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Wisconsin warden comes home to work

Warden Dave Sanda chats with Terry Bishop of Superior, left, and Rob Downs, of Wascott, on a recent morning. The two men were unloading their ATVs to start a ride on one of the many trails in Douglas County. John Myers / Forum News Service1 / 4
Conservation Warden Dave Sanda's office is inside his state-issued Ford pickup truck. Sanda can get access to the Internet and state records anywhere he has cellphone coverage. He transferred into one of three Douglas County posts in March and is also filling in in parts of Washburn County. John Myers / Forum News Service2 / 4
Wisconsin Conservation Warden Dave Sanda talks with a boatload of anglers fishing on Leader Lake near Wascott on an August morning. Sanda reminded the anglers that anyone in the boat under age 13 must have a life jacket on under state law. John Myers / Forum News Service3 / 4
Warden Dave Sanda uses his binoculars to check on a complaint that a lakefront homeowner had placed mooring buoys too far out in Bond Lake near Wascott. Sanda said the buoys appeared to comply with state law. John Myers / Forum News Service4 / 4

WASCOTT, Wis. — Dave Sanda threw his state-issued pickup into park and jumped out, striding quickly down to the water's edge at the small boat landing on Leader Lake.

"How's it going out there?'' Sanda yelled to four anglers casting from a boat on a mirror-calm morning.

I hadn't even seen the boat from the truck. But Sanda saw the situation as another chance to make contact with the public, another chance to educate a boatload of outdoorspeople, none of whom were wearing life jackets.

"Pretty good,'' a man, who might have been the father of three boys on board, hollered back.

"Do you have life jackets on board for everybody?" Sanda asked back to the boat about 100 feet off shore.

"Yeah, they're stored in here,'' the man replied.

"Why don't you dig one out for the little guy. If he's under 13 he has to have it on at all times,'' Sanda replied.

"Sorry about that,'' the man said, possibly recognizing Sanda's Wisconsin Conservation Warden uniform from afar. "Thanks for reminding me."

"Good luck,'' Sanda replied. "What are you using? You might want to try topwater lures on this calm water this morning."

By the time we turned to walk away the littlest angler in the boat was donning a life jacket. And, just as fast, we were back in Sanda's truck, bumping off to his next stop.

"Most of our contacts are like that. Really just a safety reminder. ... Public education is a big part of what we do,'' Sanda said. "That was a little awkward, with me being on shore and them out in a boat. But it worked. It was a good contact."


Douglas County is familiar territory for Sanda, 26, who has hunted and fished the backwoods and waters here most his life. He grew up in the Town of Superior, near Pattison State Park.

As a kid he camped and fished in the nearby Chequamegon National Forest with his family and hunted grouse and deer near home. He graduated from Superior High School in 2010. He worked part time in Pattison Park for the DNR as a ranger in training and then went on to earn his degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

"I always knew I wanted to do something with wildlife, something outdoors,'' Sanda said. But instead of wildlife management or research, Sanda went on to earn his law enforcement certification.

"I thought being a conservation warden would get me outdoors more. And I'm kind of a safety guy, and safety is a big part of what we do,'' Sanda said while driving the backroads of his home county.

Law enforcement runs pretty deep in the Sanda family. Dave's younger brother, Matthew Sanda, is an officer for Eau Claire, Wis. Police Department. Their father, Dave, served as a military police officer in the U.S. Air Force and served during Operation Desert Storm. Dave's aunt is a sergeant for the Casper, Wyo., Police Department and his cousin, Heather Barnes, serves on the Duluth Police Department.

His first official DNR jobs were as a ranger at busy state parks in the southern half of the state, Buckhorn and Devil's Lake, where he had to deal with a lot of unruly people who were often partying too hard while on vacation. The DNR recently split the Park Ranger and Conservation Warden jobs, with wardens handling law enforcement and park rangers no longer licensed officers but instead focused on resource management and public education.

There are 156 field warden posts across the state, but when the authority finally came through to fill the southern Douglas County post that had been vacant for a couple years, Sanda jumped at the chance.

"I knew I wanted to come home ... and it's nice not to be dealing with drugs on a daily basis,'' Sanda said, referring to his days in the busy state parks. "It's nice to be able to focus on natural resource issues."

Resolving conflicts

On a sometimes rainy, sometimes sunny early August morning, Sanda had two specific calls to respond to but also wanted to do some patrolling. The first call was from someone who thought a cabin owner's mooring buoys were too far from shore and presented a navigation hazard to boats.

Sanda pulled up to the Bond Lake boat landing, used his binoculars to find the buoys in question and immediately knew the answer.

"They're fine. They're within the 100-foot (from shore) limit in the regulations,'' Sanda said. "That's the way a lot of the calls work out. People either misunderstanding the regulations or maybe they are just mad at someone else's behavior."

Many of the calls Sanda gets stem from conflicts between people using the same resources - maybe a cabin owner or pontoon boat owner who is tired of the neighbor kids zooming around on a personal watercraft.

"It varies by season. But right now I'd say my most frequent calls are about Jet Skis,'' Sanda said. "Usually they aren't doing anything illegal. But they might be (annoying). A lot of what we deal with is user conflict."

Sanda's other specific call to check on was from a bear hunter cornered that another group of hunters was violating the state's six-dog limit for training before bear hunting season. Wisconsin allows the use of dogs to chase bear for hunting and allows hunters to train up to six dogs at a time — letting them run free chasing bears on public property — before the season.

We drove along several county logging roads and two-rut trails but never came across and group in question. Sanda did notice several spots that looked like trucks had stopped recently to let dogs out or to replenish bear baiting stations.

"The caller said the other group had 10 or more dogs out. ... He said he was a bear hunter and didn't want hunters to get a bad name,'' Sanda said. "I'll keep looking for them until I can make a contact. We might run into them on a weekend, those are the busy periods."

Indeed, Sanda rarely gets a weekend day off. And while he loves to hunt and fish, he rarely gets any day off during the nine-day firearm hunting season.

"We're just too busy to hunt during the gun season. But that's okay because I like bow hunting just as well or better,'' said Sanda, who's also an avid mountain biker and trail runner.

The new guy

Along his patrols that morning Sanda came across numerous ATV operators, but simply waved as he passed them. Each one appeared to be following ATV laws to a T — headlights were on while on roads, registration was displayed, operators driving as far to the right as possible.

"Most of the ATV use is responsible. But they have become a big part of what we (wardens) work on, too,'' Sanda said. "They're part of how people live here now. There can be issues when the kids and grandkids come to visit grandma and grandpa at the cabin."

Sanda pulled the pickup into a parking lot of one of the many ATV trailheads in Douglas County and found Terry Bishop of Superior and Rob Downs of Wascott ready to unload their four-wheelers to start a ride. Sanda engaged in conversation about the weather and answered a question from Downs about trapping tags. The warden never even mentioned anything about ATVs.

"So you're the new guy?'' Downs asked Sanda. "You're the one who grew up here?"

"Yep, that's me,'' Sanda said before heading back to the truck.

"I think people appreciate having someone who knows the area and who understands how they hunt and fish,'' Sanda said as we headed down the road. "I think it helps that I'm a local guy. I hope so."

Conservation Warden Dave Sanda can be reached at (715) 415-0264 or through the Wisconsin Turn In Poachers hotline at (800) TIP-WDNR.