Dan Eichinger is director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Over the past decade, the Michigan Legislature and governor have provided funding to put more conservation officers in the field. As fully commissioned peace officers, conservation officers enforce not just laws related to hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits, but all the state’s laws. In fact, conservation officers are a critical part of our law enforcement network, especially in rural areas. Often when you dial 911 in some counties in Michigan, a conservation officer is the first emergency responder on the scene.
So, it is no surprise that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s fiscal 2020 budget has recommended continuing this critical funding for our state’s conservation officers. What is surprising is the approved budget of the Michigan House of Representatives. The House version of that 2020 budget seeks to strip $1.1 million from funding for Michigan conservation officers.
The past decade’s investment has helped increase the ranks of conservation officers from 172 in 2008 to 252 officers today – historic highs. The proposed legislative cuts would mean the loss of 20,000 hours annually of natural resource protection and public safety support. Put another way, the proposed cuts would be the equivalent of eliminating 10 officers or causing five counties to have no conservation officers assigned. The proposed cuts would mean fewer conservation officers to respond to calls from the public and fewer to save lives.
A few recent examples:
- In March, conservation officer Nick Ingersoll answered a call to help a kayaker who had capsized on Lake Erie near Monroe. The local sheriff’s department kept an eye on the capsized kayaker from shore until Ingersoll arrived in a DNR boat. Ingersoll was able to rescue the man within 20 minutes of his kayak overturning and bring him safely to shore. The man was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and received treatment for hypothermia.
- In March, off-duty conservation officers Mike Haas and Josh Russel responded to a call for help involving a 59-year-old man, with a history of medical issues, who had become lost in the woods on the west side of Isabella County. The conservation officers had search-and-rescue equipment with them and navigated on foot into the snow-covered woods. As a result of their search-and-rescue training, they were able to identify the man’s trail and direct emergency responders to his path. When the man emerged from the woods, paramedics were there to offer immediate assistance.
- Also in March, a statewide Amber Alert was issued for a 5-year-old boy who was kidnapped from a relative’s home on Whitefish Bay in the Upper Peninsula. The boy’s father, a registered sex offender, along with a friend of the father kidnapped the boy and attempted to take him across the Lake Superior ice to Canada. Local law enforcement, Michigan State Police and the FBI requested assistance. Riding snowmobiles, conservation officers Kevin Postma and Calvin Smith tracked the suspects through the woods and onto the bay. When the conservation officers caught up to the suspects – who were pulling the boy in a sled across potentially deadly ice ‒ the suspects immediately surrendered.
- In June, conservation officer Kyle Publiski jumped into the fast-moving Pere Marquette River in Lake County to save the life of a kayaker. The woman, who had overturned her kayak, had been in the frigid waters for some 45 minutes and could no longer feel her hands or feet. She was treated for hypothermia and survived.
Since 2015, Michigan conservation officers have saved at least 31 lives. Yes, these incidents spared the lives of the individuals rescued, but they also changed the lives of those who know and love those people.
We don’t know where conservation officers will be needed next. We just know that having these men and women on the front lines as first responders has been critical to protecting Michigan. Keeping them there is equally important. We hope the Legislature restores full funding to keep conservation officers in the field for the benefit of our state and its citizens.