March 30, 2015
Each state has its own natural resources agency that includes law enforcement officers who have different names but similar jobs -- game wardens, conservation officers, environmental police, and special state police officers in Oregon and Alaska. Whatever you call them, they all enforce all criminal and civil laws as well as wildlife laws; even conduct search and rescue missions. And they are in surprisingly short supply.
For the entire US there are only somewhere between about 8000 and 6100 game wardens in the field, which is less than the police force of major US cities – Los Angeles, has about 10,000 police officers, Chicago has 12,000 police officers and New York City has 34,000 officers on patrol.
Why there are so few game wardens is somewhat a mystery, as without them the agency would not have much left to manage, but it's become increasingly expensive to run state natural resource agencies.
The California Natural Resources Agency, for example, runs around $8.3 billion a year to operate; only $2.2 billion comes from General Fund. The Agency has 26 departments, boards, commissions, and conservancies responsible for administering programs to conserve, protect, restore, and enhance the natural, historical, and cultural resources of California.
Some of this is the same as it was when Teddy Roosevelt was President, but as people have become more conservation conscientious, there have been shifts in priorities and the wardens' budget ends up being vulnerable.
A significant amount of funding for a natural resources agency budget comes from fishing and hunting licenses and permit fees (usually about 1/3 or more); another third comes from dedicated federal funds (including revenues from the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, state wildlife grants, the Pitman-Robertson Act and Dingell-Johnson Act, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration). The remainder comes from a mix of sources, such as off-highway RV registrations, motorboat gas tax, transfers and other agency income, and grants from conservation organizations.
In cash-strapped California, which has one game warden for about every 190,000 residents, (wardens in the field have gone from 200 to 250 wardens in the field in the last five years but that still is the lowest wardens per capita in North America), finding funding to support game wardens is an ongoing challenge, especially when annual California fishing license sales have dropped from 2 million/yr in the l970's to just under one million, and hunting licenses have gone from 500,000/yr to under 245,000 this last year.
In addition to General Funds, California has some unique sources of money to support game wardens that definitely help keep the "thin green line" in the field other states might want to consider.
1) Fine Money -- All law enforcement officers write tickets for fines. Where does that money go? It varies. In some states, money from court judgements funds the courts. In other places, fine moneys go to special educational programs, the state general fund, libraries, schools, etc. In other places at least some of the money goes to police departments, and special safety programs.
In California, where game wardens issue more than 15,000 citations a year , all fines from code violations are divided equally between the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the county in which the violation occurred. A County Fish and Game Commission is charged with recommending expenditures of its share of fine revenues in that county to the Board of Supervisors. State law requires that grants of such monies must be utilized for protection, conservation, propagation, preservation, or education pertaining to fish and wildlife. However, in some cases, a county may "borrow" from wildlife fine funds if they are not being used.
Two consequences of low numbers of game wardens are fewer fines, and less wildlife due to habitat loss and poaching. In California it's estimated that there's over $100 million in illegal wildlife trafficking in the state every year.
2) Donations -- Wardens normally work alone, without back-up and in remote areas. One way to help increase game warden effectiveness is through the use of trained patrol dogs. The cost to train a dog can run $8,000 to $10,000. The K-9 division of California Game Wardens is funded largely by grants and private donations .
TV -- In 2007 the California Game Wardens Association approached me to produce a film about their plight. As a result of that documentary, "Endangered Species: California Fish and Game Wardens," (http://www.jamesswan.com/snowgoose/wardendoc.html) several things have happened including helping the "Wild Justice" TV series on the National Geographic Channel get started. One of them is the Wardens Stamp.
4) Wardens Stamp -- Yes, bake sales and car washes can raise some money, and appeals to the lawmakers help, but there are many competitors for every $ in the state treasury. One creative idea for helping support California game wardens is a special stamp – a window decal that specifically helps support the training of game wardens. (https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Warden-Stamp) The stamp program originated from the combined efforts of the California Game Wardens Association, the California Waterfowl Association and several lawmakers including Senator Dave Cogdill and Assemblyman Jared Huffman (now a federal Congressman).
The Warden Stamp Program was initiated in 2010 to address the need for better equipment and training for the state's wildlife officers and to provide funding for special law enforcement programs. Warden stamps cost $5.00, are sold at licenses agents and online and about 6,000 are sold every year. Sales have been helped by a PSA produced by the Sportfishing Conservancy.
5) A Foundation to Support Wardens and Families -- Another source of support for the wardens in CA is the California Wildlife Officers Foundation (http://www.calwof.org/) which was created in 2007 by a group of private citizens to provide scholarships and grants to wardens and their families.
6) Selling Confiscated Items -- I've focused on California as I know their wardens situation best, but other strategies in other states are also definitely important. During their work, game wardens often confiscate illegal antlers and hides of game animals. In Arizona such confiscated items are sold through the Wildlife Assets program, which benefits the game wardens. (http://www.azgfd.gov/Assetshalf-sheethandout1.pdf.pdf)
Volunteering -- An increasing problem all across the country is people abusing public wildlands for manufacturing drugs, cultivating marijuana, dumping trash, and setting up illegal campsites. Clean-up can run $10,000 an acre or more. Conservation groups can volunteer their time to help wardens keep the woods safe and clean, saving the state and the wardens, time and money. Some refuse disposal companies have donated trucks, etc. Now is a good time to do this.
Report Poachers – Game wardens are scares and they need all the help they can get. Every state now has a tip hotline. Citizens who report illegal acts that lead to successful trials may receive a financial reward, and remain anonymous.