By Eric Freedman
Capital News Service
Sgt. Mike Feagan and Conservation Officer Chad Baldwin were on night patrol along the Boyne River when they saw bright lights coming down the river. Several people were walking in the water trying to net fish, with an accomplice on shore as the lookout.
The subjects “initially denied attempting to net fish,” a Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Law Enforcement Division field report of the incident said. But when the two COs “explained they had been watching them for about an hour and could recount all of their movements, the subjects confessed.”
It is a scenario Michigan conservation officers are only too familiar with. They catch someone breaking the law and then the stories begin.
When CO Kyle Publiski approached two anglers trying to snag salmon on the south branch of the Pere Marquette River, the duo claimed they were “just about to call him because they had just chased away” would-be snaggers.
“Publiski began to laugh, and one of the subjects asked why he was laughing,” a field report said. The Mason County-based CO said he’d watched them “running up and down the river trying to snag the fish.” Asked “if he felt pretty foolish telling that sort of lie,” one of the suspects replied, “Yes, sir.”
Those incidents are among recent law enforcement reports from the state’s conservation officers. With Michigan’s archery deer-hunting season now underway and with firearm season set to open Nov. 15, public attention tends to focus on fall game law enforcement, but DNR’s 212 conservation officers are busy year-round, said Assistant Chief Dean Molnar of the agency’s Law Enforcement Division.
Fall tends to be the busiest time of year for COs, he said.
COs issue more than twice as many warnings as tickets, Molnar said. In 2015, officers had more than 364,000 contacts with the public. About 10,000 resulted in arrests or other enforcement actions such as tickets, and almost 24,000 led to warnings, Molnar said. Many of the other contacts involved education.
Many investigations start with a tip, Molnar said, often a phone call or text to the DNR’s 24/7 Report All Poaching hotline: 800-292-7800.
DNR field reports from a two-week stretch in September show diverse violations such as chasing bear without a license, fishing with too many lines, illegal baiting, careless operation of an off-road vehicle, carrying uncased firearms, exceeding bag limits, late-night shining, unlicensed fishing, illegal burning and kayaking without life preservers.
The reports show lots of folks lie to COs.
For example, in investigating a report of a dead bear that had squeezed its head into a small hole cut in the side of a barrel filled with bait, Marquette County-based COs Brett DeLonge and Mark Leadman staked out the spot. Two off-road vehicle-riding suspects arrived, one carrying “open intoxicants” and hauling a trailer loaded with another bait barrel, according to a field report.
“The subjects denied having the illegal bait that killed the bear until confronted with overwhelming evidence placing them at the scene,” the field report said.
Then there was a man with a bait pile next to his camper. He had no bear tag and told DeLonge and Leadman that his wife, who did have a bear tag, was in town shopping.
“The COs found the story hard to believe since town was many miles away and the subject’s vehicle was still parked in front of the campsite,” a field report said. DeLonge returned that night and found the man hunting. “The subject denied that he would shoot a bear and said his wife would be back shortly.”
In reality the wife was at home 200 miles away, and the man was ticketed. So was his wife for loaning him her license.
In Osceola County, two hunters suspected of shooting a deer on a neighbor’s property sprinkled blood in a different location to throw off COs Steve Lockwood of Gladwin County and Ethan Gainforth of Clare County. “But it didn’t work. The blood evidence told a completely different story,” a field report said.
And along a Grand River bayou in Ottawa County, several anglers started throwing fish back into the water when they saw CO Justin Ulberg approach.
“Unfortunately for the anglers, they were not able to throw enough fish over the bridge. One angler was 17 bluegill over his legal limit and the other was one fish over,” a field report said.
COs encounter oddball situations in the field.
Some conservation officers find just plain odd situations when answering a call.
In Benzie County, for example, CO Rebecca Hopkins checked out complaints of illegal netting of fish below the Homestead Dam in Benzie County. She filmed a man holding a net in the spillway.
“The subject was impervious to people watching and filming him and continued the illegal activity even after spotting the CO and giving her a head nod,” a field report said.
In Oceana County, CO Ben Shively watched two suspects empty their pockets of wallets and cell phones and jump into Ruby Creek as they tried to catch a salmon by hand.
And CO Josiah Killingbeck, based in Lake County, saw a man urinating near no-trespassing signs on private property along the Pere Marquette River,
“Killingbeck asked the subject if he thought it was a good idea to urinate in front of other people floating by while using the river,” a field report said. “The subject agreed that it probably was not his best decision.”
Then there are the trash cases.
Acting on a tip, Chippewa County-based CO Tom Oberg inspected several trash bags dumped on Drummond Island. He identified the suspect by tracking down a partly obliterated name on a pill bottle in one of the bags.
On patrol in the Western Upper Peninsula, COs Nathan Sink and Ethen Mapes spotted trash bags dumped on public land. Unfortunately for the litterer, there were names attached to the trash and a suspect “quickly confessed.”
And CO Andrea Eratt found trash bags and building demolition materials dumped alongside a road in Charlevoix County. Receipts from a credit union and Home Depot led to the dumper.