Thin Green Line: The Heroic Work of Game Gardens

By Swan, James A. | American Forests, October 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Thin Green Line: The Heroic Work of Game Gardens


Swan, James A., American Forests


Game wardens are known by various names, including conservation officers, conservation police, wildlife enforcement agents, fish wardens, fish and game wardens, rangers, etc. In most states game wardens are part of a state resources agency, with the exception of Oregon and Alaska, where they're part of the state troopers. Regardless ofwhat they're called, all game wardens enforce wildlife law and a lot more.

There are more than 765,000 full-time, and 44,000 part-time, sworn federal, state and local law enforcement officers in the United States: almost 400 officers per 100,000 population, with the most officers in major cities. In contrast, nationwide there are about as many state game wardens as the New York Police Department assigns to the New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square - about 7,000. If you add federal conservation law enforcement officers, the total conservation law enforcement officer population for the U.S. barely nears 8,000.

Until about 10 years ago, I didn't know much about game wardens, even though since the l970s, I've worked on various aspects of environmental conservation at the local, state and national levels. I'd twice been checked by a game warden who wanted to see my fishing license or catch, but that was it.

That changed in 2006 when the California Fish and Game Wardens Association asked my son and I to produce a documentary film about them, as California had the lowest ratio of game wardens per capita in the U.S. - only 200 in the field for 38 million people - and wildlife crime in the state was estimated at more than $100 million a year and increasing.

When we said we were interested, the wardens said that the best way to learn about them was through first-hand experience. A week later, I climbed in a patrol truck with warden Lieutentant John Laughlin for an afternoon patrol.

The patrol began at a park on the east bank of the Sacramento River where people were fishing for shad, striped bass, sturgeon and salmon. One of the first things I noticed in John's truck was that he had both a rifle and a shotgun, and he was carrying a pistol. I asked John about the firepower. He replied that wardens typically work alone in remote areas where there's no back-up and carry a rifle, a .308 - more powerful than most police carry - because wardens might have to shoot through brush. He added, they also are issued a second concealed handgun, "just in case."

Laughlin was wearing a dark green uniform with badge clearly identifying him as a state game warden. He said that wardens also work in plain clothes, and there was a special operations unit that does long-term covert investigations.

We spotted several fishermen, and John set off on foot to check licenses and catches. The river level was relatively low, and there was a high bank. As we reached the river, what initially looked like one man, turned out to be seven.

John said to me, "Stay on the bank and keep an eye out for unusual things while I go down and check them. You're now my back-up."

As John approached the first man, I saw a knife laying on top of his tackle box. No doubt they all had knives. It was all legal and normal, but John was outnumbered by seven armed men.

As John began to check licenses, one of the men set off for his car at a brisk pace. I called to John and he pursued the guy on foot, catching up with him before he could drive away.

The man had a fishing license on a chord around his neck, which is the law in California, but it was for the previous year. He insisted that his current license was at home. John listened patiently and said that he was supposed to have a current license with him.

As he was writing up the ticket, John called in the man's name and driver's license number to see if he had any outstanding warrants. The man had a clean record, so John told him how to respond to the ticket.

As we walked to the next group of fishermen, John explained that California game wardens enforce wildlife law, as well as criminal, civil and traffic law, conduct search and rescue and do their own crime scene investigation. …

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