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 officers make.
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.
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 Pennsylvania.
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 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.”