A Warden’s Perspective on a Changing Landscape

By Nick Simonson

For North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) District Game Warden Corey Erck of Bismarck, the job of patrolling, investigating and assisting hunters and anglers throughout his area is an extension of his love of hunting, fishing and the outdoors.  The job, and the gear that goes with it, along with outdoors opportunities and efforts, have changed greatly since he started with the NDG&F in 1999, but his approach hasn’t, and that was the case on the morning of the 2017 Deer Firearms Opener as he worked his way up the Missouri River corridor on Highway 1804.

Changing Technology

“You have to be flexible, especially on deer opener,” Erck stated as to his plan for the day, “it’s like that old Mike Tyson quote, ‘Everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the face,’” he advised, ready for whatever the important day might throw at him as the noon hour, and the opening moment of the season, ticked closer.

NDG&F District Game Warden Corey Erck checks the licenses of goose hunters on his computer as they pick up their decoys just north of Bismarck, N.D. Simonson Photo

That flexibility helped him respond to a hunter who, after taking stock of his gear for the opener, found his buck license had disappeared.  Erck connected him with the nearby NDG&F regional office, giving the young sportsman a chance to get in the field with a replacement tag.  From dispatch, to response, to conclusion, the matter took only a few minutes to remedy, as he closed out the interaction on his truck-mounted terminal from a field approach.  Complete with internet and GPS connectivity and the ability to keep updated on various incidents or issues across the state’s multiple law enforcement agencies, his computer screen showed not only his location, but those of local law enforcement and highway patrol agents and even a pilot warden, providing a view from above the area.

“When I started this job, I had a two-way radio, a bag phone and a pager,” Erck said with a laugh, “now everything is right here,” he concluded, clicking the map on his screen and raising his cell phone with an app which showed all the private landowners and various state and federal parcels of land on the route he planned to take.

After working up the Missouri River valley from Bismarck to Washburn, and checking in with a couple groups of very successful goose hunters along the way, the noon hour came and went under clear skies and howling southerly winds.  The final stop before heading east and up onto the prairie with the start of the deer season was a wildlife management area where Erck had been investigating a claim that a hunter had been baiting deer during bow season.

“I had a truck parked here, and I was able to identify the driver through our system and send him a text while he was in there,” Erck said, stressing that he tries not to disrupt people’s hunts if he can avoid doing so, while continuing the process of investigating a case, “there’s the stereotype that a warden is some sort of ogre, but we’re not, we’re hunters too; and we know that most people are honest, out there to have a good time,” as he explained that technology helped him avoid ruining that person’s hunt, rule him out as a person of interest, and get more information on the case, all at the same time.

Changing Hunting

The way people pursue success in the field has also changed, especially among deer hunters in North Dakota, and Erck has observed a major shift among that population and its hunting styles in the last decade or so.

“There used to be a lot more deer drives,” Erck related, “now, many more people go out and sit,” he continued, stating that the change came about in the early 2000s, and the numbers of hunters in the field were much more visible.

Additionally, with the decrease in tags from the six-figure allotment in 2006 to this season’s 54,500 and even less in the previous seasons, there are fewer deer hunters than what Erck has seen throughout most of his career, which explained in part the lack of blaze orange observed on this particular opening afternoon.  The 35 mile-per-hour winds also played a role in keeping hunters sidelined, as Erck checked in with a couple truckloads of would-be deer hunters intently watching a few moving animals at mid-afternoon while parked along the edge of some private land abutting a wildlife refuge.

Erck addresses questions from members of a deer hunting party near Arena, ND. Simonson Photo

“They didn’t even see us pull up behind them,” he chuckled upon his return to the vehicle after talking with them.

On the other side of the off-limits area, he answered a few questions from a group as a member of the party, at the tender age of 83, walked the edge of a cornfield in the single degree wind chills, while the rest remained warm in their vehicles.  The second oldest member, a driver with a handicapped permit, explored with Erck the bounds of where he could drive his vehicle under that arrangement, and was satisfied with the explanation provided, before heading off to meet with his hunting partner.

In the setting sun of one of the slowest openers in the warden’s recent memory, a concerned landowner waved Erck down, reporting a quick in-and-out and two shots heard that afternoon on some posted land he was managing for a neighbor.  The man then addressed some issues with a nearby hunter who was already on the warden’s radar for some questionable harvests following previous game violations elsewhere. Providing the reporter with his contact information, Erck requested any future information that may arise during the season and thanked him for his time.

Changing Mindsets

Having been involved in a massive deer poaching investigation at his previous assignment as a warden in Barnes County in the 2000s, where a party had amassed more than 30 untagged animals on their property during the gun season, Erck was quick to declare that was by far the largest bust of his career, and with less available tags now, he didn’t expect to see any like that again, anytime soon.

“I still work hard to get the bad guys,” he said with a wink following the final interaction of the day, but explained things are different than even ten or 15 years ago, not only based on the lower number of deer tags, but that most people out there mean well and know the rules are in place for a reason.

The sun sets on the first afternoon of the North Dakota Firearms Deer Season – a busy time for the state’s 34 game wardens. Simonson Photo

With his position, and that of prosecuting attorneys and judges involved in the cases Erck investigates and presents, he recognizes there is some level of discretion with everyone involved in the process, and through that, they work to separate the mistakes from the intentional violations and ticket, prosecute and sentence accordingly.  Ultimately, while some may privately begrudge the warden due to old stereotypes – as they do any law enforcement officer from time to time – the relationship with the hunting and fishing public, which Erck described overall as a positive one, is probably better now than it has been at any time during his career.

“We get more compliments than complaints,” Erck said of his efforts and those of his 33 fellow enforcement officers throughout the state, as he wrapped up his day and headed back toward Bismarck on I-94 from the Arena exit, reiterating his love for being in the field.

Whether in his capacity as a warden, or surrounded by a spread of decoys as a private citizen hunting in his off days, that duality seems like it will keep him going strong for another 18 years, no matter what changes the next season will bring.

(Featured Photo: Erck talks with some successful snow goose hunters near Washburn, N.D. with the Missouri River valley in the background. Simonson Photo)

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