ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — For Mitch Lawler and Shane Osborne, their day-to-day work life has no choice but to go on relatively business as usual during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like everyone who works in enforcement, there are still laws to uphold and communities to patrol. For DNR conservation officers like Lawler and Osborne, an uptick in angling and hunting licenses sold in Minnesota this spring during the pandemic has potentially increased the number of people they are running into on the job this year.
“It’s something that’s on your mind when you’re checking people,” Osborne said of the pandemic. “You see what’s in the media, what’s been reported, the number of cases and deaths. All of our offices are in our homes, so with the number of people we contact on a daily basis, you have to think about your family you’re going home to.”
Minnesota angling licenses sold were up more than 40% from the same time last year leading up to the opener. The 440,695 fishing licenses sold as of the Monday after the state’s walleye and pike opener was still up 27% from the 347,245 at the same time in 2019.
“I would say it’s a little bit busier this spring with people shore fishing in the last three weeks or so trying to find crappies,” Lawler said. “There’s been a lot of people out that I’ve never seen or checked before. There’s a lot of new faces that are from the area who decided, ‘Well, there’s nothing else to do. I’m going to try fishing this year.’”
Spring turkey hunting has followed a similar trend as fishing. As of May 11, the DNR had sold almost 61,000 turkey licenses, up 38% relative to 2019.
Harvest is up 30% relative to the same time last year, and hunters have already surpassed the 2019 total number of birds killed by 12% with the season still open until May 31.
“I have been seeing an increase in turkey hunting activity,” Osborne said of his local work zone. “I’ve also seen an increase in complaints in regards to turkey hunting activity from other years.”
Osborne patrols the Evansville area in western Douglas County, and Lawler does the same around Alexandria. Lawler and his wife have four children. They are on the back of his mind when he is out in the field this spring.
“I think about it more. I wouldn’t say worry is the right word, and honestly, it has nothing to do with me at all,” Lawler said. “It has to do with my kids. I don’t want to get my kids sick. I have found myself probably using 300%, 400%, 500% more hand sanitizer in my truck. When I check a license or deal with someone, I’ll just use it right when I get back in the truck.”
Being cognizant of following the Center for Disease Control guidelines of constantly cleaning equipment, washing hands and using sanitizer, and trying to abide by social distancing guidelines are much more on the minds these days for conservation officers around the state.
“It makes it a little difficult,” Osborne said. “The biggest thing is we have different avenues of checking people’s information. We can have them hold up their license, and as long as we can read it and verify it, we don’t have to hold onto that license. In certain circumstances, we do have to physically check people’s licenses. Being a law enforcement officer makes it difficult to social distance in certain circumstances.”
The officers have been provided personal protective equipment such as face masks, but Osborne said they are not required to wear the masks.
“We have the ability to do that,” he said. “We have been provided safety equipment. If we do have to go into certain businesses that require them, or say like a nursing home or a hospital, we would do something like that.”
Osborne and Lawler were both busy checking anglers over the fishing opener. Both said the uptick in fishing and turkey-license sales was not necessarily leading to any more citations being issued this year with increased activity.
The DNR has urged hunters and anglers to fish and hunt close to home during the pandemic. Conservation officers likely have as good of an idea as anyone on whether or not people are heeding that advice through the number of licenses they check.
“Most people are local within a one or two county radius, but there are some,” Lawler said. “There are those I check that are from the cities or from down south where lakes are more sparse, but I think generally speaking, people are obeying it. In the order, there’s the guideline that you go somewhere where you can come home on the same tank of gas. We’re not that far from the Cities or St. Cloud, so that’s probably part of the reason we’re seeing that.”
The busy season in the lakes area is just getting started on a typical year. Minnesota’s stay at home order also expired after May 17, and conservation officers around Alexandria are ready for what might be big crowds coming into the area throughout the summer.
“It’s definitely a different feel,” Lawler said, “but as far as activity and work, it’s the same.”