Conservation officer living his dream

Conservation officer living his dream
Joe Keeton knew he wanted to be involved in wildlife preservation from an early age.

"Back when I was a junior in high school, I was hunting with my dad and grandpa in Jerauld County," said Keeton, the new GF&P conservation officer for Clay and Union counties. "We were stopped and checked by a conservation officer and I thought he must have the most awesome job in the world."

Keeton, a Sturgis native, is now enjoying his new role, but he said it took a lot of preparation to get to this point.

He joined the United States Coast Guard directly out of high school, serving for four years.

"I joined the USCG because it looked like fun, but also it would pay for my college education, which is essential to be a good wildlife conservation officer applicant," Keeton said. "While in the USCG, our primary mission was search-and-rescue. I have been on hundreds of search and rescue missions,and saved many lives. There is no feeling like that of helping people when they need it most."

Keeton said his years in the Coast Guard gave him a strong background in law enforcement. He was able to apply it to his conservation officer training when he graduated from the University of South Dakota with a wildlife and fisheries degree in December 2004.

Keeton expanded on his training by doing seasonal work with the Game, Fish & Parks and seeking internship positions.

"I worked in fisheries and in elk deprivation, and was involved in some mountain lion investigations," he said of his work in the Black Hills region.

In the summer of 2004, Keeton was chosen as a conservation officer intern, during the first year of the internship program. Keeton said the program gave him valuable experience for his new career.

"I was really fortunate to get the position," he said. "It is basically a program to help the younger guys know what the job is all about. Most people think all conservation officers do is check hunting and fishing licenses, but there are really four, possibly five areas we work with � those being, wildlife management, fisheries, land and law enforcement, with public relations being another priority. You really have to know how to talk to people and help solve problems."

Because he had experience in fisheries and law enforcement, Keeton said his summer intern position focused a lot on land management and habitats.

"They really tried to make it a well-rounded program that everyone could take something from," he said.

After graduation, Keeton applied to the Game, Fish & Parks department hoping to get a position.

"It is really a large process they go through to place conservation officers," he said. "They take all the applicants and go through them to figure out who they want to interview. From there, they decide who to hire. Once you're hired you, go through psychological evaluation, polygraph testing, and fitness and physical standards, then you go to the South Dakota law enforcement training school for 12 weeks. After that you have on-the-job field training for 16 weeks."

After training, Keeton said new officers are offered positions at stations with vacancies.

"I was really lucky to get the Vermillion and Elk Point stations," Keeton said. "My wife is in dental school in Lincoln and now we are only two hours apart. So it really worked out well for us."

Keeton, who has been working in the area since the last week of November, said he has enjoyed getting to know Clay and Union counties.

"Things have been pretty typical. It's hunting season so there have been some violations such as shooting from the road and such, but it has been very quiet," he said. "I'm spending my time getting to know the area and the people. The folks around here have been very good to me. I'm looking forward to getting down on the river and see what that's all about."

Keeton said his day-to-day schedule varies widely, which leads to some stress but also keeps him from getting bored.

"I wake up every day thinking about how my day is going to be and then it turns out nothing like what I thought it would," he said. "I am pretty much on-call 24/7. (Last) Monday was my day off but I ended up working six hours. You really have to be able to manage your time well, but I like all the responsibility.

"I have excellent supervisors in Sioux Falls, and since I am really new, I have a lot of questions. But I know I can call them any time of the day or night and they will let me know what I am supposed to do."

Keeton said the best part of his job is knowing he is living his dream.

"It's the best job I've ever had," he said. "It's a lot of responsibility. But what I feel is most important is to protect the resources and provide hunters and non-hunters who just want to go outdoors and a look at wildlife the opportunity to do so far into the future."

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