Felicia Znajda carries on family tradition of fish and wildlife enforcement as new DNR conservation officer
Her father, Capt. Pat Znajda, and grandfather, Ted Znajda, both preceded her as Minnesota DNR conservation officers.
BEMIDJI – She’d heard the stories from her father and grandfather – of late-night patrols, of days both nice and not-so-nice spent outdoors checking hunters and anglers, and of the adventures and occasional misadventures that go with a career in which no two days are the same.
For Felicia Znajda, that was enough to steer her toward a career in fish and wildlife enforcement.
“It always changes,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a routine day.”
A 2013 graduate of Stephen-Argyle (Minn.) High School and 2017 graduate of UND, Felicia Znajda (pronounced za-NAY-da) spent five years with the East Grand Forks Police Department before getting accepted into the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Conservation Officer Academy. The 16-week program trains candidates for careers in natural resources enforcement.
Upon graduating from the academy on Sept. 13, she became the third generation in her family to work in natural resources enforcement.
Like father, like daughter, you might say. And like grandfather before her.
“I wanted to start out at a police department, but I knew I wanted to get into wildlife,” she said.
Felicia’s dad, Capt. Pat Znajda of East Grand Forks, who is retiring from the DNR on Oct. 4 after 17 years with the agency and nearly 36 years in enforcement, pinned the badge on his daughter during a graduation ceremony at Camp Ripley Military Reservation near Little Falls, Minn.
He also pinned a badge on his son, Taylor, who graduated in October 2021 from the Minnesota State Patrol Academy and now is a state trooper in Hibbing, Minn. The opportunity to pin badges on both children in the past year has been a career highlight, says Pat, a Warren, Minn., native and 1987 UND graduate who spent 16½ years with the Minnesota State Patrol before joining the DNR in October 2005.
If not for those opportunities, Znajda says he probably would have retired a couple of years ago. “I’m very proud of them both,” he said of Taylor and Felicia. “They work for outstanding law enforcement agencies, and they both carry on a family tradition.”
Pat Znajda started his DNR career as a conservation officer in Karlstad, Minn., before being promoted to lieutenant and becoming District 1 Enforcement supervisor in October 2007. He became a captain and was Northwest Region Enforcement manager from January 2020 to July 2021, at which time he took his latest position as program manager for DNR Enforcement.
Felicia’s grandfather, Ted Znajda, started his career in 1949 as a “refuge patrolman” at Norris Camp, known today as headquarters of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area. Ted Znajda worked as a game warden and conservation officer in Warren from 1959 until retiring in 1989.
He died in December 2000 at the age of 76.
“I was pretty young when he passed away – I was like 5 or 6 – but I still remember sitting on the back deck at his house and listening to him and my dad talk,” Felicia said during a recent interview at the DNR’s Northwest Region Headquarters in Bemidji. “Listening to my dad and all the stories that he’s been able to tell me is what really drew me.”
Like his daughter, Pat Znajda says his interest in fish and wildlife enforcement came from his days riding around on patrol with his dad, something that wouldn’t be allowed for conservation officers today.
The DNR changed the title of its enforcement officers from “game warden” to “conservation officer” in the late 1960s to better reflect the nature of the job.
“I can remember lots of times as a little kid, waking up in the middle of the night – 3 o’clock in the morning – hearing people talk, and I’d go out in the kitchen,” he said. “I’d sit down on the floor and there’d be three or four game wardens around the table, and they’d just come in from the night working, and I’d sit there listening to the stories and probably fall asleep on the floor.”
Felicia’s graduation from the Conservation Officer Academy came with an emotional surprise. In a break from standard protocol, she now wears Badge No. 86, the same badge her grandfather wore as a DNR conservation officer.
Originally, Felicia says, she thought she was going to receive Badge No. 671.
“On graduation day, when they gave me Badge 671, my dad pulls out my grandpa’s badge from the ’60s and then pinned Badge No. 86 on me,” Felicia said. “So, I think I’m the first one ever to be able to reuse a badge number.”
Col. Rodmen Smith, director of the DNR’s Enforcement Division, gave the OK to reuse the badge, Pat Znajda says.
“He was all for it,” Znajda said. “In the late ’60s, when they went from game wardens to conservation officers, they issued badge numbers by seniority, and my dad was Badge No. 86 – and he’s the only one that ever wore that badge.
“I know he would be extremely proud.”
Felicia now is spending four months in field training with DNR conservation officer Jordan Anderson in Wadena, Minn. She’ll be stationed in Osakis, Minn., beginning in January.
“Ideally, I kind of wanted to get anywhere like the Alexandria or Detroit Lakes kind of area, so Osakis was perfect,” she said.
There have been many changes in a conservation officer’s job duties even since he joined the DNR in 2005, Pat Znajda says; technology is a big one.
“Even when I started, we had tickets that we’d write out – now they’re all computerized,” he said. “People (Felicia’s) age know no different, but for me, it was a huge adjustment.”
Compared with his father’s days in fish and wildlife enforcement, the changes are even more considerable, he says.
“You go back to the 1970s, even when they were doing boat and water enforcement, they weren’t allowed to carry guns,” Pat Znajda said. “That has evolved into we’re fully armed all of the time.”
Also gone are the days of blowing up beaver dams and picking up roadkill deer.
“We’ve gotten away from some of that,” he said. “From some of that fish and wildlife (focus) to more law enforcement and education – education is a big part of what we do, as well.”
Today’s conservation officer workforce also is more diverse, both in terms of female officers and minorities, Pat Znajda says.
“I don’t know the percentage, but we have a significant amount,” he said. “We can probably still do better attracting more females and attracting more minorities, but we’re striving for that. I think we’re doing better.”.
Of the 18 recent academy graduates, Felicia was one of seven to come from traditional law enforcement backgrounds. The other 11 were “preppers” who came to the DNR through the agency’s Conservation Officer Prep Program for prospective officers with at least a two-year college degree.
The differences between now and her grandfather’s day are “like night and day,” she says.
Still, the goal remains the same: protecting the state’s fish and wildlife.
“It never fails,” Felicia said. “When I go up to Warren, kind of where my grandpa used to work, I will go into a gas station, and someone will come up to me, and they’ll be like, ‘Was your your grandpa Ted?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes’ – I have no idea how they know this – and then they'll tell me a story about a contact that they had with him 50 years ago.
“I hope to make the same impact that I think that my grandpa and my dad did, going into this field.”