After many years of invisibility, game wardens, “the Thin Green Line,” are getting recognition thanks to several reality TV series including North Woods Law, Wardens, and Wild Justice, as well as a number of popular fiction and non-fiction books.
Awareness of wardens also jumped this past spring by news coverage of the crucial role the wardens played in the pursuit of Chris Dorner.
One of the reasons why game wardens have been so invisible is that they are a rare species. Out of over 800,000 law enforcement officers in the entire United States, there are approximately 7,100 game wardens, which is less than the police force of most big cities.
To give you a better idea of just how rare game wardens are, today California has one game warden in the field for about every 185,000 residents or 250 in the field for the entire state, and this is up from 180 three years ago. Imagine a town of 185,000 people with one police officer. In contrast, Montana has one warden for every 8,832 residents. Wyoming has one warden for every 8,513, and Alaska has one warden for every 6,980 residents. New Brunswick has one warden for every 7,423 residents. Manitoba has one warden for every 6,755. Newfoundland has one warden for every 3,616 residents. Nunavut Territory, which has a vast amount of land but few people, has one warden for every 882 residents.
Because they’ve been so rare, when a game warden does appear, some sportsmen may cringe because they fear that they may have violated a law they weren’t aware of. To a certain extent that’s understandable. Regulations in many states and provinces are complicated and learning them all is hardly easy, as in addition to the booklets given to each person who buys a license, Fish and Wildlife Codes for each state can be as thick as a phone book. One consequence is that aside from Hunter Education classes that run 10 to 12 hours, there’s no easy way to educate people about wildlife laws. Combine that with the scarcity of game wardens and the vast areas they patrol and you’ve got a potential problem that’s found all across North America.
Remember that game wardens don’t make the laws. They just enforce them.
There are two varieties of game wardens: state and federal. The state game wardens may work in uniform and undercover.
Many of the federal game wardens who work for agencies like the USFWS, NOAA, EPA, and the BLM are called “Special Agents.” Some of their work may involve routine inspections, but a good deal involves covert investigations. Many Special Agents are great character actors.
In addition, there are federal, state, and regional park and forest rangers who enforce wildlife laws as well as criminal laws. Normally, they work in uniform. The USFWS law enforcement officers are nicknamed “LEOs,” which stands for law enforcement officers.
One misconception is that all that game wardens do is to check the fish or game you’ve caught for bag limits and size regulations and to make sure that you have a license and whatever you’re doing is in season on the land where you are. Game wardens actually enforce all criminal and civil laws as well as wildlife law, in addition to performing search and rescue duties.
Typically game wardens work alone, without close backup, under all conditions, and in remote areas. They also work from a home office and are on-call 24/7. They’re like the old-fashioned town sheriff. However, they also conduct their own crime scene investigation, and some are pilots who conduct aerial surveillance. Others may captain boats of various sizes. California game wardens can patrol out to 200 miles offshore, and they were on emergency call on 9/11.
Nearly all the people that game wardens contact have a knife and/or a gun. As a result the wardens are better armed than the average police officer. For example, in California, every game warden is issued two pistols, a shotgun, and a .308 rifle, a larger caliber than the standard police-issue rifle as wardens may have to shoot through brush. They are also trained in martial arts. State game wardens are also the only type of law enforcement officer that teach people how to shoot guns as part of their job, through hunter education programs.
While they may seem like “fish cops” who don’t do much, actually being a game warden is among the most dangerous of all law enforcement jobs. According to California Fish and Game Wardens Association President Jerry Karnow, nine officer-involved shootings (OIS) involving California’s wardens have taken place since Warden Kyle Kroll was shot and nearly killed in an illegal marijuana plot on state lands in 2005. Wardens have been in three OIS in the last eight months (June 2012 through January 2013). Twenty-two California Game Wardens have been killed working in the performance of their duties.
Wardens also increasingly find themselves investigating organized crime. Quietly, the international trade in illegal wildlife has become second only to drugs. In California, thanks to the game warden shortage and the state’s burgeoning population, it’s estimated that the annual black market in wildlife trafficking is worth at least $100 million a year.
Because wildlife trafficking pays little heed to boundaries, there’s enormous need for interstate and international cooperation. To aid cooperation, there’s an international umbrella organization, the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association (NAWEOA). NAWEOA represents game wardens and park and forest rangers in all categories. They meet annually for their international convention and serve as a clearinghouse for news, as well as a coordinating organization.
NAWEOA also runs the Game Warden Museum that’s located in the International Peace Garden on the border between Manitoba and North Dakota. The Museum features displays of vintage gear and mounted animals, a library, classes, and lectures.
If you’re out in the field and see someone breaking a wildlife law, you can report them to your state or province tip line and receive an award if your tip leads to a conviction. There’s a map on the NAWEOA website that provides information on tip lines for every state and province.
Game wardens play an important role in protecting our wildlife. It’s good to see them getting some recognition, and they deserve even more.
Image courtesy California Department of Fish and Wildlife