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DNR Enforcement Division Chief Pilot Calls it a Career
Minnesota Ag Connection - 05/16/2019

Following a 15-year career with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Enforcement Division's Aviation Unit, Capt. Tom Buker -- the division's chief pilot since 2015 -- is flying off into retirement.

Like any retiree, he's got the list of things he's looking forward to doing, such as spending more time with family, traveling and being outdoors.

But don't mistake his excitement about beginning a new chapter in life for regret about how he's spent the years since he was a military police officer in the Army.

"It's been a fantastic career -- are you kidding me?" said Buker, whose last day with the DNR is May 13. "I'm going to miss the people -- whether the co-workers or the people we fly for -- who are so dedicated to the mission. And I'm going to miss being able to fly the great aircraft the DNR has right now."

As chief pilot, Buker was responsible for the Enforcement Division's Aviation Unit, which has been around since the 1940s and includes nine pilots. The pilots fly enforcement missions to catch poachers and assist in search and rescue operations, for example, but they also spend time assisting other DNR divisions with tasks such as fish stocking and surveying the number of breeding waterfowl in the state.

From 2004 to 2015, Buker was an Enforcement pilot based in New Ulm. He's also worked for sheriff's offices in Nevada and Minnesota and been a flight instructor at the University of Minnesota Crookston.

As a kid growing up in Oregon, Buker spent lots of time fishing, hunting, trapping and nurturing his love for flight. His time as a DNR pilot has been a unique blend of all those interests and allowed him to experience the state's landscape and wildlife in ways few others can. Sometimes, his abilities have been tested, like when he was participating in a moose project on the North Shore.

Following a flying session, he had to land at the airport in Grand Marais, where the winter weather presented a challenge when it came to landing. The airport manager and other people lined up their vehicles along the runway, telling Buker they were there in case of an emergency. He doesn't necessarily believe that was the only reason everyone was gathered.

"I think they were there to watch the landing," he said. "I had a whole crowd of people basically there to see if the DNR could get this plane down on an icy runway with a really stiff crosswind." Buker stuck the landing, as they say, adding another memory to the collection that encompasses what he says has been a rewarding career.

In retirement, Buker and his wife plan to build a home in Idaho so they can be closer to their children and grandchildren, who all live in the West. They'll split their time between Idaho and Germany -- where his wife grew up (they met during Buker's Army days) -- ensuring that even in retirement, he'll still spend plenty of time in the air.

The Enforcement Division has hired Chris Lofstuen, who's been a pilot with the DNR since 2013 and been flying since 1984, to fill the role of chief pilot. He began Wednesday.

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