Game Wardens: A Unique Species of Law Enforcement Officer

Dec 17, 2014
Editor's Note: Today is Dr. James A. Swan's his first contribution as one of the fine new contributors we're happy to welcome to The Outdoor Wire Digital Network. Swan offers a uniquely qualified insight on another species that equally unique in law enforcement: game wardens.>
Reading the news, it seems like the US is growing more violent. Actually, violent crime today is almost 1/3 of what it was in the l970's. (>Gallup)

According to the news, another aspect of violence that seems to be increasing is police brutality. There is debate about this, but according to one expert, Professor Maria Haberfeld at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, "There is no escalation in the use of deadly force. What we are seeing is a proliferation of cellphones and cameras". (>Breibart)

The influence of media on violence has been studied considerably. The l968 Report Kerner Commission on The Causes and Prevention of Civil Violence found that as media coverage increases and grows more negative, people treat police with more suspicion, organize protests and some try to provoke a negative encounter with the police.

There are almost 800,000 law enforcement officers for the USA and we need to know what their realities are to help know what actually is going on and what can be done.

There many different kinds of law enforcement officers, one is especially important to outdoor sportsmen - game wardens. Until recently, game wardens were virtually unknown, in part because there are only about 8000 of them for all of North America.

One thing that wardens can do is help show that the media don't have to be the enemy of law enforcement. Several recent reality TV shows such "Wild Justice", "Northwoods Law," and "Wardens," have made game wardens much better known. Wardens say that now people approach them and want to talk and shake their hands. Some people have even confessed crimes because they recognize wardens from TV. This is a start, but wardens and some details of their work need to be understood more than ever.

Some Basics:

I got to know about game wardens while>producing a documentary, "Endangered Species: California Fish and Game Wardens," (2009) that's an inspiration for the "Wild Justice">TV series, which I also help produce. I'd worked with law enforcement and state resource agencies in various capacities dating back to the early l970's, but a good deal of what I've learned from riding along with wardens on land, sea and air was new to me.

To begin with, there are state and federal game wardens. They are responsible for enforcing wildlife laws as well as criminal, traffic and civil law, conducting search and rescue, controlling problem wildlife, teaching Hunter Education and supporting wildlife biology research. And they do their own CSI.

Like the old-time town sheriff, wardens work from a home office, are on call 24/7, patrol remote areas without back-up where almost everyone they encounter is armed with a knife, gun, or bow and arrow, and the woods can be a great place to get away from it all for a variety of reasons, not always good.

Especially because of the tensions about police these days, it's important to know that game wardens have some unique police powers. Three examples:

1) Fish and game are public property governed by the "Public Trust Doctrine" and managed by state governments, and migratory birds are managed also by the federal government. Under the Public Trust Doctrine, certain resources are preserved for public use, and that government is required to maintain them for the public's reasonable use. Unless you've stocked a lake with your own fish, planted raised game birds, or have a fenced enclosure where you have deer, wild boar or other game animals that you have raised for hunting, wild animals are governed by the state and federal government. Wardens can come onto private land without permission.

2) Because they often work far from towns, the difficulty in getting a search warrant to deal with every contact they make in the field would be impossible. So, you can legally be stopped by a game warden without a search warrant because of an "exigent circumstance," and they can conduct a compliance check allowing them to inspect all receptacles, except the clothing actually worn by a person at the time of inspection.

In California it's a crime to refuse to show an wildlife officer "... all licenses, tags, and the birds, mammals, fish, reptiles or amphibians taken or otherwise dealt with under this code, and any device or apparatus designed to be, and capable of being, used to take birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, or amphibians" (Fish and Game Code, section 2012). The US Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court both have>recently affirmed this right.

3) If you're carrying a gun and you meet up with a game warden, normally the warden will ask to examine it. Don't start by ejecting shells from the gun. It makes you look like you're trying to hide something. Ask what you should do. The warden should treat you courteously, but he or she has the right to search. Both parties should show each other proper respect. This is also a compliance check.

While being a game warden may seem to be an easy job, it's among the most dangerous of all law enforcement jobs. California game wardens, about 250 in the field total, have been in 9 officer-involved shootings in the last five years. This puts them on a par with police officers in some of the worst urban neighborhoods and DEA agents. Also, organized wildlife crime is increasing. In CA, illegal trafficking in wildlife may be worth $100 million a year and internationally the illegal trade in wildlife is second only to guns. (>Time). Additionally, illegal drug manufacturing on public wildlands is increasing. (>YouTube)

A suggestion from the Kernor Commission Report was for police to get out of their cars and interact with people to build community support. State game wardens have to do this, but they don't just talk to people, they also teach people to shoot guns as part of their job as Hunter Education instructors.

There are other benefits to working with game wardens. If you're out in the field and see someone breaking a wildlife law, you can report tips to your state or province hot tip line and receive an award if your tip leads to a conviction. Game wardens get paid to help you and you can get paid to help them. That kind of reciprocity could help ease some of the police-community tensions that now trouble the US.

--James A. Swan, Ph. D.

James A. Swan, Ph.D. is a Co-Executive Producer of the "Wild Justice" TV series.