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OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

Outdoors commentary: Warden puts people first in his job

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Whether he’s patrolling the Mississippi River’s main channel, idling through the lily-pad laden backwater sloughs of Lake Onalaska or climbing the steep, heavily forested bluffs lining an area coulee, Dale Hochhausen’s always toting one very important thing — his ability to communicate, to educate and explain what he’s doing and why.

For a Wisconsin DNR conservation warden, it’s an invaluable gift, and one Hochhausen’s well-known for. His easy-going demeanor has suited him well in a job that can — and does — have its tense, even confrontational, moments. After all, the bottom line is Hochhausen, despite being the “Personable Warden,” still has to enforce the law, he still has make arrests, he still must ensure the safety of others by removing the danger factor some hunters, boaters and recreationalists — unknowingly or knowingly — create.

The 52-year-old Hochhausen, who is based out of the Onalaska station and is mainly responsible for the northern half of La Crosse County, is retiring this fall after a highly-distinguished 25-year DNR career — 22 as a warden. An avid waterfowl and upland game hunter who also enjoys fishing, he will soon have more time to enjoy all of the above with his wife, Lori, and yellow lab, Ollie.

“That is what keeps me a little more sane; that is my release, to go out hunting and fishing. If I am hungry for fish, I love to fish for bluegills, perch and walleyes. Those are my favorites to fish for,” Hochhausen said. “My passion, personally, is duck hunting. I love to do that. That is why I really like the Onalaska station because it is such a huge destination for waterfowl hunting, especially Lake Onalaska. I tend to hunt things with feathers more than hair.”

Hochhausen grew up in the small town of Cassville, Wisconsin, in a very “outdoorsy family,” he said, where hunting, fishing, camping and everything outdoors was introduced — and wholeheartedly embraced — by himself, his brother, Steve, and his sister, Jill. His parents, William “Bill” and Carrie, made sure their kids experienced things outside as much as inside. Even if there would have been video games, it wouldn’t have mattered. Outdoors wins, hands down.

“I would probably say it is the upbringing with my dad,” Hochhausen said when asked why he became a conversation warden. “My dad was huge in the outdoors. Growing up in Cassville, my dad worked at the power plant down there, but he was a very avid outdoorsman. He trapped on the river; he ran commercial nets. In fact, he used to guide for fishing before I was born. As far as hunting-wise and fishing-wise, you name it, I have probably hunted it or fished it here in Wisconsin because of my dad.

“If there is a game animal that can be legally hunted or trapped, we did it. My dad also had a coon dog; we had a beagle for rabbits. We used to do everything outdoors. Even as kids, my parents would take us out to a sandbar during the summertime and we would spend a whole week just camping out.”

He might not have realized it at the time, but that level of outdoors upbringing had a tremendous influence on Hochhausen when it came time where to attend college and what to study. He began his career at UW-La Crosse, but transferred to UW-Stevens Point where he majored in biology and wildlife management and earned a minor in law enforcement. At the time he graduated in 1993, it was required that you take a Civil Service Exam — which thousands of people did — in order to be considered for a game warden position.

Plus, he said, at that time the DNR quit hiring game wardens for a three-year span, forcing him to change his direction a bit. Hochhausen worked with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at a temporary job, then landed his first full-time gig with the Iowa DNR doing habitat management and prairie restoration. Still, the goal of becoming a conservation warden kept pushing him on, so he applied — and was hired — as a park ranger at Peninsula State Park in Door County.

While at Peninsula, he enrolled in — and completed — the law enforcement academy at Wausau Technical College. During his time at UW-Stevens Point, that wasn’t a part of the curriculum. At Wausau, he stood out — but not because of his communication skills.

“I went there with a bunch of regular police officers. They called me the, what did they term me? The ‘Woodchuck Cop’ or something like that,” Hochhausen said, breaking into a laugh. “I had a nickname because I was the only DNR guy in the class at the time.”

After a three-year stint at Peninsula, Hochhausen kept applying for a position as a conversation warden and earned a spot in 2001. After a year-long training stint, he was assigned to a station in Burlington, Wisconsin, in 2002, where he spent his first seven-plus years as a warden. He then transferred to Vernon County (called the Stoddard station) in 2009, before transferring to the Onalaska station on Feb. 10, 2013. Hochhausen, along with Matt Groppi, are the two wardens for La Crosse County and also serve on the Mississippi River Team.

