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Side by side, veteran Minnesota wardens train rookies

Minnesota conservation officer-in-training Leah Kampa checks a fisher/martin conibear box set recently in the forests north of Duluth as conservation officer Kipp Duncan watches. Kampa is nearing the end of the months-long process of becoming a conservation officer. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 5
Minnesota conservation officer Kipp Duncan listens as officer-in-training Leah Kampa talk about two fisher/martin trapping sets they confiscated for violations of state law. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 5
Minnesota conservation officer-in-training Leah Kampa demonstrates one of the reasons two fisher/martin trapping sets were confiscated. In the state’s lynx management zone the opening to a box set has be less than 50 square inches. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service3 / 5
Minnesota conservation officer-in-training Leah Kampa. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service4 / 5
Minnesota conservation officer Kipp Duncan. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service5 / 5

ISLAND LAKE, Minn. — Leah Kampa approached the trap, set for fisher or marten, that was sitting on top of a horizontal fallen tree about 18 inches above the ground.

“This one looks good. It’s legal,” she said as she got closer. Inside a small wooden box a conibear 120 trap was set, ready to grab one of the forest furbearers that are open to harvest for just six days each year.

At this site, north of Island Lake, the trap was legally placed and marked with the trapper’s name and address. That wasn't the case the day before when Kampa, a Minnesota conservation officer in training, and her veteran partner, Kipp Duncan, found two illegal traps.

With their pelts valued at over $100 each, fisher and marten are worth the while for trappers to go after this year. Trappers can take two of the animals each season. But because of a special rule in Northeastern Minnesota’s “lynx management area,” aimed at protecting the small forest cat, fisher/marten traps must be a specific size in an effort to keep lynx out.

“The opening is clearly too big,’’ Kampa said  measuring the non-conforming box the trap was set into. “And the setback is too much. They also didn’t have the proper identification on it.”

The trapper in question did respond to a note left on the trap by Kampa to call her, so the officers now know the guilty party. If the case is prosecuted it could cost the trapper their trapping privileges for a year, along with a hefty fine.

“We’ll see where it goes,’’ Kampa said.

For the last few weeks Kampa has been in full uniform in the woods and now frozen waters north of Duluth, patrolling firearms deer season, trapping and early ice fishing along with other outdoor related activities. Duncan meanwhile has been in civilian clothes, dressed like a hunter or trapper, sitting in their patrol truck’s passenger seat and staying in the background at stops, incognito, as Kampa dealt with the public. He’s watching how she carries herself, how she interacts with the public, how she sorts legal from illegal activities and how she makes sure to protect herself from any dangers.

“She runs the show. The goal is that she is in charge. I’m just observing,’’ Duncan said.

“The problem is that everyone up here knows him and wants to talk with him,’’ Kampa said with a smile.

Duncan is Kampa’s primary field training officer. She spent a month with him in late summer before going off to spend four weeks each with veteran officers in Sauk Center and Willow River then returning for her last month of training with Duncan.

It’s pretty clear Kampa has passed muster and, after her last day with Duncan on Tuesday, Dec. 4, she will assume her permanent new post in Hutchinson in central Minnesota on Wednesday — one of 18 new conservation officers statewide that will help fill some of the DNR’s 40 open positions.

“She’s on her way,’’ Duncan said.

Like many applicants who seek to become conservation officers, Kampa is already a cop. She’s served with county sheriff’s offices and with a tribal natural resource agency, with eight years of law enforcement already under her duty belt. The Sauk Rapids, Minn., native says she’s been trying to gain as much varied experience as possible with the goal of becoming a warden.

“I grew up in an outdoor family... hunting, fishing, a lot of camping,’’ she said. “This is what my career goal has always been. I just took my time and tried to make sure I had the right skill set before I went for it.”

So you want to be a warden

Minnesota conservation officers are full-fledged cops — licensed peace officers who enforce laws related to fish and wildlife, state parks, trails, forests, waters and wetlands as well as other state laws. They also perform public relations and education duties throughout the state and assist other law enforcement agencies such as the State Patrol, sheriff’s offices and local police departments.

There are 155 conservation officer field stations across the state. Right now, 40 of those are unfilled. When the 18 rookie officers currently in training take their new permanent posts on Wednesday, the number of vacant posts will be down to 22.

The hiring and training process is long and sometimes grueling. Applications may open in the summer of one year with 18 months passing before new officers take their posts. (The application process for 2019’s class of new officers is already closed.)

Dozens of applications are weeded down over time. This year offers were made to 21 candidates, of which 18 have continued to pass through the process that includes a written examination, interviews, background investigation (essentially only applicants with pristine financial and criminal records are accepted) pre-work screening (functional capacity exam) psychological assessment and medical evaluation.

Successful candidates (many are already officers for sheriff’s offices or police departments) are hired in the spring and placed into training, including 16 weeks over the summer in the Conservation Officer Academy at Fort Ripley and then another 16 weeks of field training alongside three different veteran officers.

For more information go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/enforcement/jobs/

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