They are called many names, and few are nice. Fish Cop. Park Pig. Game Warden. Woods Cop. The Man (or Woman) In Green.
All refer to Michigan Department of Natural Resources' conservation officers. These men and women have the same powers of arrest as other law enforcement agencies, and they serve as the first line of defense against those who poach fish, fur or game.
A fallacy exists about poachers. Some think these people are just "good ol' boys" out having fun at the state's expense.
The life of a poacher is much more than that.
Many have police records for crimes and some are vicious criminals, according to DNR files. The worst are those who poach for personal profit. They sell their ill-gotten fish and game and pocket millions of dollars a year, based on DNR statistics. Back in 1980, a DNR study listed the dollar amount at $21 million.
"It is impossible to place a dollar figure on the value of poached fish, fur and game in this state," said Lt. Jane Gordon of the DNR Law Enforcement Division in Lansing. "For instance, a poached deer in 1980 had a replacement value of $100. That value is now $1,000. My guess is it would be substantially higher (now). We could only base an estimate on those cases that go to court, and where a restitution fee is paid."
Most poachers are 25-45 years of age, and some are capable of murder.
"Some poachers we arrest have been convicted of arson, assault, battery, breaking and entering, drug sales, murder, negligent homicide and rape." said an officer who requested anonymity. "Several officers have been killed while enforcing fish and game laws."
There is a long but infrequent history of violence against conservation officers. Serious confrontations have never been common.
The first two conservation officer deaths occurred in 1926 when Arvid Erickson and Emil Skoglund were shot by ex-convict Roy Nunn while patrolling the Sand Plains area of Marquette County. Nunn had previously been convicted of first-degree murder.
Nunn loaded the bodies in a car, drove to Marquette, weighted and threw them into Lake Superior off an ore dock. He was later sentenced to prison after confessing.
Ten years later, also in Marquette County, conservation officer Andrew Schmeltz was checking illegal muskrat traps when he encountered Raymond Kivela, a local trapper. Kivela was asked for identification.
He panicked and shot the officer. Kivela left the fatally wounded Schmeltz lying in the swamp, drove to town, purchased 70 sticks of dynamite and later that evening blew the body apart.
A Michigan State Police investigation led to Kivela's arrest, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
It was on opening day of the Upper Peninsula bear season in 1972 when another officer died. Officers Gerald Welling and William Maycunich were investigating illegal bear hunting at the Hermansville dump when the Sept. 10 incident occurred.
A truck had been seen shining for bears in the dump, and when it began to leave, Welling approached from the front while Maycunich came in from the side. They announced they were conservation officers, and ordered the vehicle to stop.
Welling stood in front of the truck, and shined his flashlight at the occupants. He was struck and dragged 100 feet by the trucks snowplow. Maycunich fired at the truck with his revolver while it backed up and ran forward over Welling again.
The driver, Kenneth Viau of Bark River, was arrested but his passenger, Gary Johnson of Hermansville, fled. Johnson was charged with first-degree murder, as was Viau, but charges against Johnson were dropped. Locals backed Viau, raising defense money at local bars. The charge was reduced to negligent homicide and he served one year in jail.
"It's a sad day when citizens back a killer and ignore the death of a fine conservation officer," said retired DNR Law Chief Frank Opolka. "It's only by sheer good fortune that other officers have not been killed."
"Our conservation officers must enforce fish or game law violations and often face people carrying firearms," another officer said. "Many violations occur during hunting season. Usually, when informed they've broken a fish or game law, they submit peacefully to the officers and hand over their firearms. But ... not always."
In October 1939, a shootout occurred in Iosco County between conservation officer Art Leitz and a suspect, William Sims. Leitz was shot in the head and leg, but recovered. Sims lost an arm in the shooting and received a 25-40 year prison sentence.
In 1979, officer Michael Hanson was assaulted by three men and a woman while making a littering arrest. Hanson was stabbed in the chest with a knife, knocked to the ground and kicked before the assailants finally grabbed his service revolver.
"I would have shot them if I could have got my hands on my revolver," Hanson later said. "But I had two people hanging off each arm, and they were really banging me around. The fight covered 200 yards before I was stabbed and wrestled to the ground."
He said the people pointed the revolver at Hanson's head, and discussed whether to kill him. They didn't shoot because they believed the knife wound was fatal. Hanson recovered and the assailants were later arrested for felonious assault and resisting arrest.
The next to the last serious injury to an officer occurred on Oct. 23, 1980, when Officer V. Scott Averill was severely beaten in Grand Traverse County. He had questioned two men for snagging salmon on the lower Boardman River.
As Averill led them to his patrol car, they beat him on the head with a handgun. He received severe skull fractures that required immediate surgery. He eventually returned to work but later died from complications as a result of those injuries.
The last conservation officer to be seriously injured was Tim Burke, who was shot in the face as he and fellow officer Juris Didrichson chased two subjects who had been seen shining deer in a Thumb area where other deer had been poached after dark.
It was the evening of Oct. 20, 1984 when they spotted shiners near Caro. The chase began on a dirt road, turned onto M-46 where the pickup narrowly missed an oncoming car, and it turned onto another dirt road. One suspect leaned out and fired a rifle. The bullet struck Burke's patrol car, ricocheted off the hood, shattered the windshield, exited through the dashboard and struck Burke in an eye and mouth.
"Juris, I've been shot in the eye," Burke said to his partner as he stopped the patrol car.
They radioed for an ambulance, and later Steven Scott Simon of Millington surrendered to the Michigan State Police. Burke recovered from his injuries and went on to serve a distinguished law enforcement career.
"The subjects in 50 percent of the cases we see have been drinking, are drunk or high on drugs," retired officer Mike McCarty of the Detroit area told me. "A large number of these people, because of their intoxication, cannot behave in a rational manner.
"I'm not sure what can be done to minimize violent assaults on our officers, but thank God they don't occur more often. We always need more officers in the field."
Budget cuts have reduced the number of conservation officers to a very low point. Some counties that need three officers only have one. Recent budget cuts also make it difficult for officers to do their job properly.
One officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the unstable nature of his job, told this writer in April that many officers would be laid off in the fall. The money needed was not there until recently when $10 million was found that provided some financial resources to enforce state fish and game laws.
The same officer said the DNR continues to fight poaching but the public must help. The DNR Law Enforcement Division needs citizen involvement, and it's important for people to realize that poachers aren't nice people. Citizens can report any illegal act they see by calling the Report All Poaching (RAP) number at (800) 292-7800.
The concept of protecting poachers must change if Michigan hopes to protect our resources from those who would break the law rather than learn how to fish or hunt in a legal manner.
Dave Richey also writes a daily Weblog and readers are invited to visit it and his other features at daverichey.com