
The long, cold nights wardens spend searching for deer poachers benefit hunters and nonhunters alike. Wardens expend as much energy protecting deer refuges from poachers as patrolling public hunting lands. Recently, wardens have put a halt to the illegal hunting of large bucks in Milwaukee suburbs that are closed to hunting, and have caught poachers in a national wildlife refuge south of La Crosse.
Your personal safety while canoeing or cross-country skiing in Wisconsin is enhanced by the actions of local wardens. Regular patrols observe outdoor behavior and apprehend intoxicated boat and snowmobile operators, who can endanger others and themselves: Alcohol is the leading cause of death in boat and snowmobile accidents. Despite a 41 percent increase in the number of registered boats in the past 20 years, field enforcement and safety programs have helped to keep accident numbers in check, providing a safer outdoor environment for you and your family.
Your personal safety is also on the wardens' agenda. Each year wardens take part in search-and-rescue operations on land and water. In one recent situation, wardens had to rescue waterfowl hunters stranded on a small island in a severe storm. The wardens battled high waves and 60 mph winds to safely bring the people back to shore.
Wardens also apprehend convicted felons who, by law, cannot possess firearms. It's common for wardens to encounter such individuals each fall hunting season. In fact, at least 14 felons had their guns seized during the nine-day gun deer season in 1998. Wardens also provide backup to local law enforcement officers during emergencies. This dedicated service has come at a high cost: During its 120-year history, Wisconsin's warden force has lost more officers in the line of duty than any other law enforcement agency in the state, with the exception of the Milwaukee Police Department.
Warden Steve Dewald supervises the Mississippi River enforcement team in La Crosse.