On the Outdoor Beat

 

“Come on, we have a deer,” says Connecticut Environmental Conservation (EnCon) Officer Paul Hilli as he hangs up the phone, grabs his gear and nods to the door. “It’s caught on a fence in someone’s back yard.”

We leave the Sessions Woods Wildlife Management Area facility in rural Burlington, where Officer Hilli had been showing me around and explaining some of the duties of an EnCon officer—the most important of which is responding to calls. We get in Hilli’s unmarked SUV (“My office on wheels,” as he refers to it), which is jam-packed with radios, maps, outdoor gear, multiple investigation kits, safety equipment, implements for handling animals and even a shotgun: EnCon officers are fully authorized and armed police, tasked with criminal investigations just like city cops, only with a wider (and “wilder”) jurisdiction—in Hilli’s case, the northwest corner of the state. 

When we arrive at the call, however, the deer is already dead—in fact, with his forensic training, Hilli is able to determine from clues such as the progress of rigor mortis that the doe has been dead for nearly 12 hours. He removes it from the fence and drags it to the front of the homeowner’s property. “Not exactly the glamorous part of the job,” he says, making a call for the carcass to be picked up.

“The first thing I ask someone who says they are interested in becoming an EnCon officer is ‘Do you think you can kill an animal?’” says Hilli, who has been on the job for 18 years. “Because if the answer is ‘No,’ then this is not the job for them. I absolutely love animals, but if one is suffering due to an accident or severe injury, I have to do the humane thing and put it out of its misery.”

Fortunately, “dispatching” distressed creatures is only a small part of what the EnCon Police do. Formerly known as game wardens, the force was established in 1895 to help enforce fishing regulations. As decades passed, their sphere broadened considerably to include boating, hunting and wildlife management as well as search-and-rescue operations. A division of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), they investigate hunting-related shootings and boating accidents in addition to criminal activities in state parks and forests (like marijuana farming). They also assist in environmental tasks such as the stocking of rivers, and are active in providing community outreach. Shifts for EnCon officers are unscheduled, and are adapted to the seasons and tasks at hand; most officers work weekends and are on call 24 hours.

Currently, there are 52 EnCon officers in the state, with 39 on active field patrol in three jurisdictions: the Eastern and Western Districts (basically, the eastern and western halves of the state), and the Marine District, which covers the towns along the shoreline. The duties in the Marine District are a bit different from the other districts in that they are more focused on enforcing the state’s laws and regulations regarding the commercial fishing industry, i.e., monitoring fishing vessels and shellfish harvesting. They also dedicate a lot of resources to ensuring boating safety.

Although inland, Officer Hilli is a member of the Boating Accident Reconstruction Unit, with which he has investigated numerous watercraft accidents, particularly on lakes. “The evidence can be tougher to find. It’s not like a car crash—there are no skid marks or tire tracks,” he says. “I enjoy the challenge of taking all the pieces of the puzzle and fitting them together to figure out what happened.”

Hilli is also a certified police instructor and member of the Tranq (Tranquilizer) Unit. “We like to train newer officers on how to properly tranquilize wildlife in low-stress situations,” he says, as we head to the Peoples State Forest in Barkhamstead to join a team of DEP biologists who annually track and tag black bears. “We take them out on quieter excursions like this—you don’t want to have to tranquilize your first bear in downtown Hartford with a thousand people standing around watching as you gauge the animal’s weight and then try to mix the right amounts.”

We meet up with DEP wildlife biologist Paul Rego, wildlife technician Jason Hawley and Alex Johnston, who have been monitoring the bear population in the state, estimated to be between 300 and 500, and growing rapidly—a problem that all four men agree Connecticut needs to deal with soon, ideally by allowing hunting. Hilli says that 90 percent are “good bears” that won’t bother anyone, but the rest, the nuisance bears, are the ones that come into contact with humans and can cause problems.

On this day, the DEP team is checking on a female bear they’ve been following since she was born in 2006. They’ve already tracked her by her radio collar to a den under a fallen tree. Moving deliberately and quietly over the course of an hour, they are able to tranquilize the sow with a 10-foot-long dart stick, and once she’s fully sedated, remove the 205-pound omnivore from her den—along with two four-month-old cubs. The bears are all weighed and examined, with the mother receiving a new radio collar and the cubs each getting tracking microchips implanted.

“We do some neat things,” says Hilli, as one of the cubs nestles itself under his coat. “It’s law enforcement, but certainly not typical.”

For more info, visit ctenconpolice.org.

On the Outdoor Beat

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