“When I first got hired on (with the DNR), if you would have asked me what was the ideal station you wanted to work, I wouldn’t have said going back to my hometown. I would have said the Onalaska station was my ideal station,” Hochhausen said. “I thought I would be more of a rural warden, but I will be honest, I like it (Onalaska) because it has a little bit of both — it has that busyness of an urban area, yet has the rural aspect, too.

“I love this Onalaska-La Crosse area. It just has a lot to offer, not just in work life with the recreational stuff that can take place, but also in a personal life. It is just a nice community.”

An area that offers diversity in terms of enforcement, as waterfowl season is extremely busy — especially in the Lake Onalaska area — as well as big game hunting in terms of whitetails. While those were staples of enforcement responsibilities early in his career as a warden, things have changed — dramatically.

“With this job, you are outdoors a lot and I enjoy the hunting and fishing aspect of it. Granted, this job has changed a bit over the years. It used to really be more into the hunting and fishing aspect, but now we have a lot of the environmental, recreational and all the other things,” Hochhausen said, explaining he recently dealt with an unlicensed well driver as part of his duties. “The job obviously has changed over the years.

“We are kind of not an expert on anything but a jack-of-all-trades. We deal with, in the last month I dealt with unlicensed well drillers; our department regulates that. A lot of times we have regulations on burning, air pollution, asbestos stuff where people tear down old houses and things like that. We also deal with commercial fishing aspects, even taxidermists. We even regulate bait dealers at times.”

Regardless of the call or the complaint, Hochhausen takes the same patient, educational approach of making sure the party understands the law, how and why it is being enforced, and what the consequences can be. That approach has earned him a well-respected reputation internally with his colleagues and supervisors, and externally with the people he comes across.

“By far, what sticks out about Dale is his dedication to customer service. It is unmatched. Folks in public service are there to (provide) education and protect the resources, for all us that is what we signed up to do, and for the most part our wardens do a great job,” said Tyler Strelow, DNR law enforcement supervisor who oversees eight wardens, including Hochhausen.

“Dale takes it to the next level. He does the extra mile in every single call he gets. He is so passionate about customer service, always there educating, explaining, doing the best job he can every single time. DNR wardens get a little bit of a bad rap as folks are not exactly always happy to see us. Dale is one of those guys, even when he ends up writing a citation, he ends the conversation on a positive note and shaking the guy’s hand and the person thanking him for it.”

Reasoning with sometimes unreasonable people, diffusing a potentially volatile situation especially when it involves an alcohol-related incident such as driving a boat under the influence, does take its toll on wardens — even Hochhausen. That, and dealing with the unknown — especially in today’s society — can be tiring.

“I do love it, but, too, the dynamic in law enforcement has changed here, especially in the last five years or so. So that part, you never nowadays what can happen, right? As far as safety, that type of stuff, and the sentiment sometimes — don’t get me wrong, I hear it all the time, I am glad you are out here working — but it only takes one instance, right, to have a really bad day,” Hochhausen said.

“You never know who you might run into out there on this job. I have had a number of those instances here, recently, you never want to get into a use of force situation and things like that, but it is still is a law enforcement job. We are out there enforcing during people’s fun time, recreational time, and sometimes people don’t like that very well. Even though you can be as personable as you can, sometimes you can’t get over that hump as there can be that connotation about law enforcement.”

Earning the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association Officer of the Year award in 2020, or the DNR’s Warden of the Year award — aka the Haskell-Noyes Efficiency Award — in 2019, doesn’t mean much to a person upset with receiving a warning, or a citation, for breaking a conservation law or a law in general.

Still, Hochhausen has been able to do it for 25 years with respect, a common-sense-led approach and the necessary level of authority. It’s the way he’s believed the job should be done, period.

“One of the things, too, is I always tried to have good customer service in this job. If somebody called me, no matter how minor or trivial the question might seem to some people, it was important enough to that person to call and leave a message,” Hochhausen said. “So I always try and get back to those people as soon as possible. This job is public service and giving back to the public is an important aspect of that. I never took that lightly.”

The putting-people-first, is part of Hochhausen’s well-respected reputation. Actually, it’s part of him, with or without, his uniform.

“For Dale, it (being a warden) was a lifestyle. He lived the job. He does a nice job balancing work life and personal life, but it was a lifestyle for Dale. It is the way he wanted to live and what he wanted to do. He took great pride in that,” Strelow said. “He will be missed, no question there.”

Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at outdoorstrib@gmail.com

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