Around 12:45am on Sunday, August 21, a California game warden patrolling in the redwood country of Humboldt County in northwestern California about 30 miles SE of Eureka, spotted a car that was shining a spotlight in the woods. Surmising that the people in the car were spotlighting deer, the warden approached their car. The occupants of the vehicle fled and began shooting at the warden. As the poachers fled, they continued to shoot at the warden's truck.
Wardens typically patrol alone in remote areas without immediate back-up. The warden radioed in asking for back-up. The warden did not return fire as he was driving as that would have been more dangerous. According to Cal. Fish and Wildlife's Information Officer, Capt. Patrick Foy, eventually, the pursued vehicle crashed into a tree and the suspects fled on foot into the woods, leaving two guns in the abandoned car. The warden was not injured.
"Due to the presence of multiple suspects, their intent on shooting him, and lack of immediate assistance, the warden waited for help before continuing the search," according to Captain Foy. Multiple agencies responded to the call for assistance from the warden.
The poachers have not yet been found. A group of environmental organizations and the California Wildlife Officers Foundation are offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the capture of Shawn Eugene Hof Jr., 24, who allegedly was illegally hunting wildlife with the poachers when he fired multiple shots at the warden on Aug. 21. Hof is described as 5 foot 9 inches tall, 150 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes.
Anyone with information in this case is encouraged to call the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office crime tip line at (707) 268-2539.
This incident is, unfortunately, not that unusual. According to warden Jerry Karnow, former President of CA Wardens Association, game wardens in California are involved in an average of at least one police shooting a year. Remember in 2013 it was CA game wardens who played a major role in the pursuit of Christopher Dorner. Considering that there are only 250 wardens in the field in CA for 38 million people, this means that wardens are engaged in more shootings than the average city police force of 250 officers.
California wardens are not alone. According to the FBI, game wardens nation-wide are nine times more likely to be assaulted in the line of duty than a police officer. http://www.policemag.com/channel/patrol/articles/2012/03/a-law-of-unintended-consequences.aspx
Karnow and Lt. John Norris, who heads a tactical unit of game wardens currently focusing on busting illegal marijuana gardens, both agree that this year is the worst in memory for illegal marijuana grows on wildlands in California. Some of the largest gardens are grown by international drug cartels, but Karnow says that this year there are a surprising number of gardens grown by gangs and individuals. In some areas in the Sierras, the volume of water being diverted to these gardens from streams is so great that farmers downstream cannot irrigate their crops.
When you say "game warden" to someone, most will think of a person who drives around in a truck checking for hunting and fishing licenses and limits. In reality, game wardens are like the old time town sheriff, enforcing wildlife law, as well as civil, criminal and traffic laws, and conducting search and rescue. They patrol on land, in the air and on the water including the Pacific Ocean out to 200 miles offshore. In California wardens are also deputy US marshals. And they have extended search powers, supported by the Supreme Court, which allows them to come onto private property and search a person's car and personal belongings with a warrant due to "Exigent circumstances."
Recently, new additions to national parks, wilderness and wildlands by the Obama Administration have received a lot of attention in the news. What's not being talked about is who is protecting these wildlands? There are only about 7000 state game wardens for the entire US and another 1000 federal law enforcement officers who patrol national forests, national parks, wildlife refuges and BLM lands. Federal and state game wardens are truly an endangered species. For every wildland set aside there should be more law enforcement officers to protect it.
You can see the results of the failure to support game wardens .While crime dominates the news, it's almost always crime in our cities, which is actually declining. In contrast, crime on wildlands has been increasing, and attacks on US Forest Service and National Park Staff have reached all-time highs, according to the FBI. PEER, (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) reports that there were 34 incidents involving attacks on US park rangers in 1995, but by 2005 there were 477 – a 13-fold increase.
According to PEER, in 2012 reported assault incidents rose more than 40% in wildlife refuges and in areas patrolled by the U.S. Park Police, and by more than 12% in national parks, and many assaults were not reported. According to PEER, "National Park Service officers are 12 times more likely to be killed or injured as a result of an assault than FBI agents."
So, as you go out hunting, fishing or wildlife watching, if you see a state or federal game warden, know that they are short-handed, and need all the support they can get. Not only do they enforce the law, game wardens also are Hunter Education Instructors, the only law enforcement officers that teach citizens to safety use firearms. Sportsmen's groups can volunteer to help wardens clean up trash on wildlands, which can cost $10,000 an acre or more.
And, if you want a life-changing experience, see if you can go on a ride-along with a warden.
—James A. Swan, Ph.D.