It's a busy time of year for Josh Thompson and the rest of South Dakota's conservation officers.
Thompson, a Dakota Wesleyan University graduate, was recently named this year's officer of the year by the Association of Midwest Fish and Game Law Enforcement Officers.
As today's statewide pheasant season opens, the 27-year-old Lead, S.D., native will be working in the Winner area to help cover the region for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department to ensure safe, lawful hunters are in the fields.
Thompson, who attended DWU from 2009 to 2013, got his Bachelor of Arts degree in biology with a minor in coaching. He was also a defensive back on the football team.
He was nominated for the award because of his work addressing drug and vandalism issues, including one case in which a marijuana distribution was taking place on a State Game Production Area.
According to Andy Alban, GF&P's law enforcement administrator, Thompson has quickly become a district resource for boating under the influence detection. He also serves as a department defensive tactics instructor and helps in instructing conservation officers at in-service and regional trainings. He has taken his defensive tactics training to the local schools. Even more, Thompson was inspirational in starting a self-defense class for senior girls at Spearfish High School, Alban said.
Now living in Spearfish, Thompson is active in outreach and educational programs in the area. He assists with career days, DARE programs, youth wrestling and multiple ride-along programs.
The Daily Republic recently conducted a question-and-answer session with Thompson. Here are excerpts from the interview:
Why did you want to become a conservation officer (CO)?
A: I have always had a passion for wildlife and the outdoors. I grew up hunting and fishing and always had a strong interest in learning about wildlife. I originally wanted to be a "game warden" when I grew up but was told that few are able to get into it, so I gave up the idea.
I was majoring in biology at Wesleyan thinking that maybe medical school would be in the future until I took a wildlife management class my junior year that was taught by a retired South Dakota conservation officer.
Almost every class, he would share stories of his time on the job and some of the scenarios he encountered. I ate up every word and knew then what I wanted to do. I started applying for summer internships with the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks and it led to eventually getting hired after graduating. This state offers some of the best hunting and fishing resources in the country. To be able to play a small role in helping protect and preserve those resources for future generations is both a joy and a privilege for me.
What did you learn at Wesleyan that helps you in your daily work as a CO?
A: My education at Wesleyan as a student athlete was instrumental in shaping me. The faculty and staff that make up that university are what set it apart from every other school I visited. They take a strong, vested interest in their student body and truly want the best for their students.
The small class sizes provide more opportunities to be involved in your learning, such as giving presentations and developing your communication skills, which is very important when you are dealing with the public so often.
Being a part of the football team taught me a lot about personal discipline, dedication, being a team player and working hard at something to achieve a goal. The coaches there have the program headed in a good direction, and I'm proud to say that I was able to attend there. I couldn't have asked for a better school or town to spend my college years.
In winning the CO of the year award, the Association of Midwest Fish and Game Law Enforcement Officers said you've been "instrumental in combating vandalism and drug issues as well as wildlife, fisheries and recreational laws." Can you elaborate on some of the initiatives you've been involved with that explain that a little more?
A: Since arriving in Spearfish, we were noticing some signs of drug use and vandalism taking place on some of the nearby State Game Production Areas. So honestly a lot of combatting that was simply establishing a presence on those areas, specifically on weekends and evenings, when the issues were more likely to be taking place.
People seem to attract to the woods and remote areas to do illegal activities. Making a few arrests and addressing other illegal issues on these areas helps to spread the word around that guys need to quit what they are doing or find somewhere else to go. A lot of those public lands are preserved and maintained for public hunting opportunities.
So when someone is illegally four-wheeling through a food plot, they are ruining the habitat for the wildlife. Other illegal activity such as drug use on public hunting areas creates a safety concern. For example, a legal hunter approaches a vehicle to talk to what he assumes to be another hunter but in reality a drug transaction is taking place inside.
What are the aspects of your job you enjoy? Do you have a favorite positive memory at work?
A: Just getting to be outside and enjoy God's creation is a big part of it. I've been fortunate to meet some great people in the field, see a lot of wildlife, and learn under some great supervision.
