A world without game wardens?

When a game warden appears, some sportsmen cringe — because they fear they have violated a law they were not aware of.

(Let's face it, in a number of states the fish and game regulations are excessive.)

In leading hunter education instructor workshops in various states, I always ask the group how many have never violated a fish and game law in their lives. Most people, including the wardens present, will acknowledge that they have, nearly always because they did not know the law existed.

Remember, wardens don't make the laws. They just enforce them.

Sure, there may be an occasional warden who goes out of their way to make things rough for people they stop, but generally, as all sworn peace officers, their first duty is to first educate people they contact, and second, enforce laws by writing citations, making arrests and confiscating illegal items.

Nonetheless, some sportsmen still wish wardens did not exist.

What would hunting and fishing be like without wardens?

You get an inkling of what such a world would be like when you look at what has happened in California over the last 30 years. Today, thanks to the most recent budget cuts, California has one fish and game warden in the field for every 185,000 residents, or about 180 in the field for the entire state.

It's the worst per capita ratio of wardens in the U.S.: Imagine a town of 185,000 people with only one police officer.

In contrast, Montana has one warden for every 8,832 residents. Wyoming has one for every 8,513 residents, and Alaska has one warden for every 6,980 residents.

The odds get better in Canada: New Brunswick has one warden for every 7,423 residents. Manitoba has one warden for every 6,755. Newfoundland has one warden for every 3616 residents. And Nunavut, which has a vast amount of land but few people, has one warden for every 882 residents.

In 1975 California had 207 fish and game wardens. In 1999 the number had climbed to 280, and they have lost 100 since then. During the last 30 years, as California's population has mushroomed and warden numbers have plummeted, just how have fish and game populations been effected by a warden shortage? Consider the following:

    In the 1970s, Californians enjoyed no annual limits on seven species of abalone, the take was allowed south of San Francisco, no tags were required, and there was a thriving commercial fishery along the coast. Today, only one species — red abalone — are legal. There is an annual limit of 24 abs and tags are required. There is no abalone fishing south of San Francisco, no commercial fishery for abs, and no scuba diving for the big mollusks. Abalone poachers are increasingly organized, and often combine illegal abs with drug running.

    San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento Delta have a great sport fishery for white sturgeon, some of which reach seven-feet long, jumping like freshwater marlin when hooked. Thirty years ago there was a 46-inch minimum size, no maximum size limit, no annual limit and no were tags required. Today, sturgeon anglers must buy tags and are allowed to keep three fish per year, which fall within a slot legal size of 46-66 inches. In several Department of Fish and Game "takedowns" of caviar smugglers last year, street gangs caught sturgeon and sold the roe to the Russian mob, who turned it into caviar.

    In the 1960s, California's black-tail and mule deer herd was estimated between 1.5 and 2 million. Then there were no hunting zones, unlike today, where each has its own special season and regulations. Today, the California deer herd has plummeted to about 440,000, and the state has numerous zones and regulations of considerable complexity. With a shortage of wardens, deer poaching has soared. Yes, habitat loss has been a big factor, but recall that as hunting license sales decline, (California's hunters have fallen from 750,00 in the 1960s to 270,000 today), the amount of money available for protecting habitat has declined — as has money for wardens' salaries.

    In the good old days the bag limit on rockfish was 15 combined species, and no season. Today we have five ocean zones, shoreline and ocean seasons for rockfish, some species may not be kept (yelloweye, canary, vermillion and cowcod may not be kept), some areas are off-limits to fishing, and the bag limit is 10 with many restrictions.

    California's Sacramento River once had the largest run of Chinook salmon on the West Coast. All species of salmon were legal in 1970, most rivers were open, and there were few restrictions. Today, silver salmon are not legal and it's barbless hooks only for salmon in the ocean, when you can find fish. The fall run of Chinook up the Sacramento was so bad last year — 90,414 adults and 2,021 jacks — there are rumors that the season may be closed this year. In 1970, 186,313 adult Chinook and 49,754 jacks were counted. The run reached over 300,000 in the mid-1980s. Changing ocean conditions, Delta water diversions, pollution and spawning habitat destruction all are involved, but let's not forget that snagging salmon on their spawning run has become wide-open. And with fewer wardens at sea, this leaves open more opportunity for overharvest.

    In 1970 there was no significant demand for bear parts. The limit was two bears a year and the season was open the year-round. Bear tags cost $1. Today, one bear per year is allowed and there is a limited season and quota. The resident bear tag costs $36.50. The market for bear parts on the black market, especially gall bladders for Oriental medicine, has skyrocketed.

    In the 1970s, "weed" was grown largely by hippies. Today, marijuana groves on state, federal and private lands are run by Mexican drug cartels, and the acreage is growing year by year. In Mendocino County, the annual marijuana crop is estimated at being worth over $1 billion, about 1/3 of the county economy. The same is true for meth labs, which poison land and water. Illegal drug operations are a threat to public safety (hunters have been shot at by growers), streams are diverted and poisoned by fertilizers and pesticides, and the drug rings poach game.

    Twenty years ago, 95 percent of the calls to the California Department of Fish and Game 24-hour dispatch line yielded a response. According to the California Fish and Game Wardens Association, today as many as 75 percent of the calls generate no response, becausee the wardens do not have the time or resources.

If California had the same per capita wardens as Florida, we would have over 1,000. And you wonder why California has annual $100 million black market in illegal wildlife trafficking, many fish and game species are declining, and hunting and fishing license sales are dropping.

If you can't protect the resources, some people will exploit that weakness. And the more unprotected the resources get, the more likely that more serious criminals will get into the wildlife trafficking business, leaving man and nature to suffer.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.