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Thursday, May 20, 2004 03:00 am

On guard

Sgt. Kathy Krusz has been an Illinois conservation agent for 26 years. Her life's work is protecting the state's abundant natural resources, including its wildlife. She's dealt with some of the wiliest and dumbest creatures ever seen. By her account, she's had plenty of close encounters.

"Think of the stupidest things human beings can do, and we have probably seen it done several times on the job," she says. "We see the best -- and the worst -- human behavior on a regular basis."

Krusz has uncovered illegal meth labs, was once held at gunpoint, and was nearly flattened by a stolen sport-utility vehicle.

More often than not, Krusz's tales involve one of the most basic human impulses: greed. Some Illinois sportsmen and women will bend just about any rule to bag a critter or fill up a live well. Standing in their way are the 132 conservation police for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources -- bona fide law-enforcement officers who carry guns and make arrests. On the prowl for evidence of poaching, they routinely stop and search vehicles, often uncovering new and bizarre ways to hide illegally taken game.

"You'd be surprised where I find waterfowl," Krusz says. "I have uncovered them in hollowed-out fire extinguishers, within secret compartments inside [poachers'] vehicle seats, and under false floors."

A couple of searches have yielded even stranger finds. During one such search, officers found nothing suspicious -- until the gas-tank door was opened and they discovered a pheasant stuffed inside the compartment. Another poacher shot a rabbit in the spine, then jammed the dying animal in a glove compartment. "The only reason we found that poor creature was because it had crawled halfway out of the back of the chamber," Krusz says. "The rabbit couldn't use its hind legs [a .22-caliber bullet was lodged in its spine], so we dispatched the animal and arrested the poacher."

One duck hunter, she recounts, thought he was being smart when he cut the breasts from the birds and placed them between slices of bread. He tried to convince agents that it was lunch. He didn't succeed.

Krusz, 48, works a six-county area that includes Sangamon. Many things have changed in the years since she first started the job. "When I first became an officer, we had everybody 'shining' for raccoons [blinding them with light] because the fur prices were up back then," Krusz recalls.

"Everyone, from kids to adults, was out there trying to harvest as many skins as possible. Then raccoon pelts dropped down to around $10 or less per item -- so they shifted gears and started poaching deer with big racks."

Being a conservation agent means dealing with the unexpected -- such as coming across a dead porcupine near a hunters' camp. Because the animal's not native to the state, Krusz guesses that some hunters caught, killed, and froze the creature in another state, then brought it back as a prank. She took the carcass to the Illinois State Museum.

Sometimes the unexpected has life-or-death consequences.

"The first year I was in the field, I was held at gunpoint. We were going into a hunting-camp situation and saw someone running through the woods. There were signs of an illegal operation, so I got out of the vehicle and gave chase. As I was running after that individual, he suddenly turned around, went down on one knee and held me at gunpoint."

How did Krusz get out of that situation? "I did some quick thinking and talked my way out of it," she says. The state's attorney, unsure that Krusz could make a positive identification, decided not to press charges against the man who threatened her. "That was 26 years ago, a time when conservation officers were not looked upon as real policemen."

In a more recent encounter, five years ago, a man who had robbed two individuals at Lake Springfield was making his getaway in a stolen Chevrolet Blazer. Krusz witnessed the crime, and intervened. "I ran up to the vehicle and drew my gun and pointed it at his head, but he continued backing up." She didn't fire, fearing she might injure bystanders; instead, she grabbed the door, trying to convince the driver to stop. "Somehow I was pulled beneath the vehicle -- and he literally backed up over my legs." Luckily, neither leg was broken, but she spent the night in the hospital. The assailant was identified two months later, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for armed robbery, aggravated vehicular hijacking, and aggravated battery.

Krusz is passionate about her work and sees herself as a guardian of the state's natural heritage: "Passenger pigeons used to number in the billions. Their flocks were enormous, both here and in Europe, but they were shot for sport, hunted for food, and poisoned as a pest -- and became extinct.

"No one took responsibility for the death of these birds. They simply vanished from the wild. Conservation officers have a vested interest in the future. We recognize endangered species and make every effort to protect them. It's our goal to see that the fate of the passenger pigeon isn't shared by our deer, wild turkeys, bluegill, largemouth bass, ducks, Canada geese, and other common species."

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