CLOQUET -- Conservation officers typically play things pretty close to their green vests. But when they describe fellow officer Scott Staples, they don’t hold anything back.
Staples, a 17-year conservation officer stationed at Carlton, has been named Minnesota’s Conservation Officer of the Year by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He’s described as a dogged investigator, a fair-minded officer, a staunch defender of natural resources and a community activist.
“I wouldn’t want him after me if I were a poacher,” said Ken Soring, Staples’ former regional supervisor and now director of the DNR’s Division of Enforcement. “He’s a very skilled investigator. But if I were a poacher and was caught by someone, I’d want it to be Scott because he cares about people.”
Staples, 41, had been nominated for the award several times before. He also has been nominated several times as Wetlands Officer of the Year. Staples was selected by a committee of DNR officials from around the state and at the headquarters in St. Paul.
Staples has covered a 650-square-mile territory around Carlton since joining the Minnesota DNR as a conservation officer in 1997. An enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe who grew up in Cass Lake, Staples served as a conservation officer for the band for two years before joining the DNR.
He is one of four officers in the DNR who also keeps and trains a K-9 companion. His German shepherd, Schody, is the only K-9 animal serving with a conservation officer in northeastern Minnesota.
Staples, who lives in Cloquet with his wife and two daughters, said he is humbled by the recognition.
“There are a lot of really good officers out there,” he said. “When I’m dealing with them, I think they’re better than I am.”
Soring said one of Staples’ strengths is that he has earned the trust of the community he serves.
“He’s got the core values that are so important in establishing trust,” Soring said. “People in the department trust him. The public trusts him. Other agencies that he works with trust him.”
Conservation officers often call upon each other when performing duties that require more personnel. Kipp Duncan, DNR conservation officer in Duluth, said he always can count on Staples to show up.
“We all love him,” Duncan said. “He’s really well-loved by his fellow officers. I don’t think there’s an officer in the state that has anything negative to say about Scott.”
Dale Wolf, recently retired as Sixth District Court Judge in Carlton, has seen Staples’ work firsthand and has ridden with him in the field.
“He has the ability to distinguish between matters that must be dealt with by formal criminal charges and those that can be addressed in the field,” Wolf said. “A lot of his contact with people results in education, not necessarily a ticket.”
Staples said most of the people he encounters in the field are doing the right thing.
“Ninety percent of the people are really good people,” he said.
He tries to get out in public a lot to establish the trust that other officers talk about.
“It might just be doing (firearms) safety classes, or helping a 90-year-old person who has a skunk in a live trap when he was trying to trap a groundhog.”
His manner often is calm and reserved, and he knows how to listen, his fellow officers say. But beneath that relaxed exterior is a bulldog.
“He’s a terribly hard worker,” Duncan said. “He doesn’t stop working on cases. He keeps digging and digging and digging. He’s very knowledgeable because he does it all - hunting and fishing and trapping.”
He traps with one of his daughters. Although the demands of the job are extensive, the hours are flexible, Staples said. He makes time for his family.
“You have to have an understanding family,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle change. But you do have a flexible schedule. More often than not, I can go home and take three hours off to watch a soccer game or a piano recital, then go back to work.”
Staples took on Schody, his German shepherd K-9 companion, three years ago. Schody has been valuable in the field and has made Staples a more effective officer, he said. But Schody is a big responsibility, too.
“My biggest challenge over my whole career is getting this dog,” Staples said. “The time and work and effort you put into training never stops. It’s over the top. It’s been hard, but it’s been rewarding, too.”
Staples has been active with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. He’s a member of the Fond du Lac Tribal Conservation Committee and is writing curriculum for the Law Enforcement Program at the Fond du Lac Community College. He’s lead instructor for the Conservation Law Enforcement program at the college.
“Scottie Staples is one of the finest officers in our organization,” said Roger Tietz, operations support manager for the DNR enforcement division in Little Falls. “When he came through (the DNR training academy), you immediately recognized, ‘This guy has got it.’ ”
Duluth’s Duncan would agree.
“Scott has set the bar for all of our conservation officers,” Duncan said. “If the rest of us are half as good as Staples, people in Minnesota would still be getting their money’s worth.”