The game warden: an endangered species

There are more than 500,000 local law enforcement officers in the United State, and 72,000 cops in New York alone.

Nationwide, there are around 7,000 game wardens, or about as many cops as the New York Police force assigned to cover its New Year's Eve celebration.

In other words, that's not a lot of game wardens. The situation is especially bad in California, and man and nature are paying a price.

With 159,000 square miles of land, California has 36 million people, 1,100 miles of coastline, about 222,000 square miles of ocean waters, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, 4,800 lakes and reservoirs and 80 major rivers, in addition to deserts, mountains and, of course, urban areas, all of which game wardens cover.

Game wardens are responsible for protecting more than 1,000 native fish and wildlife species, more than 6,000 native plant specie, and approximately 360 endangered species; yet, at any given time, there are about 200 wardens on patrol in California.

In 1950, there was one game warden for every 54,845 people in the state. Today, there is one warden for every 180,288 persons.

For California to be comparable to Florida or Texas in its fish- and game-policing force, it would need to have 750 wardens. That ain't gonna happen anytime soon … unless a lot of things change.

For perspective, let's compare two law enforcement officers, both 26 years old and employed for four years by their respective California state agency. One is a game warden; the other is a highway patrolman.

Both are sworn peace officers. The game warden's beat is the highways and all the physical landscape and the ocean waters of the state. The highway patrolman's beat is the highways, state buildings and state property.

The game warden must have completed at least two years of college. The highway patrolman needs either a high school diploma or a GED (general equivalency diploma).

Game wardens usually work alone, in remote locations, without backup. They do not get extra pay for holidays, night shift or overtime. Highway patrolmen get increased pay for night work, time-and-a-half pay for holidays, and overtime, and they have 7,000 fellow California Highway Patrol members for backup.

Game wardens usually work out of a home office with a dispatcher hundreds of miles away and are on call 24/7. The California Highway Patrol has regional offices throughout the state.

The game warden is issued four firearms: a .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol; a .40 caliber semi-auto undercover pistol; a 12-gauge riot shotgun; and a .308 semi-auto military rifle. The California Highway Patrol officer is issued a .40 caliber semi-auto pistol; a 12-gauge riot shotgun; and a .223 semi-auto rifle.

Both drive marked vehicles, but game wardens must maintain their own patrol car, many of which have more than 100,000 miles on the odometer. The California Highway Patrol officer's car is maintained by CHP mechanics on a regular basis and has low mileage.

Since 9/11, homeland security has become part of the job of every law enforcement officer. The CHP officer's responsibility covers highways, state buildings and state property. The game warden monitors all wildlands of the state, as well as highways, plus incoming shipping, chemical plants, refineries, dams, bridges, power plants and transmission lines, as well as ocean patrols out to 200 miles offshore.

Game wardens also operate their own crime-scene investigations.

California game wardens are federally deputized. They are authorized to enforce federal fish and wildlife laws in California and participate in actions in 20 other states.

And did I mentioned that game wardens regularly work with the U.S. Coast Guard on search and rescue missions.

Wardens routinely become involved with shutting down marijuana plantations and meth labs. Organized crime is often involved in poaching and the international black market trade in wildlife and plants. And it goes almost without stating that every hunter is armed and most fisherman have at least a knife.

Federal statistics show that game wardens and Drug Enforcement Administration agents have the highest risk of death on the job. The game warden is three times more likely to be killed by gunfire in the line of duty than the California Highway Patrol officer.

In addition, "Statistically, since 1979, 1.8 wardens have been killed on the job vs. every CHP officer," said Bob Orange, vice president of the California Game Wardens Association.

So what do the two law enforcement officers — the game warden and the highway patrolman — get paid?

The California game warden's expected annual gross pay is $48,000, with no raises promised. The CHP officer can expect $92,000 and has a 7.5 percent pay raise promised.

A game warden pilot can expect about $60,000 a year, while the CHP counterpart makes about $90,000.

A state prison guard with the same number of years of experience makes upwards of $60,000.

And vacation-time accrual? For the same two officers, the game warden gets eight hours a month, while the CHP officer gets 15 hours per month.

Game Wardens are almost always the lowest paid law-enforcement officers. Nationwide, warden salaries range from the upper $20,000s to the low $60,000s. California is not the worst in game-warden salaries, but the cost of living in the Golden State is especially high.

More than 2.4 million Californians purchase fishing licenses of some kind, and about 275,000 hunting licenses are sold every year. In 2004-2005, hunting and fishing licenses revenues brought in $56.1 million.

Hunters and anglers spent more than $3.1 billion a year in the California, or more than the cash receipts from the state's grape crop.

Game wardens perform an important function of protecting the state's natural resources. If the natural resources are exploited, state revenues go down; and California definitely has problems with declining revenues.

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took over the helm of the state, he inherited a huge, $21 billion budget deficit that has impacted all government agencies.

Yet, as we look toward 2007, the Schwarzenegger is asking for 278 additional California Highway Patrol officers and no increase in game warden funding. The total yearly budget for California game wardens is $47 million, which, check this out, is less than a third of the proposed increase in the CHP budget for 2007.

The facts for this article come from CAUSE — The Statewide Law Enforcement Association, in a report compiled by the California Fish and Game Wardens Association, which can be studied online. Read it.

Before leaving the subject of game wardens, I want to add one item to the list of sad things that have happened to California game wardens as a result of budget cuts.

Law enforcement is not just about catching and punishing people for committing crimes. The best law enforcement seeks to prevent crime by setting community standards of behavior that do not tolerate criminal activity.

Several years ago, California Fish and Game wardens issued citations for doing good things, in addition to distributing violations.

If a warden gave a "Caught Doing Good" citation to sportsmen for special acts of outstanding ethics, the recipient became eligible for a special season-end drawing and valuable prizes. This program has gone by the wayside due to lack of funding.

The removal of positive reinforcements, coupled with fewer wardens in the field, means that the game warden is as endangered a species as some of the critters they protect; man and nature are both hurting as a result.

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.