Growing up in Grand Rapids, Ken Soring knew early on that he wanted to become a conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Now he holds the agency's top enforcement job. On Wednesday, Soring took over as director of the DNR's Enforcement Division in St. Paul, supervising a staff of more than 200 conservation officers and those who support them.
"I had been riding with enforcement officers since I was in high school," Soring, 52, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "I had a couple thousand hours of ride-alongs. I was in love with the job -- working with people, protecting the public resource, the variety of the work, the autonomy combined with responsibility."
Soring joined the DNR in 1979 as a wildlife laborer and joined the enforcement team in 1984. He served eight years as a conservation officer, 12 years as a district supervisor and the past nine years as Northeast Region
enforcement manager in Grand Rapids. In 2008-09, he spent six months as acting enforcement director in St. Paul.
He's respected by people he supervises as well as his superiors.
"Ken is a man of utmost integrity," said Craig Engwall, DNR regional director in Grand Rapids. "He's a strong leader. He'll be dearly missed in the region, but for the DNR as a whole, it's a very good thing."
"Ken is a very well-rounded and insightful type of person," said Dan Thomasen, DNR district enforcement supervisor at Two Harbors. "He understands what it takes to do the job of a conservation officer. He's also a big-picture guy who takes into account the needs of the public and of the officers."
The job of a conservation officer has expanded over the past several decades. Where it once meant enforcing only fish and game laws, it now includes enforcement of laws regarding snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, invasive species and commercial fishing.
Soring was asked if he recalled any specific cases over his career as a field officer that seemed significant.
"There's always the gill-netting case or the gross misdemeanor deer-shining case that you view as a great accomplishment," he said. "But I think overall it's the connection you have with the people in your community, if you're active, and they have faith that you'll come out and investigate something. Even those little cases -- if we help the landowner who's had someone shooting onto his land, or kids on an ATV without a helmet -- make a difference."
Part of the enforcement division's responsibility is to gain the confidence of the outdoor public, Soring said.
"Our ultimate goal is to get voluntary compliance," he said, "whether that's slot limits on fish or reduced limits on fisher or pine marten. We have to do everything we can to get that voluntary compliance, to make sure regulations are understood."
Soring said it's difficult to say what percentage of the hunting, trapping or angling public would willingly violate the law. DNR roadside checks done in the past have turned up violation rates of 20 to 30 percent, he said. But some of those violations were for relatively minor infractions such as not leaving the required piece of skin on fish fillets.
"When it comes down to serious violations, people who intentionally go out and bait deer or overbag, it (violation rates) varies," Soring said. "A lot of people wouldn't consider going out without a license, but they'd put bait out or fill a (deer) tag for someone else who's not party hunting."
Soring, a Grand Rapids native, said he won't move to St. Paul. He and his wife will maintain their home in Grand Rapids, and he'll commute to the Twin Cities.
"I love my place up there," he said. "We'll stay up there, and I'll be home on my days off."