• warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.
  • warning: Parameter 2 to ed_classified_link_alter() expected to be a reference, value given in /home/soloneconomist/www/www/includes/common.inc on line 2968.

Sex, drugs and fishing licenses

Billerbeck shares the darker side of patrolling for the DNR in new book

SOLON– A lot of people think of a game warden as the friendly officer checking fishing licenses.
And while partially true, there’s another side to the job that’s not as family-friendly, according to Erika Billerbeck.
Billerbeck, of Solon, recounted some of the grittier true-life tales from her career as an Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) law enforcement officer in her newly-published memoir, “Wildland Sentinel: Field Notes from an Iowa Conservation Officer.”
“It’s dealing with a lot of things, problems people bring with them when they go outdoors,” she explained. “It’s the same problems they have in towns or in the city. And now we’re encountering them.”
While much of the job is still primarily fish and game enforcement, DNR officers in urban counties, like Johnson and Linn, have to deal with higher instances of serious and bizarre crimes, she said.
You wouldn’t typically think of a DNR or conservation officer as dealing with those issues, she noted, and while they still make up smaller percentage, “It does seem that I run into it now more than I used to.”
It was a little quieter in Calhoun County, where she was first assigned by the DNR 20 years ago.
Billerbeck, 45, spent her early years in Monticello, but was raised in New Hampton and attended Luther College in Decorah, where she obtained a biology degree.
She didn’t do a lot of hunting or fishing, but her family did a lot of camping and hiking, and she grew up wanting to become a naturalist.
Billerbeck worked seasonally for the DNR and eventually settled into an environmental education position in Franklin County.
But she ended up wanting something a little bit different.
“I started riding along with conservation officers while I was a naturalist and kind of got a taste of it,” she explained.
Through a college friend with the Wisconsin DNR, she ended up interviewing and getting hired as a deputy warden.
Billerbeck went through the police academy in Wisconsin, but the job didn’t provide enough hours to qualify for benefits. She kept her eye open for a full-time position and the Iowa DNR hired her away.
“Whichever agency offered first, I was going to take it, just because it’s hard to get a job in that field,” she recalled.
She was assigned to Webster and Calhoun counties and spent five years there before arriving in Johnson County, where she has served as primary officer for the last 15 years.
“You have to cover a lot of ground, especially if you have two counties,” she said of the job. “It’s hard to be in the right place at the right time, ever. That’s just how it is.”
Billerbeck and her husband Tom, an employee of the DNR Wildlife Bureau, moved to Solon eight years ago with their daughter Andi and son Silas.
Over the course of her career, she spent about 10 years writing the “Warden’s Diary” column for “Iowa Outdoors” magazine.
While writing those columns, a book was in the back of her mind, but she didn’t think about it seriously until the magazine went through some changes and she decided to step away.
The magazine was a very family-friendly format, she explained.
“I wanted a space where I could write some of these other stories I wasn’t able to tell,” she said.
Some of those stories have very adult content not suitable for children.
Billerbeck wanted to tell not only her tale, but those of the other officers she’s worked with over the years, including a park ranger at Lake Macbride State Park.
While the names were changed, all the stories in “Wildland Sentinel” happened, she added.
One story unsuitable for the magazine recalled how Billerbeck and the park ranger, named Jace in the book, dealt with a male sex offender hanging out at the state park.
The two officers found a duffel bag stuffed with women’s undergarments, among other details.
“And then some stuff out at the Hawkeye Wildlife Area that just would have been really hard to write about for the magazine,” she continued.
There’s an area where primarily men would gather, she said, and if you walked off the trail and into the trees, condoms were literally hanging from the trees and people were walking around naked.
“We ended up setting up a project up there and trying to eliminate it because we had a lot of complaints from the public that were thinking they were going on a little nature walk and ended up seeing a lot more than they wanted to see,” she noted.
Summer days are taken up with working on the Coralville Reservoir on weekends, following up and filing reports the following week, maintaining DNR boats and conducting investigations.
With the change to fall, Billerbeck will be focusing more on hunting patrol, but she will still spend most of her time outside.
“If you count sitting in my truck outdoors,” she observed.
She also runs a local program, “Wild Things,” which transports elementary kids from Solon out to wildlife areas on Thursdays to explore creeks and touch bugs, a nod to her environmental education background.
“It’s just kind of an opportunity for them to be outdoors and playing and exploring around,” she said.
When not working, she’s doing outdoors stuff with her kids, still very much attuned to the natural world.
Billerbeck enjoys artwork and photography.
“I like to go out and see what I can capture on a camera,” she said.
“Wildland Sentinel” doesn’t include any of her photos, but Billerbeck created all the vinyl block art for the book, including the cover.
It took a couple of years to finish the book.
“Mostly after my kids were in bed, so some late nights sitting down and writing it,” she recalled.
She developed her voice writing for the magazine, but always liked writing.
“I’m a big reader, that’s mostly it,” she explained. “It’s always been a lifelong dream I’ve had to write a book. I didn’t know it’d be about this. I’ve just always kind of liked to write.”
Her mother, a former art teacher, provided editing services, but it was another story getting the book published.
Billerbeck was researching how to attract the attention of an agent and publisher when her friend Carter Johnson with the Bur Oak Land Trust put her in touch with Holly Carver, director of the University of Iowa Press.
Billerbeck emailed Carver and sent her a copy of the book, thinking Carver would provide some tips.
Not long after that, Carver sent an email offering to print the book.
It’s scheduled for release Sept. 15, and should subsequently be available at local bookstores, she said.
“It’s a cool feeling,” she observed.
The pandemic, however, put a bit of a dent into her excitement.
Billerbeck was hoping for book talks and signings at the Solon Public Library and in her hometown.
“Wildland Sentinel: Field Notes from an Iowa Conservation Officer” is available through the University of Iowa Press at www.uipress.uiowa.edu.

“Chock full of shenanigans of both the animal and human variety, Erika Billerbeck’s Wildland Sentinel is an intelligent and thoughtful journey exposing the diverse challenges faced by modern game wardens.”—Andrea Lankford, author, Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks