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Crazy cow? Stuck foxes? Lawn mowers on lakes? At the DNR info center, no question too wild

Every year, the office handles more than 90,000 phone calls and 25,000 emails. On average, each staff person answers 65 phone calls per day, while responding to emails in between calls.

Minnesota DNR consultant at desk
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources information consultant Barb Hoverman at her desk at the DNR information center in the St. Paul headquarters.
Contributed / Minnesota DNR
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ST. PAUL — A very large, crazy cow has gotten loose. Can you come tranquilize it? There are 10 stray kittens in my tree. Will you come get them, because they are cold? Can I keep a roadkill deer?

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources gets questions. Lots of them. More than 100,000 annually come to a small office in St. Paul, where a team of 11 information consultants responds to more than 400 phone calls and emails that roll in every day, six days a week, all year long.

Many are relatively straightforward and often pertain to fish and wildlife, said DNR information center supervisor Justin Badini. He reels off a list.

“How many sunfish can I keep on this lake? When's the firearms deer opener? How do I obtain a replacement fishing license because I lost mine, or washed my clothes and it was left in my pants and so I need a new license?”

But every week, the call center also handles questions that are a bit more offbeat, from "I'm going to be filming a political ad on a lake with a Navy SEAL popping up from a hole in the ice. How big can we cut the hole?” to, “Is it illegal to urinate outside my icehouse or over the side of my boat? I don’t like to, but sometimes it’s necessary.”

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No matter the question, Badini and his staff work hard to provide answers. No question, he emphasized, is a dumb question.

"We welcome every question that comes in to us. We just want to educate people and get them the right answer and just help them,” he said. “And if we don't know? We'll get them to the right person that does."

‘The Google of the DNR’

The DNR created the Information Center in 1982 to answer common questions they receive from the public, to free up staff so they wouldn’t be tied down answering phone calls.

“It allows our field staff to be out in the field,” said DNR communications director Gail Nosek. “It lets our subject matter experts do what they're best at.”

In 2016, the information center expanded its hours into the evenings and on Saturday.

Now, every year, the office handles more than 90,000 phone calls and 25,000 emails. On average, each staff person answers 65 phone calls per day, while responding to emails in between calls.

DNR question board.jpg
Minnesota DNR information consultant Carly DeVries points to the number of phone calls the DNR’s information center in St. Paul handled on Nov. 8, 2019, the Friday before the firearms deer hunting opener.
Contributed / Minnesota DNR

For Badini, who hunts, fishes and camps, working in the information center is a way to pass on his passion for the outdoors.

It's also an increasingly essential service, to help distill what can be very complex rules, for a growing population of people who want to recreate outdoors, but may not have much if any experience.

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"The fishing regulations alone, it's 93 pages of information. I mean, it's not a simple document," Nosek said, adding that the staff at the info center can “take away that barrier to people getting outdoors and trying something like fishing.”

Pandemic-increased demand

Recently, more people have needed help understanding the rules. In 2020, when people flocked outdoors in the early stages of the pandemic, the DNR answered nearly double the number of questions they typically receive.

"There are so many people out there that were new to the outdoors and didn't know, really, where to go for anything,” Badini said. “And so they called us."

And in this world of texting and social media, the vast majority of people still call. “They want that one-on-one connection,” Badini said, “to hear someone’s voice and get that firm answer” to their question.

The busiest day of the year is the day before the firearms deer hunting season opens, which Badini likens to Christmas morning. Instead of getting excited to open presents, the information center staff gears up to answer a flood of queries. Staff typically handle more than 1,000 calls that day.

Nosek calls Badini and his staff "the Google of the DNR." Many of them have a lot of the hunting and fishing regulations committed to memory. They keep marked-up handbooks of the rules at the ready to quickly find information they can’t immediately recall.

"We do know a little about a lot,” said Badini. They have to, since they respond to questions covering a huge diversity of information related to the state’s natural resources, conservation and outdoor recreation across the agency's six divisions, from fish and wildlife to parks and trails to enforcement.

“Calls can be all about one certain topic, like hunting; and then the next thing you know you're talking about fishing, or dead animals,” he said. “So we try to prepare staff for anything."

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Roadkill, to bird flu, to feeding squirrels

Every week the information center produces an update of trending topics that the public is asking.

In recent weeks, the DNR has answered lots of questions about bird flu, chronic wasting disease, spring fishing, state park passes and camping reservations, burning permits and even those dead animals Badini mentioned.

“How do I get a permit to keep a roadkill deer?” a caller asked.

In that case, Badini said the info center would connect the person with State Patrol dispatch, who would then contact the local sheriff’s office, police department or conservation officer to issue the permit.

Often, Badini said, they’ll connect callers with local DNR staff to handle queries they don’t have the expertise to answer. They’ll also triage calls about law enforcement issues before passing them along to conservation officers.

"What we really want to be is kind of that ‘one stop shop’ for people to call if they have questions. We’re gonna do our best to help answer that question. And if we don't know, we can get you in the right direction,” he said.

And even the more one-off questions the DNR receives often provide a great opportunity for education, Badini said.

For example, this question that the DNR fielded in early January — “Can I feed squirrels salted shelled peanuts or does it have to be unsalted?” — can prompt a good discussion of how the DNR does not recommend feeding wildlife any kind of food.

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And even this slightly more awkward question — "There are two foxes stuck together and they are freaking out my horses. What do I do?" — offers a chance to educate someone who may not have much experience around wildlife, Badini said, about, well, the birds and the bees.

Earlier this year the DNR stopped including a “questions of the week” section at the top of those bulletins, which contained some of the more unusual questions the center fielded.

Badini said it was time-consuming for staff and not representative of the majority of the calls. They wanted to focus on providing the information most relevant to the different divisions across the agency.

Some of those questions were similar to entries on a Twitter account called Alt-DNR Info Center that purports to feature “actual questions from the public asked of the Minnesota DNR’s Information Center.”

Recent entries include “Can you come get the muskrat out of my window well?” and “My neighbor in Waconia has been throwing lit fireworks at geese on her lawn at all hours.”

The DNR, Badini said, has nothing to do with that account.

But that’s not to say he doesn’t respond to plenty of memorable questions. For example, more people have recently called, wondering if they can drive riding lawn mowers across frozen lakes to their ice houses.

“I don’t know where this came from,” Badini said. “But I think it’s a great idea.”

And it presents one more opportunity to educate the public by including information about ice safety guidelines and precautions to take.

“But they can use them if they want,” he added. “People are being resourceful.”

Here are a few highlights from the Alt-DNR Info Center account. 

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