VII. Conservation Officers: Policing Wildlife Crime
Each state and the federal system has its own force of specialized law enforcement agents to investigate wildlife crimes and apprehend offenders. Such conservation officers, often called game wardens, are charged with enforcing laws that regulate hunting, fishing, and other environmental concerns including protected plant species. Some jurisdictions also commission conservation officers to enforce boating regulations and police waterways.
The predecessor of American conservation officers were the gamekeepers in Europe. Gamekeepers were appointed by the kings to enforce hunting and trespassing regulations on their property and the property of the nobility. The main role of the gamekeepers was to keep peasants from hunting on land owned by the aristocrats.
The first record of a position resembling a modern-day conservation officer in the United States was a forest ranger in Yosemite National Park. He was appointed in 1866 with the main goal of enforcing quotas on game hunting. Around the same time, the government commissioned 150 U.S. Army cavalry troops to patrol the park. These troops served to help the ranger enforce the quotas and other hunting regulations in the park (see National Park Service, 1940). Today, the USFWS assigns special agents and wildlife inspectors throughout the United States, including wildlife inspectors at all border crossings, major international airports, and other ports of entry. Federal wildlife agents often build partnerships with state conservation officers to conduct joint investigations and training programs.
At the state level, the rank of conservation officer was first created in Michigan in 1887. Missouri later established game wardens in 1905. Other states implemented their own fish and wildlife departments and installed conservation officers throughout the early 20th century. Today’s conservation officers are similar to traditional law enforcement officers in that they are responsible for investigating crimes and arresting offenders. However, game wardens also differ from conventional police officers in several ways. First, there are far fewer conservation officers than other types of law enforcement agents in the United States. There are currently fewer than 10,000 state and federal conservation officers, which is equivalent to about 1 game warden for every 10,000 sportspersons. The ratio of traditional law enforcement officials to the general population is about 24 to 10,000 (see Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008).
Since conservation officers focus first and foremost on violations of wildlife and environmental laws, their work inherently involves concentrating most of their investigative efforts in remote rural areas that are often unoccupied. Because of the limited number of game wardens, many of them are expected to cover large amounts of remote territory alone. The closest backup conservation officer may be more than 100 miles away. Further, the vast majority of individuals that conservation officers come into contact with will have a firearm or some other type of weapon. Therefore, it is important for game wardens to develop relationships with other local agencies so that they can get assistance quickly if necessary.
Though conservation officers specialize in violations of fish and wildlife laws, they might also encounter other types of crimes and criminals during their daily activities. For example, while in the woods on daily patrol, conservation officers might inadvertently discover active methamphetamine laboratories or even a homicide victim. Consequently, today’s game wardens are well trained concerning what to do if they come across a non-wildlife crime. Most states instruct conservation officers to preserve such a crime scene until other local authorities arrive, but also give them full law enforcement powers in the event an active crime is discovered and an immediate arrest should be made. As a result, conservation officers are sometimes forced to serve the role of both game warden and traditional police officer (Eliason, 2007; Falcone, 2004).
Conservation officers face many unique challenges and obstacles not encountered by traditional law enforcement personnel in their quest to eradicate wildlife crime. Conservation units often find themselves limited in their enforcement efforts by the small number of officers available and the large ratio of hunters to officers. Officers are handicapped by the vast areas they are expected to cover— large hunting areas can make it easy for poachers to evade capture, especially since they are almost always wearing camouflage and often are far more familiar with the terrain than the officers trying to catch them. Further, conservation officers often find themselves using unique equipment (ATVs, aircraft, boats, GPS systems) and investigative techniques (ground and aerial surveillance, “trick” decoy animals) rarely employed by other enforcement agencies. Nonetheless, conservation officers as a whole do an excellent job performing their duties given their limited resources and frequent need to engage in covert investigative methods (see Grosz, 1999).
As mentioned previously, many wildlife offenders do not get caught unless they discuss their crimes with others who later report them. Only a small portion of wildlife crimes are actually detected (Green, 2002; Green, Phillips, & Black, 1988). For that reason, it is important for conservation officers to develop positive relationships with members of the communities in which they patrol. These relationships can often lead to tips that result in the apprehension of wildlife offenders.