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Officers with area ties come home to work

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No more help on the way

One region's gain is another's loss. The return of two conservation officers to western Pennsylvania will mean empty districts elsewhere.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has 85 full-time conservation officers working. That includes 81 in the field — if you count managers and their assistants in each of the six regional offices — and four more in the agency's Harrisburg headquarters.

Thirteen vacancies exist statewide. That number will grow as another five retirements are expected by the end of the fiscal year June 30.

No replacements are on the way. Commission spokesman Rick Levis said that “due to budgetary issues,” there are no plans to hire and train additional officers anytime soon.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, 7:57 p.m.

Two officers have come home.

Matt Kauffman and Mike Johnson are waterways conservation officers with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. They graduated from the agency's training school together in August 2011.

Kauffman, raised in Conemaugh Township in Somerset County, was sent from there to a district in southern Pike and northeast Monroe counties. Johnson, a New Jersey native who had moved to Mt. Lebanon with his wife, was assigned to southern Bucks County.

Now they're back.

Kauffman is working northern Westmoreland County, and Johnson is working central Allegheny, which includes Pittsburgh and its three rivers.

“The first time I was ever in the Poconos was when I went to look for a house,” the 27-year-old Kauffman said. “It was culture shock.

“But I said I'd do my time, make some cases, learn what I could and get back when the opportunity arose.”

Johnson, who will turn 50 soon, never completely left. His wife stayed in their house in Mt. Lebanon; he rented an apartment in Bucks County and came home once a month or so. He's glad to be back full time.

“Pittsburgh is a phenomenal city. Coming from northern Jersey, metropolitan New York, it's just a great city. There's no other way to describe it,” he said.

The two men took different paths to become conservation officers.

Kauffman joined the National Guard after high school. Within six months was in Iraq as part of an engineer group attached to legendary outfits like the 101st Airborne and involved in “snatch and grab” operations, searches for weapons caches, demolitions and more. He returned stateside to earn a criminology degree from Indiana (Pa.).

Johnson was working in the financial arena until the stock market crash of 2008, when he suddenly was without a job.

Now Kauffman, who grew up just across the Laurel Ridge from Westmoreland County, knows much of the area he'll be patrolling.

“When you know the watering holes and have a lot of contacts, it makes your life a whole lot easier,” Kauffman said.

Johnson has less of a history with Pittsburgh, but he's equally excited.

“This is definitely the best job I've ever had,” Johnson said. “To be out there in the field and to be truly making a difference, I wouldn't trade it for anything.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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