A Win for Michigan Conservation Officers Spotlights Their Broad Role in Public Safety

This past February, conservation officers in Michigan won a hard-fought victory. After more than a yearlong battle, they secured a 12% wage increase, bringing their pay in line with other local and state public safety officers.

The victory will help recruit and retain conservation officers, according to Michigan State Employees Association (MSEA) Director of Public Safety Richard Cardenas, a conservation officer who works in Barry County, Michigan. He added that it also reflects the broadening role that conservation officers play in their communities.

“In the 10 years that I’ve been doing this job,” said Cardenas, “I have seen it evolve considerably.”

A job that once upon a time might have focused solely on enforcing fish and game and outdoor recreation laws has taken on many other dimensions. And with it, so has the training and skills of the state’s conservation officers.

Cardenas and his fellow officers’ responsibilities include not just ensuring the safety of those enjoying Michigan’s outdoors, but also responding to general criminal complaints such as domestic situations, traffic and speeding enforcement, medical emergencies and even special assignments at events at state parks. Conservation officers not only help deter crime, says Cardenas, but they can also be a bridge between the public and state or local police.

These are just some of the reasons why Cardenas and his fellow conservation officers have been fighting for pay parity. 

“It’s going to help bridge the gap and draw more people to state law enforcement,” said Cardenas. “Our pay will now be more comparable and that’s going to help draw more interested candidates. [The Department of Natural Resources] wants the best candidates to be Michigan conservation officers.”

Cardenas and his fellow officers were not alone in seeing the need for pay parity. Their employer agreed.

Despite meeting resistance along the way, Cardenas and his fellow union members ramped up their mobilization, testifying before the Michigan Civil Service Commission (MCSC), filling MCSC meetings, doing media interviews, and enlisting the help of lawmakers and other unions who supported the pay increase.

Finally, on Feb. 16, they were given approval for the increase.

Cardenas credits the determination of his fellow conservation officers, their allies and their union strength for the victory. But he emphasizes that winning these kinds of battles means people can’t just sit on the sidelines.

“Your union is made up of the people it represents,” Cardenas said. “You have to have people involved.”