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Three questions for the new President

1/21/2009

In the name of "transparency" and "change," the Barack Obama-Joe Biden team is asking online for questions and suggestions that can help guide the new presidency.

I've got three questions/suggestions for the new President and his team. I sent them in, but in hopes of moving you to do so, I'm sharing these three serious concerns for outdoor sportsmen.

Game warden shortage

There are 830,000 sworn law enforcement officers in the U.S., about 7,100 of which are game wardens, which incidentally is about the same number of police the NYPD puts on the streets for New Year's Eve in Times Square.

Nowhere are game wardens abundant, but there are almost twice as many whooping cranes as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agents — federal game wardens. In California, there is one state game warden for every 198,000 residents, the worst per capita ratio in North America.

One consequence of the acute warden shortage is an escalating black market trade in wildlife. In California, it's more than $100 million a year. Internationally, the illegal trafficking in wildlife is second only to drugs, and about equivalent to the trade in arms smuggling.

Organized crime and terrorist groups trade in wildlife to make money to run other criminal actions, frequently mixing birds, monkeys, skins, bones, ivory, etc., with shipments of marijuana, opium poppies, cocaine and meth.

A lot of people think that all game wardens do is spend their time performing compliance checks on hunters and fishermen. They do that, but game wardens actually enforce the largest range of law of any law enforcement officer — wildlife law, criminal law, civil law, and even traffic law.

And when they are not busy with something else, they perform search and rescue, homeland security protection, work with game biologists and educate the people about ecology, as well as teach Hunter Education. Many state game wardens are deputy federal marshals.

U.S. game wardens are underpaid, overworked and seldom have backup, and that neglect is having calamitous consequences for fish and wildlife, the economy and national security.

Biden-Obama team, how will you strengthen "The Thin Green Line?"

Homeland Security and game wardens

Frequently, game wardens are the only law enforcement officers patrolling rural and remote areas, which are potential havens for criminals and terrorists.

In the course of producing a documentary about California's game warden shortage, "Endangered Species: California Fish and Game Wardens", I found a California Fish and Game Warden discovered a terrorist cell training in the California desert prior to 9/11.

As per usual, the warden was alone when he heard what he thought was automatic weapons fire. He checked it out and saw two dozen men firing weapons, as if they were training for co mbat.

The warden called in the Border Patrol and a Deputy Sheriff, and they all descended on the group, which turned out to be all Middle Eastern men, with several advisors. They had an enormous store of pistols and rifles and two vans loaded with ammo, as well as several rifles converted to auto fire. The automatic-fire rifles were confiscated and the incident was reported to higher levels of law enforcement. Apparently, nothing was done, as on 9/11 three of that group flew one of the planes into the World Trade Center.

On 9/11, game wardens across the U.S. were called into action to stand beside fellow peace officers in support of national security. In California, wardens were especially important to patrolling harbors and bridges.

Other than receiving some funds for overtime around 9/11, game wardens have received precious little Homeland Security support even though they represent a very significant part of the national security system. How will the new team help the nation's game wardens become more effective in Homeland Security work?

Educating public about hunting and trapping

The White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy was held Oct. 1-3, in Reno, Nev. This was a step in the right direction to clarify goals and needs, and build cohesion in federal, state and private conservation efforts for wildlife conservation for the next century.

However, when one looks closely at the proceedings of the conference, there is virtually nothing being proposed to deal with communicating with the general public about wildlife and hunting.

Hunters may be leaders in conservation, but they are virtually off the radar of mainstream media, unless someone has a hunting accident or poachers are nabbed. Instead, the anti-hunting groups have cornered the media and daily bombard us with bombastic claims and accusations that normally have little, if any, basis in fact.

In my keynote address to the Outdoor Writers of America a few years back, "Villains, Fools and Heroes: The Image of the Hunter In Television and Feature Films," I noted more than 75 feature films that include hunting in some way, and describe the crucial role of mass media in forming attitudes about ecology, wildlife and hunting, and the growing lack of positive images of hunting in mainstream media. Since then, the number of feature films with hunters as heroes has been about as prevalent as albino deer.

Peer pressure and general social attitudes have an enormous impact on recruitment and retention of hunters, especially young ones. If mainstream media don't portray hunters as heroes and conservationists, all other education efforts about hunting become much harder and less likely to succeed.

Pittman-Robertson moneys derived from excise taxes on sporting goods are a major source of funds to support wildlife conservation, as are license fees like the federal Waterfowl Stamp.

Hunting conservation organizations save habitat and raise millions for wildlife conservation. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, "The 18.5 million hunters contribute more than $30 billion annually to the U.S. economy and support more than 986,000 jobs. They are the primary financiers (more than $1.5 billion per year) of conservation programs that benefit all Americans who appreciate wildlife and wild places."

The future of wildlife may be habitat, but the future of hunting is more associated with public opinion. Hunters are a minority group, perhaps an endangered species, not because of what they have done, but because that they are mystery to most non-hunters.

The Canadian government gives out grants to filmmakers to make films about positive aspects of hunting and trapping, like the work of Newfoundland cinematographer Anne Troake.

What will the Obama-Biden team do to help videographers and cinematographers make the general public aware of the importance of hunting to the economy, and to conservation?

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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