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Wild about work: Conservation police officer doesn't 'want to get out of the field'
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Photo: Gary Krambeck
Illinois DNR Conservation Police Officer Steve Francisko uses his laptop computer to retrieve information while traveling the roads of Rock Island, Whiteside and Mercer counties.
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Photo: Gary Krambeck
Illinois DNR Conservation Police Officer Steve Francisko, right, talks with Lyndon, Ill., Police Chief Lawrence Isaacson.
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Illinois DNR Conservation Police Officer Steve Francisko drives his boat out of Sunset Marina to conduct a routine safety inspection of a pleasure craft in this file photo taken July 2, 2007.
LYNDON, ILL. -- The fox was not what he was expecting. It was not the ubiquitous red fox, which can be found throughout Illinois. Rather, it was black and silver and looked more like a domestic dog than a wild animal.

"We've got some kind of exotic type fox," said Steve Francisko, a conservation police officer with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources who polices an area that includes the Quad-Cities.

This day, Officer Francisko was investigating a complaint that a couple in this rural Whiteside County town was keeping a wild animal as a pet.

After talking with the woman who lives at the house, he was not sure whether she actually was violating any law by having the fox.

"They've had it since June," he said. "Basically, she said they didn't have a permit for it. It's a silver-tailed fox."

Illinois wildlife law does not address that particular species of fox, which means it may not be illegal to keep one.

"It may be legal for them to have it," he said. "Our authority stops at what's protected by the Illinois wildlife code."

Investigating complaints of wildlife being kept as pets is just one of Officer Francisko's duties. He said a lot of people don't realize that conservation police officers have received the same training as any municipal or state police officer and have the same power.

"We are full-fledged police officers," he said. "We can enforce any law. We can carry guns."

During the winter, Officer Francisko's office is a green Ford F-250 Super Duty pickup truck. His laptop is mounted in front of the dashboard and a notepad is mounted to the windshield with a suction cup. Two cell phones are clipped to the visor.

"I live out of this thing," he said. "This is a functioning mobile office."

Summer is a different story, he said. Much of what he does is boating enforcement on the Mississippi River.

"Our guys make a lot of drug arrests out on boat patrols," he said. "A lot of drinking goes on out there.There's really not a typical day."

Officer Francisko said people don't realize that conservation officers also do a lot of homeland security work and that after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he and other area conservation officers were assigned to protect a major terrorist target in the area.

"After 9/11, they identified the Route 30 train bridge up by Clinton (Iowa) as a major terrorism target," he said. "A million dollars of commerce goes over that bridge every hour. I've got a homeland security boat actually assigned to me."

While he's always on call, not all of Officer Francisko's time is spent working. He owns property near Cordova and likes to hunt, fish and spend as much time outdoors as possible.

"I love to archery hunt," he said. "I got into that about five years ago. For Christmas one year, my wife got me a bow and arrow."

The 40-year-old has hunted deer with a rifle for much of his life, but archery is a different experience.

"It's definitely more of a challenge," he said, adding that in the five years he's been at it, he's become a decent shot. This year, he said, he got two deer with his bow. "I will have more than enough meat with two deer to last me a year. My wife is not a big lover of venison."

Officer Francisko's path to being a conservation officer was circuitous. He spent several years in the Air Force and attended Embry Riddle Aeronautical University to be an air traffic controller.

"But as you know, plans change," he said.

He was told by the Federal Aviation Administration that in order to get a job as an air traffic controller, he would have to leave the Air Force. He said he left the military in 1991 but found that the FAA had instituted a hiring freeze, which left him without a job prospect.

In 1992, Officer Francisko got a job as a correctional officer with the Illinois Department of Corrections and, in 1995, he took his first job with the Illinois DNR as a park ranger at the Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park. A few years later, he started as a conservation officer.

The best part of his job is that he gets to spend time outdoors and isn't chained to a desk. In fact, he said, he's had opportunities to try for a promotion, but he hasn't taken them.

"I don't want to get out of the field," he said.

Illinois' economic troubles make him very grateful he still has a job. There have been layoffs of conservation officers, he said, and there are only 100 conservation officers to cover 102 counties within the state.

"We're getting down to the bare bones," he said. "We certainly are in a bad, bad financial situation. Over the last seven years, we've gone through a lot of downsizing."

Despite the economy, the Mt. Morris, Ill., native has not thought of leaving his home state.

"I've got a lot of time invested in the state of Illinois," he said.

Besides wild animals, Officer Francisko also has dealt with animals you don't expect to encounter in the Illinois wild. Years ago, he said, a bull got loose from its pen and somehow made its way out to the Hennepin Canal Parkway.

"This bull was just huge," he said.

The owner knew the bull was dangerous and told him to kill it before it killed someone. He shot the bull twice with his shotgun, but the bull did not fall. After getting more ammunition, Officer Francisko finally was able to kill it.

After the animal was dead, a couple people who had seen the incident asked if they could take the animal's carcass for food and were told they could.

"It didn't go to waste," Officer Francisko said.

But Officer Francisko's job isn't just dealing with animals. He also has to deal with people, who can be equally hard to control. Unlike most municipal or state police, conservation officers are often on their own because there are so few of them and the closest backup might be in another county.

"You're out there on your own," he said. "That's part of the gig. If something happens, it happens."

Local events heading

  Today is Tuesday, Oct. 21, the 294th day of 2014. There are 71 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The weather is discouraging for our great Democratic rally tomorrow, but never mind that. Let our Rock Island people show they can make a big procession themselves, rain or shine.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Apparatus arrived for drilling an artesian well on the premises of George Warner's Atlantic Brewery.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The German army continued its attacks on the allies line near the Belgian coast.
1939 -- 75 years ago: The farm home of Mr. and Mrs. Gus Zachert northwest of Buffalo Prairie, burned to the ground.
1964 -- 50 years ago: WVIK-FM, noncommercial educational radio station at Augustana College, will return to the air tomorrow. The station operates at a power of 10 watts at 90.9 megacycles on the frequency modulation band. The station is operated with a staff of 92 students.
1989 -- 25 years ago: An avenue of lights, 13 Christmas trees strung with more than 44,000 sparkling lights, will expand the Festival of Trees beyond the walls of RiverCenter in downtown Davenport in mid-November.

(More History)