PITTSBURGH — Fish and wildlife departments around the
country are on the hunt — for more wardens.
From California to Pennsylvania to Florida, states are
struggling to recruit officers and habitat and other projects are
being delayed. Those enforcing wildlife laws have a full workload,
and officials suspect poaching is increasing, though hard numbers
are difficult to come by.
"I think the nefarious people realize there's a good chance
they're not going to get caught and are taking more
opportunities,'' said Nancy Foley, chief of the law enforcement
division of California's Department of Fish and Game.
Besides enforcing hunting and fishing laws, wildlife wardens
respond to calls about injured or nuisance wildlife and provide
environmental education. In states such as Texas, they are among
the first responders to hurricanes and other natural disasters,
said Col. Pete Flores, director of the law enforcement division for
the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The danger of the job and declining interest in outdoor
activities may also be to blame for shortages, officials say. But
mostly, it's the pay, often thousands less than traditional police
California's Department of Fish and Game has about 75 vacancies
out of 300 officers. About 40 percent of the state's trainees leave
the academy, mostly because of the low starting salary, which was
recently raised to $48,000 from $44,000, Foley said. The disparity
could be because officials don't view wardens as valid law
enforcers, she and others said.
"To think a conservation officer is any less important than a
state police officer … they're not thinking about it in the right
way,'' said Col. Julie Jones, director of law enforcement for the
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and president of
the National Association of Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs.
Nevada has three vacancies in its 32-officer unit, which is
responsible for 110,000 square miles, and Florida's Fish and
Wildlife Conservation Commission has about 50 vacancies out of
about 470 field officers.
In Pennsylvania, where the Fish and Boat Commission operates
with about a half-dozen vacancies in its complement of 80 field
officers, starting annual pay for officers is about $9,000 less
than for state troopers, said Thomas J. Kamerzel, director of law
enforcement for the commission.
Kamerzel competed with 6,000 applicants to the agency nearly 30
years ago. The agency's latest graduating class numbered just 360,
and Kamerzel said he has only attracted only several hundred
applicants through mailings, posters and newspaper ads.
Trolling for wardens
THE ISSUE: Fish and wildlife agencies across the country say
they are having difficulty recruiting and retaining wardens due to
low pay and the dangers of the job.
THE CONCERNS: Besides enforcing hunting and fishing regulations,
wildlife wardens respond to calls about injured or nuisance
wildlife, protect and educate the public about the environment, and
in some states are among the first responders to hurricanes or
other natural disasters.
WHAT'S BEING DONE: Officials in some states are pushing for
salary increases so wardens get paid as much as police officers.
Pennsylvania's game wardens recently switched from the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union to the
Fraternal Order of Police in hopes of obtaining a salary and
retirement benefits comparable to those of state police, said Brian
Witherite, a Wildlife Conservation Officer in southwestern
Game wardens in California are likely to encounter marijuana
crops grown in rural areas and drug smugglers trekking through the
woods. California's wardens issued about 45,000 to 50,000 tickets
last year, about one-third of which fell into categories associated
with traditional policing, Foley said.
And game wardens patrol people who are frequently armed —
hunters — in vast expanses of wilderness. Statistics show a warden
is about 2.5 times more likely to be assaulted with a deadly weapon
than are other officers, said Rob Buonamici, chief game warden for
the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
It hasn't helped that for years, these officers have been outside the
public view. Now, there's a growing effort to educate people about
what they do, Jones said.
"The Game Commission isn't really a career,'' said Wildlife
Conservation Officer Gary Toward, who covers about 600 square miles
in western Pennsylvania. "It's more a lifestyle.''