On April 19, a emergency call brought DNR Conservation Officer Eugene Wynn and Pine County Sheriff’s Office deputies to the cold waters of Cross Lake near Pine City. Every call for help is unique, but such alerts often involve the possibility that someone is in grave danger. Law enforcement officers and other first responders prioritize this type of call and respond immediately, sometimes putting their lives on the line.
Fortunately, there wasn’t anyone in the water needing rescue on that day in April. However, just after launching a boat into the frigid waters, Wynn and one of the deputies were thrown into Cross Lake. (In their rush to launch, neither of the men wore a life jacket.) The deputy was rescued by other deputies who were on shore, but Wynn slipped beneath the surface before he could be saved.
Wynn’s death was a sobering example of the risks that all men and women in uniform can face when their radio buzzes or their phone rings. Wynn, 43, was the 22nd Minnesota conservation officer to die in the line of duty since 1887. A few of these tragedies were the result of vicious attacks, including the case of Norman Fairbanks, who, in 1930, was shot and killed while questioning two fur trappers. However, accidents and health-related events have caused the majority of such deaths. Prior to Wynn’s passing, the last conservation officers to die in the line of duty were Gordon Buchanan, who suffered an aneurysm, and Grant Scott Coyour, whose plane went down while conducting a moose telemetry survey in northwestern Minnesota. Both incidents occurred in 1999.
As a kid in Wisconsin, Wynn was a star athlete who excelled at baseball and basketball. After high school, he helped out as a coach on his former baseball team. As with many people who go on to become conservation officers, Wynn had a strong interest in the outdoors and loved to fish and hunt. But the conservation officer job has continuously evolved and now involves far more than checking on anglers and hunters.
Today’s conservation officers are integrated into many aspects of life in the communities they serve. On any given day—or all in the same day—a conservation officer may enforce boating and recreational vehicle laws, teach firearms safety, talk to students and civic groups about Minnesota’s fish and wildlife, assist local law enforcement partners, or investigate damage to the environment. Wynn, in fact, grew up dreaming about becoming a conservation officer because he wanted to be in a position to do something about the violations he witnessed during his frequent camping trips as a youth.
Wynn was laid to rest on a crisp spring day, April 26, beneath a brilliant blue sky in Pine City. Around 1,600 law enforcement personnel and community members listened to a bagpiper, watched as color guards from around the nation displayed their flags, heard a bell ring for each of the 18 years Wynn had been a conservation officer, and saw four DNR Enforcement airplanes fly in formation. They were there to pay their respects to the family members Wynn left behind, including his wife and two young children, and to memorialize the vital role Wynn and all conservation officers play in their communities. These mourners understood that behind the badge was a human being who will be remembered not just for the uniform he wore, but for the person he was.
Joe Albert, DNR Enforcement