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Sandy Brown answers calls at bar time from tipsy patrons demanding to talk to her husband to settle bets about fishing regulations. Rita Engfer takes her son to the church alone for his first communion and faces a houseful of guests afterward while her husband pursues a big break in a hunting violation case.Tom Schartner leaves the family business and relocates so his wife doesn't have to commute three hours from her Green County station to be with him and their children.
Families quickly learn that when their loved one gets hired as a Wisconsin conservation warden, the whole family gets hired. "It's not a job – it's a lifestyle, and it involves the whole family," says Jill Schartner, a conservation warden since 1990.
Long hours, weekend work, night patrols, calls from strangers, and round-the-clock scrutiny from the community are all part of the job for conservation and environmental wardens. They're also part of the special pressures and demands spouses and children face by default, and single wardens shoulder in their personal and social lives.
Sandy Brown thought her job as chief deputy clerk of courts in Barron County had prepared her for the life she'd live when she married conservation warden Terry Brown seven years ago. But she hadn't expected that the telephone would ring at all hours at home, that Terry would be called away from Christmas dinner to return four hours later, and that planning a night together would be nearly impossible. "I was under the assumption it was like a law enforcement officer," she says. "You worked your shift and then you were done."
But Terry was always "on" because conservation wardens don't have a second or third shift. Wardens are "assigned" – sometimes by themselves or with one other warden – to cover an entire county and follow up on all calls.
Wardens set their own hours, usually early morning, evenings, nights, and weekends when hunters and anglers are afield. Most use their homes as offices. But this flexibility often becomes a double-edged sword that cuts into personal and family time, wardens say. They know if they don't respond to a complaint in their county, no one will, so they often work well beyond the hours they mark on their time sheets.
"You may work all night and then go to work again the next day," says Brown. "Your biological clock gets screwed up and you can't sleep – and that goes on all fall and spring. You get extremely exhausted. You are very hard on your family and very hard on your kids."
The punishing schedule was one reason Brown applied last year to become a law enforcement safety specialist, a position that has more regular hours and frees him from responding to complaints. He and Sandy knew he'd made the right choice when shortly afterward a lakeshore property owner Brown was investigating for a shoreland violation pulled a submachine gun on him. Brown successfully subdued the assailant without harm to either man.
Tom Schartner's concern for his wife's safety triggered some sleepless nights at first. As a warden, she deals daily with people carrying hunting rifles and fishing knives. "Over the years I've learned to trust her judgment and abilities in the field," he says. The family has been lucky in many respects. His and Jill's parents provided invaluable help in the early years of Jill's career, when Tom and their two young children were living in Door County and he was working for the family business. Jill spent her first year on the warden service moving from station to station as she was trained, and then spent the next 1 1/2 years alone in Monroe, more than 200 miles away from the family.
When Tom and Jill tired of the long weekend commute, they flipped a coin and decided to move to Green County to be together. Tom found a middle management position with Monroe Truck Equipment that he says has worked out better than the job he left.
Jill Schartner recognizes the sacrifices that her husband – and that other wardens' spouses make. "I couldn't do the job I do without the type of husband I have," she says.
Tom does the laundry, has dinner on the table if Jill gets home late from work, and helps her do the secretarial work her job requires. Office help isn't provided for field wardens who work from their homes.
"I understand Jill's job and the kids do too," Tom Schartner says. "At times, her position is very stressful. Doing little things around the house can be shared. It helps her with her career and it benefits our family."
Josh Schartner, 16, found being his mother's answering service "a big nuisance" until the family got caller identification on the telephone. Now, he and his 12-year-old sister Jessica pick up the phone only when they recognize the number. He can't screen the questions at school, however. "I don't get grief, but I get questions all the time – 'Is rabbit season open?' I say, 'Just call and talk to my mom,'" Josh says.
That lack of anonymity means wardens and their families put up with constant interruptions when they're off the clock; it often leads them to seek entertainment outside town. "The one thing that kind of eats at you after a while is someone will come up to you in a restaurant and say, 'I don't want to bother you during your dinner' – and then they'll proceed to ask you five questions," says Mark Burmesch, a field warden who recently became a warden supervisor in Wisconsin Rapids. Playing card games with friends, attending family events like his niece's baptism or seeing his girlfriend all became difficult to manage – or a source of some guilt if he actually does go.
As a single warden, he can't count on the same support network or help at home that married wardens get. There are a good percentage of wardens who are single. It's not that they're worried about the job being intrusive in married life, Burmesch says. It's trying to find the right person who can tolerate that kind of intrusion.
For many wardens' families, the biggest challenge is not so much the intrusion, but the fact that the wardens are so seldom at home. Undercover agents, particularly, may be on long assignments and may have difficulty contacting their families, says Tom Solin, who supervises three undercover conservation wardens, and was himself an undercover warden from 1986-1993.
"You don't tell your family a whole lot of what's going on," he says. "You can't give names or places, so they might not know where you're working."
In the early 1990s, DNR undercover agents, as well as agents from Minnesota and Canada, ran an elaborate sting operation to net commercial fishermen who were catching significantly more fish than was legal. For three years, the agents bought fish from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Chicago commercial fishermen and hauled it up to Hastings, Minn., where they ran a storefront. The agents unpacked the fish, photographed it, weighed it, recorded the information, repacked it and trucked it to their retail buyers before returning to Hastings to do the whole routine the next day.
"One of our people usually managed to get home one day a week" to see his family, Solin says. "But he was so worn out after the drive home that he slept through his day off."
Rita Engfer is accustomed to shouldering the load alone as her husband Bill has progressed through the ranks as conservation warden, safety specialist, boating administrator and recreation safety chief.
She drove herself to the hospital delivery room alone for the premature delivery of her daughter because she couldn't track down Bill through the State Patrol or DNR dispatcher, and she didn't know anyone else in Appleton.
Their son, Lee, was seven before his father was able to be there for his birthday. When a case broke and interrupted the family's plan to go to Disney World, Rita took the kids by herself.
"Eventually, you learn you are mom and dad for your kids," she says. "You just get used to doing things yourself. You can't put your life on hold."
It's a hard lesson, Engfer says, especially for the kids. But the flip side is those unusual demands create a camaraderie – within the individual families and among the families as a group. The experience helps children gain knowledge, respect and appreciation for natural resources, and also for the job their parents do.
"I think they'd have only good things to say about having a parent who was a conservation warden," Rita says of her children, Lee, 19, and Megan, 13. "While there are hurt feelings about it at the time, they only remember the good times."
Lisa Gaumnitz writes about DNR research and law enforcement issues from her Madison office.