Imagine looking out your office window and seeing beautiful northern Michigan staring back. For Michigan conservation officers, that’s a daily occurrence.
CHEBOYGAN COUNTY, Mich.—Andrea Erratt walked a two-track path through a wooded area in northern Michigan’s Cheboygan County one morning years ago, following the path toward a clearing up ahead.
A conservation officer with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Erratt was looking into reports of an illegal blind someone had put up ahead. With an evidence camera in hand, she continued down the overgrown path, looking up occasionally to glance at the foggy horizon ahead.
The path turned, and so did she. Looking ahead at a clearing in the woods leading to a field near where the blind had been reported, Erratt froze. Ahead of her, just inside the clearing, stood several large bull and cow elk.
As Erratt stood motionless, taking in the elk in all their natural beauty and size, the elk looked back, chewing away at the grass they’d been eating prior to being noticed.
“I just stood there and watched them in awe and they’re funny because they’re not like deer, they don’t run away as soon as they see a human,” Erratt, a 24-year veteran of the MDNR recalled. “They kind of just look at you, and they kind of kept eating and just slowly walked away into the woods.”
It wasn’t until after the elk left her sight that Erratt realized what she had missed out on.
“Then I realized, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m such an idiot, I literally had an evidence camera in my hand and I didn’t take a picture,” she laughed. “I was just so enamored with watching them.”
Such is the life for Erratt, who grew up in Midland before working for a time in Grand Rapids and eventually calling northern Michigan her home and her office. Michigan DNR officers work out of their homes, for the most part, Erratt says, and typically aren’t assigned patrol routes. This means she is free to patrol any part of her jurisdiction she’s received reports of illegal activity policed by her department, a list that ranges from hunting and fishing laws to littering.
“I mean, I love my job, but part of that is that there isn’t any typical day because it changes with the seasons,” she explained.
No Day like Another
In the summer, Erratt says, much of her time is devoted to being on a boat, doing marine patrols and checking fishing licenses. When hunting seasons come around in the fall, she finds herself investigating reports of illegal tree stands and deer blinds. It’s not uncommon to find Erratt and other conversation officers on snowmobiles in the winter months, traversing the land they patrol through any means necessary.
During the two elk seasons, Erratt sometimes is on Elk patrol, meaning she monitors for elk that may have strayed from the free-ranging elk herd in the Pigeon River State Forest. Sometimes the elk get into farmer’s fields and can cause problems. Other times they cross I-75 and accidents happen.
It’s unusual if Erratt finds herself seeing the same terrain repeatedly, too. She is assigned to Antrim County but works a part of a team that covers Charlevoix and Emmet counties as well. District 3 of the DNR, which Erratt is a part of, covers the entire tip of the mitt.
While Erratt and other officers sometimes have to report to the district headquarters in Gaylord, their offices really are their homes.
“Our day starts pretty much when we pull out of our driveways,” Erratt says. “We work out of our home, so we bring our patrol trucks home, which is, it’s nice although sometimes people stop by and ask me questions about the DNR when you’re at home and not working, but that’s alright.”
Working at Northern Michigan’s Front Door
Erratt was raised in the Midland County area but had worked in the southwestern part of the state for a time before becoming a conversation officer. Originally, after graduating from Michigan State University with a criminal justice degree and a focus on juvenile justice, Erratt wanted to work with children.
But her path began to change once the chance to return to northern Michigan presented itself. It was also fueled by the father of a childhood friend who himself was a conservation officer.
Now, Erratt considers herself lucky to have returned to northern Michigan.
“I’m a ski bum, and I like to mountain bike and stuff, and I always wanted to live up north,” she said. “Michigan is so beautiful. And it is just so cool because we get to see all kinds of wildlife up here. I didn’t see an elk yesterday during my patrol, but I did see really fresh tracks going down the middle of the road. We’re out patrolling and driving around out in remote areas where our beautiful wild game in Michigan hangs out.”
It’s not just where she works, but what she does for a job that makes Erratt feel lucky, she said. While she says she’s thankful for all of the jobs she’s had throughout her life, she says she’s never had a more fun job.
“A lot of times, I’ll be driving around, on the boat. and just on beautiful Lake Charlevoix or Lake Michigan,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe they actually pay me to do this.”
Erratt’s love for nature comes from her parents and grandparents, she believes. When she was a child, being bored meant going outside to find something fun.
Her entire family hunted and fished, too, making her appreciation for law-abiding outdoorsmen more prominent and strengthening her desire to enforce Michigan’s hunting and fishing laws.
“I always enjoyed coming up north to my grandparents and parents at a cottage in northern Michigan,” she said. “I just have always loved being outside, and so now I get paid to be outside playing. This has just been a dream job for me, honestly.”
Working in the Michigan DNR isn’t always as enjoyable as watching nature. Erratt recalls some run-ins with people who she said just don’t like conservation officers. The officers, who have the same authority to police things such as drunken driving and other crimes, sometimes encounter strange occurrences on Michigan’s northern back roads.
She recalls a high-speed chase with one person after happening upon the man assaulting his girlfriend on a secluded back road. It isn’t unusual for the DNR to bust people who are growing large amounts of marijuana on state property, too.
“You just never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “If it falls in the category of when you least expect it, something like that happens.”
For the most part, though, Erratt says her encounters with people are generally positive. Most people obey the laws, and sometimes people slip up or don’t understand the law. She says she tries to give people the benefit of the doubt in most instances.
“Unlike other police officers, we check a lot of people that aren’t doing anything wrong,” she says. “It’s kind of common that we’re out working in the fall, checking people that are hunting. We check people all the time that are fishing legally, and they have the fishing license, and they’re happy to see us.
“The vast majority of all the hunters that are hunting and fishermen are happy to see us and want to hear, you know, who’s catching fish where,” she continued. “Deer hunters are happy to see us and show their license and they’re wearing their orange and doing everything right.”
Want to help the Michigan DNR in its efforts to ensure only ethical hunting is taking place in our state? Do your part by reporting any instances of poaching you may know of. You can do so by calling or texting the Michigan DNR’s 24/7 hotline at 800-292-7800.