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Stolen bucks, shooting accidents all in day’s work for GF&P officer

Andy Petersen is a South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks conservation officer based in Mitchell. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

Andy Petersen had never been to South Dakota before coming to interview with the state Game, Fish & Parks Department.

Now, Petersen has been the main conservation officer — a job many people still refer to informally as “game warden” — in Davison County for 12 years. His coverage region is all of Davison County and the western portion of Hanson County. He said all conservation officers are considered to be available statewide, and they routinely go out of their main region.

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Before moving to South Dakota, Petersen — a native of Wheatland, Iowa — was a seasonal officer with the Iowa Department of National Resources near Okoboji.

“Mainly, the conservation officer jobs are pretty competitive, so when openings come up you have to apply for them wherever you can,” he said. “Here in South Dakota, we’ll get more than 100 applicants for two or three positions.”

This is the busiest time of year for Petersen. Last weekend was the three-day, resident-only pheasant season on public hunting grounds. Waterfowl season and archery deer hunting are under way, and the statewide pheasant opener is today.

Petersen’s job duties include keeping people safe and making sure hunters and anglers abide by state laws and regulations.

Following are excerpts from a recent interview with Petersen:

Q: What made you want to be a conservation officer?

A: Really, it was back when I took the HuntSAFE class in Iowa when I was younger. The local officer down there lived near us, and I got to see him and know him. I got to see what he was doing and the job seemed pretty interesting.

Q: How much training did you have to go through to become a conservation officer?

A: The big hurdle for most people is a bachelor of science degree. You have to have a four-year bachelor’s degree. After that, once you do get hired on, you go through the law enforcement academy in Pierre for 12 weeks. Then after that, we have our own field training program, which is 12 to 14 weeks. You’re looking at six months of things you’re doing before you get to the field. It’s quite a process.

Q: What are some of the toughest parts of the job?

A: That’s a tough one to answer. Certainly you run into difficult people, but that’s just part of the job.

Q: What do you enjoy about your work?

A: It’s nice to work outdoors and have the freedom to go out every day and decide where you’re going to go and head out into the field and see what people are doing and talk to them. There’s a lot of freedom and flexibility to the job, which is nice.

Q: What are the biggest misconceptions about your job?

A: I think the biggest one is that you get to hunt and fish every day. We don’t.

Q: Do you have a quota of tickets you must write each month or year?

A: No, we don’t have anything like that.

Q: What kind of hours do you work?

A: We have 40-hour workweeks and we set our own schedules. If you decide you want to work later in the day into the night, you can do that. If you want to come out at night or early in the morning, it’s very variable. If you get called out to a call, you go out to it and then you change your hours another day.

Q: What is one of the most interesting things you have seen since becoming a conservation officer?

A: Well, a couple years ago one of the most interesting ones is when that deer was stolen from another guy. That’s really unusual and you don’t see things like that.

There was a hunter and he was hunting west of Mitchell, and he shot a really nice deer in the morning, a buck. He had it in the back of his truck and he was filling his doe tag in the evening, and a guy came along on a four-wheeler and saw the deer in the back of his truck and stole it and took it home. Later in the week, he posted it on Facebook as a deer that he had shot.

Q: What ended up happening to the person who stole the deer?

A: We seized it and gave it back to the correct person. The other guy was charged with unlawful possession, which is a class 1 misdemeanor. There were also civil damages. It was a pretty pricy ordeal for him, and it actually made it into a couple national hunting magazines.

Q: Is pheasant season tough to work? Thousands of people come to Mitchell for it. Is that the busiest time of year for you?

A: It’s pretty busy, especially the first couple of weeks. You run into some hunting incidents that we take care of as well. You’re doing investigations on those if it is serious enough. You may even have to go to the hospital and interview people. If you get one or two of those on an opening weekend, that takes up a lot of your time. Some years, pheasant season can be really busy, and your day can be filled up all day, certainly.