A very large mad cow has escaped. Can you come and calm him down? There are 10 stray kittens in my tree. Will you pick them up, because they are cold? Can I keep a deer off the road?
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources receives questions. Many of them. More than 100,000 people come each year to a small office in St. Paul, where a team of 11 information consultants answer more than 400 phone calls and emails that come in every day, six days a week, all of year.
Many are relatively straightforward and often involve fish and wildlife, said MNR Information Center Supervisor Justin Badini. He rolls out a list.
“How many sunfish can I keep on this lake?” When is the gun deer opener? How do I get a replacement fishing license because I lost mine or washed my clothes and they got stuck in my pants so I need a new licence? »
But each week, the call center also deals with slightly more off-the-wall questions, from “I’m going to shoot a political commercial on a lake with a Navy SEAL popping out of a hole in the ice.” The hole?” to “Is it illegal to urinate outside my cooler or on the side of my boat? I don’t like it, but sometimes it’s necessary.”
Whatever the question, Badini and his team work hard to provide answers. No question, he stressed, is a stupid question.
“We welcome any questions that come our way. We just want to educate people, give them the right answer and help them out,” he said. “What if we don’t know? We’ll direct them to the right person. That’s it.”
“The Google of the DNR”
The DNR established the Information Center in 1982 to answer routine questions they receive from the public, to free up staff from having to answer telephone calls.
“It allows our field staff to be on the ground,” said Gail Nosek, DNR communications director. “It allows our subject matter experts to do what they do best.”
In 2016, the information center expanded its evening and Saturday hours.
Today, each year, the office handles more than 90,000 phone calls and 25,000 e-mails. On average, each staff member answers 65 phone calls a day, while answering emails between calls.
For Badini, who hunts, fishes and camp, working at the information center is a way to pass on his passion for the outdoors.
It’s also an increasingly essential service, to help distill what can be very complex rules, for a growing population of people who want to recreate outdoors, but may not have a lot of skills. experience, or none.
“The fishing regulations alone are 93 pages of information. I mean, it’s not a simple document,” Nosek said, adding that staff at the information center can “remove this obstacle that prevents people from going out and trying something like fishing”.
Increased demand due to the pandemic
Recently, more people have needed help understanding the rules. In 2020, when people flocked outdoors at the start of the pandemic, the DNR answered nearly double the number of questions they typically receive.
“There are so many people who were new to the outdoors and didn’t really know where to go for anything,” Badini said. “And so they called us.”
And in this world of texting and social media, the vast majority of people are still calling. “They want that one-on-one connection,” Badini said, “to hear someone’s voice and get that firm answer” to their question.
The busiest day of the year is the day before the opening of deer hunting season, which Badini likens to Christmas morning. Instead of racing to open gifts, the information center staff prepares to answer a flood of questions. Staff typically handle over 1,000 calls per day.
Nosek calls Badini and his team “the Google of DNR”. Many of them have a lot of hunting and fishing regulations in mind. They keep annotated manuals of the rules handy to quickly find information they can’t immediately remember.
“We know a little about a lot of things,” Badini said. They have to, because they answer questions covering a wide variety of information related to the state’s natural resources, conservation, and outdoor recreation across the agency’s six divisions, fish and wildlife. to parks and trails to the app.
“Calls can be about a certain topic, like hunting; and then the next thing you know you’re talking about fishing or dead animals,” he said. “So we try to prepare the staff for everything.”
Roadkill, bird flu, squirrel feed
Each week, the information center produces an update of hot topics that the public requests.
Over the past few weeks, DNR has answered many questions about avian flu, chronic wasting disease, spring fishing, state park passes and camping reservations, burn permits and even the dead animals mentioned by Badini.
“How do I get a permit to keep a deer killed on the road?” a caller asked.
In this case, Badini said the information center would put the person in touch with the state patrol dispatch, who would then contact the local sheriff’s office, police department or conservation officer to issue the permit.
Often, Badini said, they will connect callers with local DNR staff to handle queries they don’t have the expertise to answer. They will also triage calls about law enforcement issues before passing them on to conservation officers.
“What we really want to be is a sort of ‘one stop shop’ that people can call if they have any questions. We’ll do our best to help answer that question. And if we don’t know, we can get you in the right direction,” he said.
And even the most ad hoc questions the DNR receives often provide a great education opportunity, Badini said.
For example, this question the DNR posed in early January – “Can I feed squirrels salted shelled peanuts or do they have to be unsalted?” – can spark a good discussion about how MNR does not recommend feeding wildlife with just any type of food.
And even that slightly more awkward question – “There are two foxes stuck together and they’re freaking out my horses. What do I do?” — offers a chance to educate someone who may not have a lot of wildlife experience, Badini said, of birds and bees.
Earlier this year, the DNR discontinued including a “questions of the week” section at the top of these bulletins, which contained some of the more unusual questions the center answered.
Badini said it was time consuming for staff and not representative of the majority of calls. They wanted to focus on providing the most relevant information for the various divisions of the agency.
Some of these questions sounded like entries on a Twitter account called Alt-DNR Information Center which claims to feature “actual questions from the public posed to the Minnesota DNR Information Center”.
Recent entries include “Could you please get the muskrat out of my window?” and “My neighbor from Waconia threw lit fireworks at geese on her lawn at all hours.”
The DNR, Badini said, has nothing to do with this account.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t answer many memorable questions. For example, more people have been calling recently, wondering if they could drive lawnmowers across frozen lakes to their coolers.
“I don’t know where it came from,” Badini said. “But I think it’s a great idea.”
And it presents one more opportunity to educate the public by including information on ice safety guidelines and precautions.
“But they can use them if they want to,” he added. “People are resourceful.”
Here are some highlights from the Alt-DNR Info Center account. What are your favourites?
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations drive the clarity of our reporters’ coverage across the state, the stories that connect us, and the conversations that provide insight. Help ensure that MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.
Donate today. A donation of $17 makes a difference.