OTSEGO COUNTY — If you spend any amount of time hunting, fishing or doing some other outdoor activity in Northern Michigan, there's a pretty good chance you've run into Mark DePew or one of his conservation officer counterparts. Perhaps you even got a ticket as a souvenir of the encounter.
The odds are better you were among the other 95 percent of law-abiding, responsible and ethical outdoorspeople Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) officers like DePew meet on a daily basis in the field.
Most of the run-ins are simple license checks and fish counts and often lead to a conversation about hunting or fishing. Even when someone has broken the law by illegally taking a game animal or keeping an undersize fish, DePew tries to part on good terms.
"They're a poacher one day, but an informant the next," DePew said. "It shows that you're trying to help."
DePew, 36, is an avid sportsman in his off time, yet on the job he's also a hunter, trapper, fisherman and tracker, using the very same skills of a sportsman to look for illegal dump sites, signs of trespass or carcasses of poached animals.
On a routine patrol in April, DePew parked his patrol vehicle on a culvert in the middle of nowhere and peered through his binoculars, looking for one or two twigs protruding from a small creek. What anyone else might disregard as just a stick in the mud, DePew and other trappers recognize as guide sticks meant to steer beaver or muskrat into traps. After checking it for a name tag, he reset the trap with care, leaving bootprints in the snow as the only sign he was ever there.
Some of his tactics are downright ancient.
"Eagles, crows and ravens are a game warden's best friends," he said.
The scavengers often circle the sky above a carcass and often lead DePew to a poached animal or gut pile to investigate.
Along with his instincts, DePew has enough equipment and electronics to outfit a small army (see gear list, p. 5). The truck, boats, kayaks and off-road vehicles that come with the territory were part of what drew him to the job.
Like most conservation officers, DePew has a strong law enforcement background. He was a deputy for Grand Traverse County for 10 years and a K-9 officer for seven, working the same beats and facing the same dangers as every other cop.
One Christmas Eve, Deputy DePew and his police dog, Jesco, responded to the scene of a suicidal subject outside. The man had set his gun down in surrender, and DePew was just about to send in Jesco when the subject changed his mind, grabbed up his gun and started firing at DePew and his dog.
"I could see the leaves jump as the rounds hit the ground," he recalled, telling how he and Jesco took cover from the bullets. A minute later, the encounter was over and Jesco was playing with a stick as if to show DePew that everything was OK.
DePew left Grand Traverse County and moved to Gaylord in 2008 along with his wife, Dawn, three kids — Jake, Haylee and Jayda — and Jesco, now 13 and the family pet. DePew met Dawn, a former paramedic, when they were both called to the scene of a dead body in a home.
"Just your typical love story," he laughed. They were married in September 2002.
He entered an inherently dangerous field when he was hired as the conservation officer to cover Otsego County and parts of Montmorency County. Most subjects DePew encounters afield between September and March are armed, and calling for backup in the remote areas he patrols is essentially pointless. Since 1887, 13 Michigan conservation officers have died in the line of duty.
Still, the job is worth its perks.
"You get to do all the fun things a normal cop doesn't get to do," DePew said, driving his dented and scratched DNR-green patrol truck down an overgrown two-track. "The hunting and fishing community is the best one out there. It's a family. I love protecting the animals and the Michigan hunting and fishing heritage we have, keeping a level playing field for all."
Some parts of the job are no fun at all. He often finds himself elbow-deep in illegal trash piles on state land, sifting through kitchen garbage and dirty diapers for an envelope, receipt or slip of paper that might lead to a suspect. Poachers and litterers are some of the biggest thieves out there, DePew said, stealing outdoor experiences away from everyone else.
His efforts have caught the attention of his peers: DePew was named "Conservation Officer of the Year" for 2012 by the Michigan Conservation Officer Association. He has also received two competitive grants from Shikar Safari Club, an international group, to help him continue his schooling. He earned his master's degree in 2011 and is a part-time criminal justice professor.
"He is one of the finest officers I've had the chance to work with," said DePew's supervisor, Lt. Jim Gorno, who has served the department for 27 years. "I gauge officers on their ability to have and raise a family, be a husband and father, and do a stand-up job as a conservation officer."
DePew's work often spills into the home. He has an office but often finds himself at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of coffee and working on his laptop as his children get ready for school or bedtime. He often works in the middle of the night — not only to catch poachers shining deer but also to reinforce the truth that a conservation officer could be anywhere, anytime.
"That's how it is with game wardens," Gorno continued. "Their home is their office. All of us have gone through that being conservation officers. But we want people who want to hunt and fish, love the outdoors and want to protect it. That's where we get our Mark DePews."
Every day DePew is reminded that he loves his job. He once watched an elk let out a bugle from 15 yards away. The powerful sound waves reverberated inside his chest, rattling his core.
"I thought, 'My God, I'm where I'm supposed to be.'"
DePew's equipment inventory
Every police officer must be equipped for his or her job.
For a conservation officer, that means their gear needs to stand up to the task of patrolling back roads and two-tracks, swamps and lakes, snowmobile and ORV trails, woods and fields.
Here's a glimpse of what DNR officer Mark DePew uses to protect Northern Michigan's natural resources and our heritage of hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation:
— Fully equipped patrol truck
— 16-foot whaler and 14-foot jon boat
— Canoe, kayak
— Dirt bike
— Metal detector (for finding bullets in animal carcasses)
— Night-vision optics
— animatronic turkey and deer decoys for catching illegal road hunters
— Weapons: .40-caliber pistol, .308-caliber rifle, 12-gauge pump shotgun, off-duty .38-caliber pistol
— Pepper spray
— Collapsible baton
— Two GPS units
— Toughbook laptop
— Cell phone
— Turkey and 2 deer (animatronic)
"A couple have a couple bullet holes."