As one of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ new conservation officers, Nathan Benkofske is beginning to patrol the state’s fields, waters and woods.
“It’s what I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a young boy,” said Benkofske, a 2015 Elk River High School graduate and the son of Neal and Lynda Benkofske, of Elk River. “I’ve always been really involved in the outdoors and I want to protect it for generations to come.”
Benkofske recently completed the final phase of his training and started work at the field station in Milaca in December. As part of his new assignment he covers a 900-square-mile area that includes parts of Sherburne, Benton, Mille Lacs and Isanti counties.
The path to becoming a conservation officer is a rigorous one. In Benkofske’s case, there were 900 applicants for about two dozen jobs. He underwent thorough examinations, interviews and background checks as well as medical and psychological evaluations before completing 15 weeks of training at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Academy at Camp Ripley that Benkofske described as “very strenuous.”
He was one of 18 cadets who graduated from the academy in August.
Benkofske then went through a field training program, working with experienced officers in Big Fork, Fergus Falls and Long Prairie until Dec. 2.
So far, the job is a good fit. Benkofske said he likes being in contact with people who are doing the kinds of outdoor recreational activities he enjoys and making sure that what they are doing is correct. He sees education as a big component of his job.
He said he personally particularly enjoys traditional bow hunting and fly fishing. He has spent a lot of time fishing the Mississippi River in the Elk River area for smallmouth bass. He also likes fly fishing in southeast Minnesota for trout.
Benkofske said he feels fortunate to have been hired as a conservation officer, given that, unlike most new COs, he doesn’t have previous law enforcement experience.
He believes what helped him land the job were his knowledge of the outdoors and his volunteer work.
While a senior in high school, he served on the Houlton Farm Planning Committee in Elk River, which oversaw the initial work of turning the Houlton Farm into the William H. Houlton Conservation Area.
Stewart Wilson, who chaired the Houlton Farm Planning Committee, said Benkofske was a polite and respectful person who was very active in outdoor sports. Because of his experience with the outdoors, he had some helpful input when the committee was crafting a hunting plan for the property, Wilson said.
“I really had a lot of respect for him,” he added. “He came to the meetings and contributed and it was important that he was there.”
Benkofske also did a lot of volunteer work while in college in Ely, providing security for various events.
Benkofske has an associate of applied science degree in wildland/wildlife law enforcement from Vermilion Community College. He also completed the college’s police skills academy.
Conservation officers are highly trained, DNR says
Minnesota conservation officers are among the most highly trained in the nation in part due to the Conservation Officer Academy training they receive before heading afield, according to the DNR.
Over the years, the DNR has held 18 formal academies at which recruits are trained in all aspects of being a conservation officer. Experienced officers and other experts teach them on a wide variety of topics, including education and outreach, fish and wildlife laws, patrol procedures and environmental enforcement. Cadets are tested each week and put through practical scenarios that reflect what they’ll encounter in the field.
There are 155 field stations across the state. While this year’s conservation officer class will cut down on the number of vacancies, there still will be 22 field stations without full-time, dedicated coverage. The DNR plans to hold another academy in the spring of 2019.
“One of the reasons we have been successful and received support over the years is because of the direct ties and relationships conservation officers have with the communities we serve,” said Lt. Jeff Johanson, DNR Enforcement training coordinator supervisor. “We live in the areas we serve and become integral parts of the community.”