A 30-year investment: New ODNR wildlife officers get on-the-ground training

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Two wildlife officers walk through the woods.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Investigator Kirk Kiefer, left, watches as Officer Mathew Bourne looks for evidence in a simulated crime scene during training at Woodbury Wildlife Area near Coshocton Oct. 6. (Lucy Schaly photo)

COSHOCTON, Ohio — A car with a window shattered by a gunshot sat near the Woodbury Shooting Range, in Coshocton, Ohio, Oct. 6.

Wildlife officers with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources spent hours processing the scene — tracking where the shot could have come from, based on tree and other plant limb clippings, searching for the wad from a shotgun shell, interviewing witnesses and victims.

One officer noticed a deer camera in the woods.

“Hey, Kiefer, is that part of the incident?” he asked.

Kirk Kiefer, wildlife investigator with the ODNR, shrugged. The officers would have to figure that out for themselves.

The scene was part of a hunter incident training session for new wildlife officers.

The 12 officers graduated from the Wildlife Officer Pre-Service Training Academy in August. Although they have started working in the field with more seasoned officers, they are continuing training.

Training

The session began with classroom training Oct. 5, then continued with the simulated scenarios Oct. 6. There were three scenarios, each supervised by a seasoned wildlife investigator. New officers split into groups to put their classroom training into practice.

While the Oct. 6 scenes were simulated, they recreated real situations.

“We can think of off-the-wall things, but I’d much rather do ones that happened,” said Jarod Roof, ODNR law enforcement supervisor.

At the first scenario, new officers marked off limb clippings and the trajectory of the gunshot, based on those clippings, with ribbons and tape. With those markings, Kiefer said, officers can explain what the scene looked like to a jury through photographs.

They also searched for the wad from a shotgun shell, which could prove which gun fired the shot that went through the car window.

K-9

About an hour and a half into processing the scene, Jeremy Carter, Holmes County wildlife officer, and K-9 Finn arrived.

The ODNR has five K-9 units throughout the state — one for each district, Roof said. Those dogs are trained to find gunpowder residue, among other things, which makes them invaluable for wildlife officers.

But Roof and other trainers didn’t tell the new officers a K-9 would be available, until after they got into the scenarios. While the dogs make it easier, Roof doesn’t want new officers to rely on them too much.

“The K-9 is cheating,” Roof said.

Once, in Ashtabula, officers spent four hours working a scene and couldn’t find what they needed, Roof said. The Pennsylvania Game Commission brought over a K-9 unit to help. The dog found it in about three minutes.

When Carter and Finn arrived at the simulated scene, the new officers explained the situation. Carter put Finn on the case, and, within a few minutes, Finn laid down in front of the shotgun wad, alerting Carter and other officers to its presence.

“You can’t put a price tag on that,” Kiefer said.

A dog and a wildlife officer walk out of the woods.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources K-9 officer Jeremy Carter follows his German shepherd, named Finn, out of the woods during a training exercise at Woodbury Wildlife Area near Coshocton Oct. 6. Finn sniffed out gunpowder in thick brush at the simulated crime scene. (Lucy Schaly photo)

Evidence

A little further down the road, another group of four new officers, wearing orange vests over their uniforms, worked through a different scenario.

In this scenario, wildlife investigator, Kandy Klosterman, explained, two people went hunting together. They didn’t see another nearby hunter, from an adjoining property. The two hunters that were together saw a deer and both shot at it. One of them hit the third hunter in the arm with a slug.

Actors played the roles of the hunters, one saying he was sure he shot the third hunter. But as the officers examined the scene, evidence showed it was actually the other hunter who fired that shot.

“We can’t realistically solve a case until we’ve processed evidence,” Klosterman said.

This scenario also gave new officers a chance to practice interviewing victims and possible suspects, and taking evidence and communicating. Three of the officers stayed at the scene while a fourth left to interview the victim and collect evidence, like clothing, at the “hospital” — in this case, a set-up by the road, out of the woods.

“Unfortunately, sometimes, this happens,” Klosterman said. In those situations, she added, it’s important for officers exercise empathy when talking to people involved.

While wildlife investigators gave some feedback to the new officers during the training, Klosterman said, they also try to make it realistic.

“In the field, and in real life, sometimes you have to rely on your own decisions,” Klosterman said.

A wildlife officer steps over brush at a simulated crime scene.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Officer Jade Heizer, of Delaware, carries evidence tags with her as she steps over brush at a simulated crime scene at Woodbury Wildlife Area. (Lucy Schaly photo)

Debrief

The training doesn’t stop once the scenarios are over. New officers and trainers debriefed the next day, giving feedback both ways on how the new officers did, and on how the training could be improved, Klosterman said.

“They’re going to make mistakes, because they’re new,” Roof said.

And this isn’t the last training that new officers have ahead of them. There are other sessions, including a waterfowl academy, man tracking training and a trapper academy. The ODNR typically has an annual fall training for all officers — not just the new ones. This is all after several months of basic training. And officers are required to have at least a two-year degree in a related field before that.

“This is a 30-year investment,” Roof said.

The ODNR has a pretty high retention rate for wildlife officers, Roof said. He has been with them for 25 years, and has been involved with training for 18 years.

Wildlife officers also get some medical training. An officer in Logan County saved a young woman’s life after a car accident last year by applying a tourniquet to her arm, using knowledge and skills he gained from training as a wildlife officer, Roof said.

“You have to take your training seriously, because you never know when that moment is going to come,” he said.

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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