DNR Workers Take the Hassle out of Deer Season for Hunters

“Deer season is an explosion of phone calls,” says AFSCME Local 1465 Executive Board member Sonja Davidson, who works in the DNR information center.
“Deer season is an explosion of phone calls,” says AFSCME Local 1465 Executive Board member Sonja Davidson, who works in the DNR information center.

When deer-hunting season is about to open each year, DNR workers say there’s a buzz in the air.

In the week leading up to the start of firearm deer season, they’ll answer thousands of questions from hunters. They’ll sell hunting licenses. They’ll prepare to help test for Chronic Wasting Disease.

When hunters head into Minnesota’s woods and fields to get their deer, it’s thanks to these DNR workers that they can do so safely.

“Deer season is an explosion of phone calls,” says AFSCME Local 1465 Executive Board member Sonja Davidson, who works in the DNR information center. “Over the last couple of months, we’ve really been hyping up for this.”

A typical Monday might entail 250 calls. Last Monday, she says, there were more than 700; last Friday, there were upwards of 1,200. Firearm deer season opened Nov 4.

“We have everybody on the phone,” Davidson says. “We are working overtime to answer the public’s questions. We’ve been having potlucks. We’ve been organizing daily fun activities to keep our energy up. It’s all of us working together at night, the phone ringing nonstop and calls in queue all the time.”

Katie Steffl of AFSCME Local 694 shows students the proper procedure for pulling lymph nodes for Chronic Wasting Disease.
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Hunters have all kinds of questions: Where can we hunt? Which trails are open? Do youth need firearm safety? Where is my license valid? What about Chronic Wasting Disease testing? Do we need to wear blaze orange?

“Every time that phone rings, you never know what you’re going to pick up,” Davidson says. She keeps a list of the funniest questions she gets throughout the year: How do I get a woodchuck out of my snowblower? Where do Minnesota restaurants get their walleye from? ‘I saw a peacock on my property. Is the DNR releasing them?’

The call center is essential to a safe hunting season:  “We can get them the correct answer they’re looking for,” Davidson says. “We’re helping them follow state laws and understand the regulations or connecting them with an appropriate contact.”

“If people have questions, they’re not fully understanding things,” adds Brenda Thompson, a customer service specialist in the DNR license center and Local 1465 secretary. “It’s good they’re calling the DNR to get the proper answer rather than asking a friend or the guy at the gas station.”

She says the work DNR staff do to promote and protect our natural resources is essential.

“I think nature has a lot to offer people, but nature kind of gets taken for granted,” Thompson says. “We don’t take a lot of time to think about the services nature provides, to appreciate what’s out there, be it trees, water or animals. It’s not there for human purposes only. It’s thinking about how everything is connected, about how everything is bigger than ourselves.”

Kevin Habeck spent his days before deer-hunting season began answering questions and selling licenses at the DNR front counter in Saint Paul.

“We’re pretty serious about our jobs and what we do for the state of Minnesota,” the Local 1465 treasurer says. “We have a pretty good knowledge base. If we don’t know the answer, we definitely get the customer the answer.”
He’s been at the DNR since 2002 and at the front counter since 2008, long enough to develop a fan base.

“They come in just for you,” Habeck says. “I don’t know if it’s just because of the service I provide for them. That makes me feel good. The younger generation will come, the older generation will come, the guys who are grandfathers and grandmothers, they’ll say, ‘Hey kid, how are you?’”

He tells them he hopes they get the big one this year.

“It’s a pretty rewarding job,” Habeck says. “I definitely enjoy what I do. I don’t see myself anywhere else.”

When deer season draws near, AFSCME members at the DNR hit the fields and forests, too.

Laborers like Tom Simone, who splits his time between the DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division and Forestry (where he’s a forest fire response lead), help clean and mow parking lots, trim paths between the lots to connect them, and mow walking paths for hunters.

"We're pretty serious about our jobs and what we do for the state of Minnesota," says AFSCME Local 1465 treasurer Kevin Habeck , who works at the DNR's front counter in Saint Paul.
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This year when the season started, the Local 1465 member joined a Chronic Wasting Disease sampling team in Garrison, one of numerous test stations across north-central, central and southeast Minnesota. So far, the disease has only been confirmed in the wild in southeast Minnesota.

“The area I’m in is under surveillance,” Simone says. “They found Chronic Wasting Disease on a couple of deer farms. The whole point is to see if CWD has transferred to the wild herd. They’ll send all these samples back. If any of them come back positive, they’ll have to redouble their efforts.”

Katie Steffl of AFSCME Local 694, who by day works as an office administration specialist in the DNR’s Madelia Research Office, spent last weekend in Rushford on a CWD crew, too.

Hunters brought in their deer, and then workers slit the animals’ throats so they could pull out lymph nodes for testing. They also recorded details like a deer’s age and sex. Steffl helped train others in the technique, too.

“I loved it,” says Steffl. “I loved the interaction with hunters and getting to hear their stories. I liked learning more about the deer, and everyone working as a team. I grew up in a hunting family. It was really cool to see people bringing them in.”

She says potentially helping stop the spread of the disease was rewarding.

“It makes you feel like you want to do more and more, contribute more,” she says.
DNR wildlife chief Paul Telander projects a harvest of 200,000 deer this season, which ends Dec. 31 with archery season. That’s substantially above last year’s harvest of 173,213.