Indiana conservation officers patrol to protect wildlife | #itsecurity | #infosec

On a sunny October morning, Blake Everhart turned the key on the engine of his Indiana Department of Natural Resources truck at 8 a.m., not knowing what his work shift would bring.

The veteran state conservation officer only knew he would roam throughout Jackson County looking for trouble.

Over the next eight and a half hours, he might nab someone hunting without a legitimate license, be called in to pursue a trespasser on private land, discover someone illegally shooting at a deer decoy or be summoned to aid the county sheriff’s department or state troopers handling a major automobile accident.

“You never know what you’re going to do,” Everhart said. “I like that.”

His wide-ranging duties might require slapping handcuffs on an apparent lawbreaker or helping someone flailing in a river in danger of drowning. Or Everhart, 38, a 15-year DNR officer, might cruise 250 miles on backroads and never encounter a suspicious character before day’s end.

Pistol strapped on his hip, wearing an official green law enforcement uniform, he sat behind the wheel of a vehicle equipped with a shotgun and a computer capable of checking the criminal and license database. He was prepared for action, merely serving as a deterrent with his presence.

“We’re police officers, but our priority is hunting and fishing and boating laws,” Everhart said.

Indiana conservation officers are game wardens, but more than that, they sometimes assist in basic police work, too. Citizens get the connection to parks and wildlife but do not always grasp the duties.

“(Some) people think we paint picnic tables and clean toilets at Starve Hollow (State Recreation Area),” Everhart said. “We patrol the whole county, lakes, streams, waterways, the backroads and the dirt roads. Our patrols are where the pavement ends.”

Fall is prime hunting season with the firearms deer opener Nov. 13. In the summer, more time is spent on the water. Both hunting and fishing, the officers check for up-to-date licenses and make sure outdoors men do not exceed regulation bag limits of species.

The goal is to protect the resource for state residents and future generations, to clamp down on illegal takes and poaching animals out of season, the wrong time of day or in an improper location.

Everhart recalls catching two anglers at a boat ramp with 23 smallmouth bass when the law stated no more than five per person in possession is legal.

“They just got off the water,” he said. “The trailer was dripping water.”

Challenging job

Everhart, from Seymour, and Rob Klakamp, of Brownstown, are the conservation officers who operate in this area. There are 10 districts statewide, and when fully staffed, there are 214 officers.

Recently, the DNR conducted introductory classes to develop a fresh pool of applicants since the department was down to 170 officers.

Typically, conservation officers bring a deep interest in hunting, fishing and the outdoors to the classes.

“It’s a long process,” said Capt. Jet Quillen of the IDNR law enforcement division, taking almost a year. “They grow up hunting and fishing with the passion. Some are already law enforcement officers. It can never hurt a candidate.”

Quillen, 43, grew up in Brown County and in early adulthood worked for an insurance company before switching. He was an officer for 10 years before moving to the department’s Indianapolis headquarters.

Quillen is a diver and has taught diving. The most memorable case of his career did not involve fins, fowl or mammal.

On May 2, 2013 — Quillen utters the date without pause — he was patrolling near the White River in downtown Indianapolis and checking fishing licenses of anglers about to receive citations when from over a bluff, he heard someone scream out for help.

Quickly, he pinpointed the origin of the voice and saw a man in his 50s about 40 or 50 feet offshore struggling in the water before dipping under the surface. Quillen dropped his gun belt, dove into the water and swam out to rescue the man.

“He was coughing up water,” Quillen said.

Quillen saved the man’s life.

“You always want to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I’ve had countless body recoveries. You always wish you could be a little faster.”

Whether it is on lakes, rivers or other bodies of water, the DNR often searches for missing boaters, sometimes operating airboats more often associated with the bayous of Louisiana or swamps. The boats are especially useful when Indiana waters are at flood stage.

“They’re big and they’re loud and they’re powerful,” Quillen said.

As in about 20 feet long with 500 horsepower Corvette engines.

Recently, the DNR conducted an airboat training course in Seymour on the White River at the Rockford boat ramp. Some Illinois officers shared the multi-day class, which featured an instructor from Texas.

“It’s another set of skill sets in their toolbox,” Quillen said.

Klakamp, who owns a smaller-than-DNR airboat for pleasure use, helped direct the program. The sturdy, flat-bottom boats with their distinctive rear propellers that make them somewhat resemble aircraft allow officers to steer into hard-to-reach coves and are useful for ice rescues.

Klakamp, now 46, was 41 before he became a conservation officer.

