Minnesota Conservation officer James Fogarty with the Mississippi River in the background. Fogarty has now assumed responsibility for the La Crescent Patrol Station.
Minnesota Conservation officer James Fogarty with the Mississippi River in the background. Fogarty has now assumed responsibility for the La Crescent Patrol Station.

“I’m still getting my feet wet,” conservation officer (aka game warden) James Fogarty said last week. With a huge swath of Mississippi River waters, wetlands and islands to monitor as well as plenty of rugged blufflands, he’s still learning the territory.

Fogarty began his duties on Nov. 15 after graduating from the Minnesota DNR’s conservation officer academy in July. Some additional field training followed that “school time” before he took over the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s La Crescent patrol station.

“I lived out of a duffel bag for eight months,” Fogarty recalled.

The new conservation officer (CO) grew up in Belle Plaine. After high school, he earned a degree in law enforcement and went to work for LeSueur County as a correctional officer/dispatcher and part-time patrol deputy.

After three years, he took a patrolman’s position with Carver County, working his way up to the rank of detective. Ten years of additional law enforcement experience bolstered his resume, but it still took three tries to land the coveted post of CO with the MnDNR. It’s a job that’s always appealed to Fogarty.

The La Crescent station covers the area north of the Iowa border to I-90 and east of State Highway 76 to the Wisconsin line. Fogarty works alone.

“I grew up on a farm, so I’ve probably done about any job you can think of,” he said. “In the early ‘90s my father had a seasonal campsite in the Whitewater Valley. So we spent a lot of time every summer there, and down by Preston, and in this area, going to state parks, the caves and (engaging in) outdoor sports.

“I’m the youngest of five kids. The three boys are the youngest. We needed to be out doing stuff, (being) busy. That’s what my dad took upon himself to provide. He brought us down here and kept us busy. We went fishing, hiking and exploring different places. We saw some pretty cool stuff down here!

“We fly fished; we hunted; we traveled. We became good friends with a lot of farmers in the area. When we’d come down for deer season, there was a family that we actually would spend Thanksgiving with.

“We were ‘B’ (late) season hunters, so we would have Thanksgiving with their family. Just to experience their family traditions, which were different than ours; it was really something.

“It’s a beautiful area. Growing up in the Metro and seeing all the streams and the rivers there, you come down here and everything just seems clean. The water seems clean; the air seems cleaner; and it looks like no other place in the State of Minnesota!

“When this station came open, I jumped at the chance. This is not a station that someone that’s fresh out of the academy (typically) gets. This is a station that a 10, 15 or 20-year veteran takes. To me, this is probably the best station in the state.”

Fogarty said that he and his wife (now live in Caledonia) belong to the Minnesota State Parks and Trails Passport Club and have gotten that document stamped at approximately 45 of the 75 state parks.

“Here in Minnesota, you’ve got to get about a mile back in, then everybody’s gone, and you can really see the parks that are basically untouched,” he noted.

It’s the same all over. “If you have the aspiration to explore, the desire to see something different, and get away from where everybody else is, there are so many areas that are untouched, pristine and beautiful.”

Fogarty added, “You can really get out and see what it’s meant to look like and experience fishing where most people don’t.”

As a game warden, it’s important to “go out there to make sure that people are following the rules like they’re supposed to, but a big part of the job is to promote safety,” he said.

“Safety is huge. You’ve got to think about what you’re going to do before you do it,” he pointed out.

Firearms safety classes, ATV safety instruction and snowmobile safety training are all part of the puzzle as is talking to the public (especially young people) about things like the best ways of remaining on top of the ice when going fishing in the wintertime.

“Kids are very impressionable,” Fogarty observed. “If I can talk to a kid, and they take something away from that, and later they look at their dad – and see something – they will tell them, ‘It’s not safe, Dad.’ And if they change Dad’s behavior, that’s a milestone.

“There’s some easy things to learn, maybe from a class, so that you don’t have to learn them first hand, the hard way. If I can help somebody out like that, we’re miles ahead.

“We have volunteer groups that put on hunter’s education, snowmobile safety education and ATV safety education. And the conservation officer goes out and has the ‘law talk’ with the kids.

“It’s important, at that time, to make an impact on the kids, but not to scare them. Kids are bright. They’re listening to you when you don’t think they are. They’re absorbing things.

“To sit down and have a conversation with a dozen 12-year olds – we have that conversation about what the rules and laws are, and I can throw in some experiences that I’ve had throughout my hunting and fishing days or my snowmobiling days.

“You tell them that you need to learn how to fall off a snowmobile because you’re going to fall off, sooner or later. And the sooner you learn to fall off correctly, the less hurt you’re going to get.

“You talk about snow blindness, hitting a drift that you couldn’t see. You’re going to roll that snowmobile; it’s going to tip over, but you’re going to be OK. Wear your safety harness so that your machine shuts off.”

Safe driving also includes all-terrain vehicles, Fogarty added. “The vast majority of the ATV crashes that I responded to as a patrolman were adult males, and generally, they were not wearing a helmet. And sad to say, the ones that we would get a call to respond to, oftentimes they did not live.

“It’s not the gun that’s dangerous; it’s not the ATV that’s dangerous; it’s not the snowmobile that’s dangerous; it’s our behaviors around that equipment that can make it dangerous or not. We need to be educated and know what safe behavior is,” he summed up.

CO Fogarty is currently looking for Houston County residents who are interested in becoming ATV safety instructors. He can be reached at 507-312-3290 or email james.fogarty@state.mn.us.