Dan Altman

Dan Altman calls himself a “professional problem solver."

In his line of work, that’s rather accurate, he’d tell you.

“You have to take little steps to solve a problem,” he says.

As a wildlife conservation officer with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (GF&P), Altman — who works in the Yankton area and state’s southeast corridor — has to be ready on a moment’s notice to respond to and help with a variety of issues.

Sure, there are the usual wildlife, fishing and boating enforcement duties, but Altman also encounters things like this:

* A prairie dog trapped in someone’s basement furnace, or

* Two deer with their antlers locked together, or

* A pickup stuck in a ditch

“It’s one problem after the next,” says Altman, who began his career with GF&P in 2009 and has been recognized many times for his performance.

What he’s learned over the years is that a conservation officer has to be ready for literally anything each day, he adds.

“You can’t solve every problem,” Altman says. “What you want to do is know what to do and realize what you can do to handle each situation.

“You just never know what strange things will come up every single day.”

In an effort to shed light on what Altman and his fellow GF&P officers encounter on an average day, Altman agreed to allow the Press & Dakotan to spend three hours with him on a Saturday afternoon in mid-December.

What follows is an account of that time with Altman as he drove around the area.

— — —12 p.m.

Altman is in his office at the Lewis & Clark Recreation Area visitor center — a rare sight, he jokes.

“I’m not normally in here,” he says, as he works on his laptop. “I do a lot of my work out of my truck.

The two main things Altman carries with him from his office on an average day is his laptop and a manila folder with printouts of current investigations.

Although it’s a Saturday, Altman says he envisions seeing plenty of duck hunters out in the fields — deer hunters would’ve been out earlier in the day, he adds.

— — — —12:15 p.m.

“It’s kind of up to us when we want to work,” Altman says, as he heads west on Highway 52. “That’s why it helps to hire people who are driven, because this is such a wide open schedule.”

It has to be that way, he says, because there aren’t nearly enough officers across the state.

“The easiest way to describe it is ‘connect the dots,’” Altman says.

The workload varies with the time of the year, as well, he points out.

For example, summers in the Yankton area are understandably busier with the number of visitors along the river, Altman says. His district includes 94 miles of the Missouri River, he adds.

Although he’s not nearly as busy during the winter months, Altman says the change in seasons means more interviews and more investigations.

Either way, he enjoys what he does.

“It’s always a challenge,” Altman says, as he turns west onto Highway 50 and then turns north onto 430th Ave.

“It doesn’t get stale. It’s nice doing this here, because we have the change in seasons. If it was summer-like all year, that’d get rather old.”

Prior to moving to Yankton in 2013, Altman served as a conservation officer out in Presho, an area he says was vastly different from Yankton.

How so?

“Out there, it was wide open prairie without a river so close like we have here,” he says. “It was crazy busy in the fall and winter with hunters, and out here, it’s the opposite.”

— — — —12:33 p.m.

Five months north and west of Highway 50, Altman slows down his truck near a patch of land that is leased by GF&P for public hunting — he’s checking to see if anyone is out this morning.

“We have lots of these areas in the county,” Altman says, as he looks across the field.

Seeing nobody, Altman turns around and heads back out on 304th Street. That’s part of his job, he adds, to make regular checks on those state-run areas.

— — — —12:38 p.m.

It doesn’t take Altman long to reach another area, this one about three miles from Tabor. This patch of land — a Production Area — offers hunting and fishing (with a pond that is stocked).

“Each area is unique,” Altman says.

Part of duties also includes serving as a trainer for new conservation officers, he says, and so when he takes trainees through these areas, Altman says he asks them questions: ‘What are you seeing?’, for example.

One thing he says, he adds, is that someone had clearly been out testing the ice on the small pond — a series of dark circles gives it away. It’s still rather early in the season to be ice fishing, according to Altman.

Had someone been out there, he would have checked — “The first thing I would’ve asked would be, ‘How thick is the ice?’”

— — — —12:45 p.m.

On the topic of how different the Yankton area is from the Presho

area where Altman previously worked, the subject of archery is mentioned.


Yankton County, he says, has a strong following in archery, but Altman admits that it does make conservation officers’ jobs difficult with deer management.

While the deer rifle seasons are regimented and monitored closely, anyone who wants to buy an archery deer license can do so, according to Altman.

