Published April 01, 2012, 12:00 AM

Longtime DNR conservation officer Stuart Bensen calls it a career

Tuesday, the longtime conservation officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources signed off for the last time when he retired on his 55th birthday.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

I was fishing a small river just a little bit east of nowhere one Sunday afternoon in October 1997 when a Minnesota conservation officer walked up behind me.

No problem, that. I had my fishing license, a walleye on the stringer and all was right with the world — and the rules book.

What amazed me, though, was how the officer had managed to get out of his truck and walk up behind me without a sound. Not until I heard, “Oh, it’s you Brad,” did I realize I had company.

That’s the way it was with Stuart Bensen. If I’d been breaking the rules, the stealthy officer would have had me “dead to rights.”

Tuesday, the longtime conservation officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources signed off for the last time when he retired on his 55th birthday. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going to miss Bensen in his role as a conservation officer. If ever I had a question about a hunting- or fishing-related law in Minnesota, he’s always the first person I’d call.

Not all conservation officers are that approachable.

“It is a strange, odd feeling for sure,” Bensen said Wednesday afternoon on his first full day of retirement. “I woke up at 1:30 this morning and realized I’m no longer a cop. Returning to civilian life, I’m wondering how it’s going to be, but I think I’m looking forward to it.”

A native of Erskine, Minn., Bensen since December 1998 worked an area that included parts of Polk, Red Lake and Norman counties. He graduated from what then was called Northland Community College in Thief River Falls with a degree in criminal justice and spent his first year in law enforcement as a sheriff’s deputy in Red Lake Falls, Minn.

For an outdoorsman at heart, though, being a conservation officer seemed like the perfect gig, and Bensen got the opportunity in July 1980 when he landed a position in Grygla, Minn. He transferred to Roseau in 1983, which is where he was stationed when we crossed paths that October afternoon in 1997.

Bensen had a reputation for being fair, and that earned him respect in Roseau, a part of northwest Minnesota where the DNR isn’t always adored. That reputation didn’t change when Bensen returned to his hometown. The job frequently brought him to East Grand Forks checking anglers along the Red and Red Lake rivers.

There were a lot of changes over the years, Bensen said. His first patrol vehicle was car, and he drove Ford LTDs both in Grygla and Roseau before graduating to the four-wheel-drive pickups that have become standard issue for conservation officers today.

LTDs, after all, aren’t very practical for pursuing poachers through the brush.

“If they hit the highway and wanted to run, I was in good shape,” Bensen said. “If they wanted to run through the swamp or the bog, I was done.”

Bensen says his favorite vehicle was a black Dodge pickup with a roll bar he could have driven right off the set of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” the Chuck Norris crime-fighter show that was popular in the 1990s. The truck was a big hit whenever Bensen visited area schools.

“I still say it was one of the best PR things because the kids could identify with it,” he said.

The nature of the job also changed. Poaching violations once were more prevalent, and officers spent a lot of time targeting deer shining. Now, shining is less common, and there’s more emphasis on ATV enforcement, wetland law compliance and, more recently, educating the public about aquatic invasive species.

“Back when I started, public perception of taking over the limit or taking out of season wasn’t a big issue,” he said. “Now, it’s totally reversed.”

Bensen said officers from neighboring work areas will pick up the slack until the DNR hires a replacement.

“I’m going to miss a lot of things,” he said. “I’ll miss helping people, working with the crew — our guys, the troopers, deputies, city (police) — all super tremendous people, but all things must come to an end.”

The change means there’ll be more time for chores such as cleaning the garage and house-remodeling projects, Bensen said.

Fall hunting seasons definitely won’t be the same.

“Hunting with a high-powered rifle again, that’s going to be very foreign, he said. “That hasn’t happened in almost 20 years.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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