“This has always been my dream,” he said. He made the right move. “I love this job so much. There’s never a dull moment. I’m proud to put this uniform on every day.”

Another born into hunting and fishing, Klakamp savors the game warden elements of the job, protecting wildlife.

“I consider us the backwoods police,” Klakamp said.

Klakamp and other conservation officers get especially torqued off by illegal hunting. Sometimes, officers may lie in wait out of sight, scanning for rule-breakers with binoculars tempted to shoot at lifelike deer decoys.

“We’ll take turns sitting,” he said. “They’ll shoot from the road. The majority of the people are law-abiding. We’re looking for that 1 or 2% that are not.”

Those who get away with harvesting too much game will repeat the crime.

“Someone like that is going to continue to hunt,” Klakamp said.

Klakamp made one case with a turkey hunting violator who wasn’t satisfied with shooting his limit. The hunter was nabbed trying to kill more.

“He was charged with trespassing, illegal possession of a turkey and illegal taking,” Klakamp said.

Violators can lose hunting privileges for years or for life, depending on the severity of the crimes.

Eric Stamps, 53, a 24-year conservation officer who took the recent airboat class, said poachers motivated him to choose his career.

“I saw a lot of poaching when I was younger,” he said.

Wasting the meat of an animal, thrill hunters, disturb him. Once, there was a rash of killings where shooters left the deceased animals to rot rather than legally processing meat.

“They were shooting does with a .22,” Stamps said. “They weren’t keeping anything. It took me two years. They were young guys.”

Stamps said DNR personnel will use whatever machinery is available as aids on the job, but he is very impressed with how valuable airboats can be for search-and-rescue missions.

“They’re fun to operate, and they’ll do things other boats can’t do,” he said.

Even Klakamp’s 10-foot personal airboat of 160 horsepower virtually offers the illusion of flying as it skims over the water’s surface. The speed can make passengers’ eyes water, and the engine roar can stifle conversation, even at 25 mph.

The boat can operate in just inches of water. But there is no reverse. To turn around, the boat must be steered around while hitting the gas pedal.

“The more air you put through the rudder, the easier you turn,” Klakamp said.

Everything is quiet

Late morning on Everhart’s swing through backwoods of the Hoosier National Forest, he drove up on a truck parked on the side of the road. Presumably, it belonged to an archery hunter. There was nobody in sight. There was no noise.

Everhart inspected the vehicle. There was nothing suspicious about it. The truckbed was empty, not containing any equipment to lead the officer to think the hunter was a lawbreaker. Everhart used the handheld microphone to call the office — the reception wasn’t good enough to employ his own computer — and check the license plate owner and to determine if the individual had a hunting license.

“He’s good,” Everhart said as he clicked off the microphone. “He’s legal.”

If the answer indicated the license plate was faulty and there was no proof of a valid hunting license, Everhart may have called for reinforcements with a canine unit to track the person into the trees. Or he may have done so himself.

Stealth, he said, is required in such a situation. Sneaking up on possible lawbreakers comes with the territory.

“This isn’t the safest job,” he said. “It’s not for everybody.”

A little later, Everhart approached a parked truck with windows open and a dog barking in the back seat. He cautiously sneaked up to the rear of the vehicle and saw an expired tag. He called it in and learned the plate was for a white truck, though it was on a black one.

Once again, there was no one around the quiet area in the trees. Everhart decided to leave.

“No outstanding warrants,” he said. “Nothing criminal out here. No idea what this guy is up to. Given the fact of where we are and given the fact he has multiple deer hunting licenses, he’s probably deer hunting.”

A third potential customer’s situation turned out much the same way. A maroon truck was parked at a dead end. The license plate was OK. The owner had a lifetime hunting license, which is usually a symbol the person is legit, Everhart said.

Although this ridearound did not turn up violators, it could have. Sometimes, specific tips of suspicion come from members of the public who care about wildlife protection.

“This time of year, I might get a call saying, ‘I just heard a rifle go off,’” Everhart said of one of his night shifts. “And that’s at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

The vast majority of outdoors recreation users, hunting, fishing and boating, are friendly to conservation officers, especially if their licenses are in order. Sometimes, Everhart and others will provide warnings to the uneducated rather than ticket them when a matter is not dangerous.

More serious cases, poachers, those disregarding bag limits, are situations that provoke lovers of outdoors activities.

“When (violators) start messing with wildlife and the trees and the birds,” Everhart said of the law-abiding, “they get mad.”

And those people count on the conservation police to arrest the guilty.

This is the second part of a three-part series. The third will be published Tuesday in The Tribune.

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