“Seventy to eighty percent of the deer harvested in the county is from archery,” he says. “And that’s an astronomically high number compared to other counties. That’s just something we can’t control.”

The combination of the programs offered at the NFAA Easton Yankton Complex and businesses like Dakota Archery and the archery range at Gavins Point Recreation Area means this area is “conducive” to archery, Altman says.

“It’s just another obstacle for us to manage deer numbers,” he adds.

— — — —1 p.m.

A popular topic on this day is how Altman’s location in South Dakota presents some unique factors, he says, as he turns west onto Apple Tree Road along the Missouri River east of Springfield.

“We work very closely with Nebraska, especially in the summer,” he says. “I talk to one of my counterparts almost daily.”

Most of that partnership has to do with the Missouri River, Altman adds.

“It’s a neat relationship,” he says. “For the most part, our jobs are the same; we deal with many of the same things, just in different states with different regulations.”

— — — —1:15 p.m.

Just east of Springfield along the river, Altman approaches two vehicles near a boat launch area. After he radios into his dispatch, he stops to chat with two hunters who are preparing to back a boat into the water.

One vehicle, as it turns out, has Iowa plates, but both men live in Sioux Falls, Altman says. That presented a series of checks, because of the non-resident versus resident issue.

“Everything checked out; they’re good,” Altman says, as he gets back in his truck. “With duck hunters, you want to check their guns, the boat and their bag limits.”

As he enters Sand Creek Recreation Area a half-mile down Apple Tree Road, Altman points out that most of his conversations with hunters go like that — that it’s just coming across someone or a group of people, which leads to a chat.

“A lot of our contacts are consensual contacts,” he says. “It starts out as casual chats and then we’ll check everything.”

— — — —1:34 p.m.

There’s a brief moment of chaos when Altman receives word over the radio that another hunter was stuck on a nearby sandbar.

“It happens a lot during duck season,” Altman says.

That news meant Altman would have had to drive back to his office near Lewis & Clark Lake and hitch up his boat, and then come back out to help the stranded hunter.

But a few minutes after the initial call, word comes back that the hunter was free.

“Woo hoo, he got out,” Altman says. “This makes me happy.”

He jokes that it wouldn’t have been too bad in the middle of the day when it’s still light out — rather than near the end of the day and in the dark.

— — — —2 p.m.

It’s not always hunters and anglers that Altman has to worry about in his job. No, there are times, especially given the busy summer months on the Missouri River, where he aids in search and rescue operations.

One specific area has presented frequent problems along the river, he says: Burbank Beach, near Burbank.

The 2011 flooding dumped sand on a game production area owned by GF&P, and the result has led to the beach becoming a popular hangout for college students from nearby University of South Dakota — among other schools.

“That’s a big issue for us in the summer months, especially,” Altman says.

A few years ago, Altman says he helped with a few rescue trips in which beachgoers would attempt to swim across the river — the high sandbars allowed them to walk in waist-deep water most of the way across, but it was the last stretch that caused problems — and get swept away.

“At one point, we went down there and talked with them about how dangerous that was,” Altman says.

“I remember saying, ‘We’re going to be back here soon if this keeps up,’” he adds. “And sure enough, like a week later, there was a drowning.”

Since that first incident, there have been a series of other drownings (some fatal), and each situation is the same, Altman says.

“Working on that type of stuff can be frustrating,” he adds.

It’s not just at Burbank Beach where beachgoers or boat users underestimate the Missouri River, according to Altman.

“There’s a lack of understanding and a lack of respect for how powerful the river is, even when it looks peaceful,” he says. “There’s

norm for us.”


— — — —2:25 p.m.

Altman’s final stop on this afternoon journey is to check another area, this time a Controlled Hunter Access Program (CHAP) spot located between Tabor and Yankton, just north of Highway 50.

Initially designated for youth hunting, this particular area has since been open to adults to harvest deer, according to Altman.

The location is limited to six hunters per day and capped at 25-30 deer, he adds.

“Most people are pretty appreciative of it,” Altman says, as he drives through and looks across the fields. “We have a lot of repeat hunters who sign up, and it’s a first-come, first-serve setup.”

From there, it’s back to the office.

Although his day is far from over, Altman jokes. No, he still has to head east that night to continue work on a few ongoing investigations.