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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Staffing Wardens’ Ranks Still Challenges Wisconsin DNR

Long after Wisconsin “realigned” the Department of Natural Resources to “streamline state government” in November 2016, the agency’s law-enforcement division remains so short-staffed that it’s boosting efforts to recruit and retain more conservation wardens.

The DNR currently has 23 full-time vacancies in its warden force, and was authorized to fill 20 positions this year. The agency has 221 “credentialed” warden positions and 36 non-credentialed full-time professional staff jobs. It expects more vacancies before year’s end, but can’t send new wardens afield until May 2024 when the next class completes the agency’s five-month training academy, which begins in January.

In effect, chronic staffing shortages forced the DNR in 2021 to ramp up its own version of the nationwide “R-3” hunter-recruitment program — whose goal is to “recruit, retain and reactivate” hunters.

The DNR, of course, isn’t trying to reactivate retired wardens, but one could call this an “R-2” effort. The 2021 annual report from the agency’s division of public safety and resource protection announced a recruitment effort to attract a “wider variety of candidates.” And the division’s 2022 annual report followed up with retention concerns about its wardens, noting “competitive pay plays a significant role in recruiting and retaining the most qualified” people for warden jobs.

The 2022 report includes a chart detailing “compensation discrepancies” for wardens, and called the situation increasingly dire because “pay increases have not kept pace with inflation or (nearby) law-enforcement agencies.” In fact, Wisconsin wardens rank last in pay when compared to state troopers and fellow wardens in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan.

The report states: “The loss of employees impairs the ability of the (DNR) to provide consistent public safety throughout the state, (and causes) recurring financial loss from recruiting and training investments.” The report also warns: “Failing to correct compensation (will) likely have a long-term impact on the division’s ability to recruit and retain the best officers for Wisconsin’s citizens.”

DNR records show the agency has hired 172 conservation wardens since 2011, and that 124 (72%) of them remain. Cara Kamke, chief of the DNR’s warden training program, joined the agency in 2012. She said the common assumption among her class was that they would work 30 years for the agency and then collect their retirement packages.

“You always heard you would retire from this job, but we’ve seen a lot of people leave for other agencies and other reasons,” Kamke said. “That’s not unique and it’s not necessarily new, but it seems to be happening more frequently the past several years.”

Nine of the 11 (81.8%) recruits in Kamke’s 2012 warden class remain with the agency, ranking it fourth for retention among the past 14 classes. The top two classes -- 2016 and 2017 – have retained 22 (91.6%) of their combined 24 graduates, while the third-place class (2018) retained 14 of 17 (82.4%).

Three other classes, however — 2013, 2014 and 2019 — have retained only 18 of 39 total graduates (44%, 46% and 50%, respectively).

Still, Kamke notes no consistent retention decline. The past four classes (2020 through 2023) have fluctuating retention rates of 73%, 81%, 62% and 80%. She said some who leave cite compensation when switching to another state’s wildlife agency, the State Patrol or other law-enforcement department. Still others quit because they don’t like the job, while others get fired.

Ben Gruber, president of Conservation Wardens Local 1215, said pay is a significant issue, but retention rates defy single or simple explanations. He noted that recruits know the pay scale when they accept the job, so it’s seldom the lone factor when they later leave.

Gruber became a warden in 2019 after serving several years as a firefighter in Eau Claire, Middleton and Fitchburg. He agreed to become Local 1215’s president in March after hearing a growing desire among fellow wardens for a “collective voice” about working conditions and management decisions affecting their jobs. During the past six months Gruber has helped boost the union’s membership from less than 10 to nearly 50.

“The main reason I hear for joining (the union) is that their input hasn’t had meaningful impacts in recent years, and they want to restore that input without fear of retaliation,” Gruber said. “Pay disparity is a big concern for our members, but they also believe field staff and management get treated differently in terms of transfers, discipline, working hours and location assignments. So, yes, a significant number of members say they’re actively looking at other jobs; for all the reasons I’ve mentioned.”

Tom Thoresen retired in 2005 as the DNR’s deputy chief conservation warden. Like many retired wardens, Thoresen still talks to active-duty wardens. He said he no longer hears about wardens having to drive eight hours round-trip to cover one-day staffing shortages, but he said discontent lingers from 2011 when the state stripped most public employees – including wardens — of collective-bargaining rights.

Meanwhile, the DNR continues to temporarily assign field wardens to state parks to fill voids seven years after the 2016 reorganization stripped park rangers of their law-enforcement credentials. Wardens from Dane, Sauk, Adams, Richland and Columbia counties, for example, rotated this summer to fill in at Devil’s Lake State Park near Baraboo, pulling them from their normal duties of enforcing fish, wildlife and environmental laws, as well as safety regulations on boats and recreational vehicles.

“The management culture much of the past decade demanded obedient workers,” Thoresen said. “It was top-down management, with little transparency and no input from field staff. Even when you had legislators writing bills to undercut the wardens’ authority, political appointees running the DNR didn’t let the chief warden testify at hearings. All those things contribute to an agency’s culture, and it takes a long time to fix things when people fear retribution.

“Wardens have a tough job to start with,” Thoresen continued. “They’re dealing with everything from complex environmental regulations, to boaters who’ve been drinking all day, to people carrying knives and loaded guns. So, when wardens see their pay slipping to the bottom, it’s just one more thing undercutting morale; making them wonder if the job’s really worth it.”

The pay scale for Wisconsin’s conservation wardens ranks the lowest of all states in the Great Lakes region, and likely contributes to roughly three of 10 wardens leaving the agency each year. — Patrick Durkin photo

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