Seeing the pride on a kid's face showing off his biggest fish on the stringer or the excitement of a youth who just shot her first deer are all special moments. This state is full of some amazing resources and great people which both make my job pretty great. Nothing too specific stands out as favorite positive memory, but I would attribute most positive memories to something related to that area.
Does West River get busy for pheasant season, or does your work mainly focus on big game like deer and elk?
A: West River has its spots where it gets busy for pheasant season. Primarily in the Black Hills, it is working big game hunters such as elk, deer, and mountain lion hunters and dealing with the various everyday-to-day calls that come with these species and seasons.
I'm sure you've seen and heard some interesting things when talking to people enjoying recreational opportunities like hunting/fishing. Do you have any interesting or comical stories?
A: Yeah, the list of interesting things you see and people you meet is never ending. Probably my most favorite recent comical story was when a neighboring CO checked a fisherman down by the lake. As the CO approached the fisherman, the man startled up and quickly reached into his bucket, grabbed the fish inside of it, and frantically heaved it out into the water as far as he could.
Almost simultaneously, the man's dog, who had been faithfully lying at his feet, immediately sprang into action and ran and jumped into the water with a huge splash. The dog enthusiastically retrieved the fish, which was now floating on the water. It turned out the fish had sat in the bucket too long on that hot summer day and it was struggling belly-up on the lake.
Much to the dismay of the owner, the dog eagerly retrieved the fish, the owner yelling every word and obscenity along the way, trying to stop his loyal companion. The dog brought the fish all the way back to shore, right into the awaiting hands of the CO. The CO measured the fish, which turned out to be an illegal length. The owner of the dog was cited for the fish, the fish was confiscated, and that poor dog never did understand why his owner was so upset with him that day.
What's an interesting aspect of your job that most people wouldn't think about?
A: We do a lot of education and outreach events, wildlife surveys and make habitat and wildlife management decisions that a lot of people don't necessarily think about. I get asked all the time what I do for work, and it varies every day. Another aspect, which I didn't know about before getting into the job, is the amount of patrolling in the boat that goes on in the summertime. This is primarily to make sure everyone is being safe on the water and has a sober driver to operate the vessel.
In your work as a CO, do you think more people intentionally break the law or they're doing so unknowingly? If you think it's more often intentional, how does GFP help correct this?
A: It's definitely a mixture of both. Quite a few times, we encounter situations where the person honestly did not know they were breaking the law. I try to use my best discretion in those circumstances. As a hunter or an angler, there is still a responsibility to know the laws and check the local hunting or fishing handbook each year. Just because someone does not know they broke a law does not necessarily pardon what happened. However, we try to use our best judgement to be both fair and consistent. Mistakes are sometimes a part of hunting or fishing and everyone makes mistakes. The main thing I always try to take into consideration is if someone is being open and honest with me during the contact.
Most of the hunters and anglers we come into contact with are doing things the right and legal way. When you look at the number of people who speed driving to work each morning, it makes the compliance rate of sportsmen very high in comparison.
As a CO, voluntary compliance with the laws and regulations is our ultimate goal. Whether that needs to be achieved by addressing an issue with an arrest, a citation or a warning varies greatly depending on the situation. If we see an area of a lot of unintentional non-compliance with the public, the department is typically more likely to increase educational efforts in that area to help get the word out. I always encourage people to check the handbook first and foremost and then to call me if they still are unsure on what the law or rule is. I would rather inform and educate someone before they go hunting than to check them in the field after they have unknowingly broken a law.
Of course, there are also those individuals who do knowingly and willingly break the law and abuse the resource. These types of people are ultimately my main goal of stopping as a CO. People who poach game hurt the resource and reputation for all the thousands of hunters and fishermen who are trying to do things the right way. If I can play a role in stopping the recidivist wildlife violator, then I'm doing my job.
As always, we rely heavily on the public and our TIPs hotline number for people to report any violations they see. We cannot be everywhere at once and a lot of legal sportsmen see things we don't. Conserving wildlife and the resources is a team effort. Ultimately, I'm in this line of work for the same reason the sportsmen pay for hunting and fishing licenses every year. I am passionate about our outdoor privileges here and I want to help preserve those for the future generations to enjoy.