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From identifying scat to songbirds, Minnesota call center answers questions from the field

Employees working for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources call center post for a photo. Expanded hours were announced this week to help field questions from the public. Submitted photo

BRAINERD, Minn. — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources boosted its call center hours for curious Minnesotans spending time in the outdoors.

The agency timed the expansion announcement just before the opening of the firearms deer season Saturday, Nov. 4, when an estimated 500,000 people will load up and head out to hunt down a trophy white-tail deer. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr joined other DNR officials this week to promote the expanded hours.

Following a pilot program last fall, the DNR's information center has extended and weekend hours this year from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.

Need to know the regulations for a particular deer zone? Need to phone in a deer registration for that monster buck? The DNR is on top of it.

Hunters responded to the added hours during the pilot project this past year.

More than 12,000 calls came in last year during the extra hours, so the DNR decided to make the change permanent, spending about $190,000 in additional staff costs annually to expand hours Minnesotans could call in.

"We found that that pilot was so successful, we are just going to make it part of our business," Landwehr said.

Staff members will now answer phones for 64 hours per week, up from 40. The call center will add the equivalent of 3.5 staff members.

The expanded emphasis on the information center is intended in part to help alleviate some pressure on conservation officers, who ideally would focus on law enforcement, Landwehr said.

It's also not just hunters calling into the center, officials said. Call center employees can answer questions ranging from what sort of songbird is on a person's feeder to whether a caller just caught a record fish. DNR spokesperson Chris Niskanen said the call center aims to connect a caller to a DNR expert in the relevant field within 30 seconds.

Information center specialists also described the more wacky calls and emails they may handle from time to time. People will message photos to the information center, which is simple enough when the callers are trying to ID an animal, but sometimes they try to identify other things.

"Sometimes we get pictures of animal scat (fecal matter), too," one manager said. "Funny as it is, but we get a lot of those."

Sometimes, it can be as good as a calling card when trying to identify which animals are in a particular area.

"We are actually able to identify what poo it is (from the) picture, whether it's a deer, moose, bobcat or whatever," Niskanen said.

To reach the information center or to connect to a deer registration vendor, call 888-MINNDNR (646-6367) or email Interpreters are available for non-English speakers.