Showcasing the DNR: COs offer recreational law enforcement training

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Showcasing the DNR

off-road vehicle on DNR training course

COs offer recreational law enforcement training

Communications representative, Law Enforcement Division
Michigan Department of Natural Resources

In addition to fish and game laws, Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers are responsible for overseeing the state’s recreational safety, education and enforcement programs. This includes hunter, off-road vehicle, snowmobile and marine safety programs, commonly referred to as earning a “hunter safety” or “boater safety” certificate.

It also includes law enforcement techniques for these recreation activities.

COs receive specialized classroom and hands-on training in each recreational topic, including becoming certified safety instructors.

side-by-side ORV

With the increasing popularity of off-road vehicles, particularly side-by-sides and snowmobiles (weather permitting), many law enforcement agencies throughout Michigan are now using the same equipment that recreationists commonly use.

Side-by-sides are ORVs with at least two seats next to each other and that are enclosed by a windshield and rollbars, at least. The convenient seating and luxury benefits offered in some models, such as heating and air conditioning, make them a fun and convenient way for people of all ages and abilities to enjoy the outdoors.

More training, increased safety

In response to the increase in statewide ORV activity, Public Act 210, which took effect earlier this year, allows noncertified police officers who have completed a minimum of 40 hours of training to enforce ORV regulations, similar to how they can conduct snowmobile and marine law enforcement.

These recreational deputies educate people about and enforce the laws and rules related to a specific recreational activity – marine, ORV and/or snowmobile. It is different than a general law enforcement officer, certified through the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards, who can issue speeding tickets or respond to criminal situations.

To help ensure greater safety on the trails, DNR conservation officers are now offering ORV and snowmobile training to other law enforcement agencies. Twelve people attended the most recent ORV training, which took place in Roscommon during May.

“The ORV training starts with the basics,” said Cpl. Mike Hearn, DNR ORV and snowmobile specialist. “We start with riding fundamentals of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and then transition to side-by-side operation, teaching weight transfer while braking, accelerating and turning. We then expand the operational component by learning how to safely execute traffic stops on the trail, night operations and finally a cumulative skills course at the end. Classroom time is spent covering ORV laws, crash investigations, Operating While Intoxicated investigations and sound enforcement.”

The snowmobile training is based on the same “start from basics” structure.

Cpl. Mike Hearn advises an officer from Crawford County Sheriff’s Department

ORVs and snowmobiles offer law enforcement officers the ability to quickly maneuver through tight spaces or difficult-to-travel terrains and are particularly useful in search and rescue events, even in urban areas.

“Whether it’s legal to operate on the roadways or not, we have lots of ORV and snowmobile activity (weather permitting) in southeast Michigan,” said Sgt. Damon Owens, conservation officer supervisor in Wayne County.  

COs have conducted snowmobile search and rescues in the Pontiac Lake Recreation Area, about 35 miles northwest of Detroit.

Having help is ‘huge’

The City of Warren Police Department, about 13 miles north of downtown Detroit, recently added side-by-sides to its fleet.

“We’ll be using side-by-sides at outdoor events, fairs and other ceremonial events,” said Cpl. Thad Lambiris, City of Warren Police Department. “We plan to send our officers to the DNR training to get more familiar with the equipment.

“We just had a ‘police week’ event and used the side-by-sides to block off traffic. They are easy to hop in and out of quickly, so we can move them to allow traffic to pass through. They are also useful to transport smaller equipment or take water to staff working outside events.”

Warren is mostly an urban setting, with a population of about 140,000, but Lambiris said there are some rural pockets.

“If we had to get back to a trail, say, for a missing person, it will be easier to take a side-by-side instead of a patrol car. Then we’ll have a faster way to transport a person out to get them help,” he said.

Conservation officers navigate a serpentine course during snowmobile training

The 40-hour DNR ORV and snowmobile training provides recreational deputies the accreditation they need to enforce the laws.

There’s a need for additional ORV law enforcement, as the increase in riders has naturally prompted an increase in complaints – road issues, trespassing, crashes, careless operation – on seasonal county roads, forest roads, and state and federal land. Particularly, there’s a significant amount of illegal ORV activity occurring on public utility property, near power, gas and railroad lines.

“It’s good to have dedicated resources, instead of tying up a general law enforcement officer to handle recreation complaints,” said Hearn.

COs partner and work very closely with local and federal law enforcement agencies.

“With an average of two conservation officers per county, COs can’t focus a full day, 100% on ORV or snowmobile activity,” said Brandon Kieft, assistant chief of the DNR Law Enforcement Division. “Having help and working with other law enforcement agencies is huge.”

Safety: ‘Really important’

Gary Owen has been with the Kalkaska County Sheriff's Office since 2007 and is a marine, ORV and snowmobile deputy; he attended the DNR’s ORV training in May.

“A benefit of working with other men and women attending DNR trainings is that you get the standardized approach – they are doing the same job and get it,” Owen said. “You can hear about how they handle a lot of the same situations.”

Kalkaska County is an ORV and snowmobile tourist destination, and also home to the famous Torch Lake, offering plenty of recreational opportunities year-round.

“I use the DNR training to be the best possible ambassador and steward of our resources, making sure that our resources aren’t being misused, endangered or hurt,” said Owen. “I’m also educating the public, preventing statistics and serious injury to themselves or others. Many people doing something dangerous don’t even realize it, like letting a kid ride with no helmet.

“Visitors spend a lot of time planning a vacation and are investing a lot of recreational money, using our local vendors and restaurants. I’m a representative for my county, the men and women of the sheriff’s department. Educating people goes a long way, but if I write a ticket, I make sure it’s one I feel good about, especially when it comes to the safety of a child. I’d rather write a parent a ticket for no life jacket than have to search for a child. I take this as really important.”

ORVs in single-file line form cloud of dust

Owen said his favorite part of the ORV training was the night ride.

“There were a lot of challenges associated with the night ride,” Hearn said. “The officers operating at the back of the line had reduced visibility due to the lack of light and extreme dust – they learned they can’t safely engage in a chase in these dust clouds. It’s meant to introduce limitations, and how to safely operate machines in those types of circumstances.”

DNR conservation officers are also partnering with Quebec Wildlife Protection Service officers to receive snowmobile training, and in return teach them marine skills.

“These trainings allow us to provide consistency across the entire state for enforcement,” said Hearn. “It allows an officer from the Upper Peninsula a platform to engage with officers from the Lower Peninsula. You may have neighboring officers from an adjacent county who have never met before.

“Trainings give all of us a place to discuss issues and lean on each other’s experience for better enforcement.”

And that ensures safer, more enjoyable outdoor experiences for the public.   

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Note to editors: Contact: Casey Warner or Accompanying photos and a text-only version of this story are available below for download. Caption information follows. Credit Michigan Department of Natural Resources, unless otherwise noted.

Text-only version of this story.

Course: To complete the 40-hour Michigan Department of Natural Resources off-road vehicle training, officers had to navigate several obstacle courses within a specific time and without knocking over a cone.

Dust: Officers leave in a single-file line, safely spaced out, to get experience following one another in a dust cloud. Dust reduces operator visibility and creates significant law enforcement challenges.

Officers: Cpl. Mike Hearn advises an officer from Crawford County Sheriff’s Department on the obstacle he must navigate with his side-by-side during the DNR ORV training in May 2024.

Snowmobile: Conservation officers navigate a serpentine course during snowmobile training, where cones are placed closely together and they must operate snowmobiles around each cone without hitting it.

SXS: Side-by-side off-road vehicles are becoming increasingly popular. Many law enforcement agencies use them to navigate off-road terrain, tight spaces and crowded community events.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is committed to the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state's natural and cultural resources for current and future generations. For more information, go to