He's a bush policeman, guardian of deer and fish, the guy who writes tickets to fishermen who catch more than the legal limit.
Ken Walton, game warden, cop of Angeles National Forest, finds hunters in the brush despite their camouflage and checks their licenses and tags. He keeps tabs on their movements and knows where to find their prey. In a sense, he hunts the hunters, and sometimes must hunt the most elusive prey of all--poachers.
"There might be 13 hunters out in the field, and they've all got rifles," Walton said. "Maybe it's just you by yourself or maybe you've got another warden, if you're lucky. But it's nice. It sure beats the office, man."
Walton, a chain-smoker from Brooklyn, packs a pistol and wears sneakers. His territory in northern Los Angeles County is the rugged southern slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains--from Interstate 5 to the San Bernardino County line. Two wardens patrol the northern slopes and he shares the western part with two other game wardens.
But he rarely encounters any other wardens on his lonely drives through the back country. He puts in long and irregular hours, sometimes working at night to catch "spotlighters," hunters who illegally use flashlights to surprise and disorient deer before shooting them.
Walton has spent most of this year stalking poachers and monitoring the activities of fishermen and, more recently, archers, who were permitted to hunt deer from Sept. 7 through Sept. 29.
Deer shooting season begins Saturday and runs through Nov. 3. It's the busiest time of the year for both Walton and the poachers.
The 35-year-old Walton's day typically begins at 7 a.m. with some rock 'n' roll on his truck radio and a lot of coffee. Then he charges up the San Gabriel Mountains in his four-wheel drive, winding through an intricate network of dirt roads and searching, waiting and watching.
Walton said he has never felt physically threatened by hunters and has never had to draw his gun.
"With hunters, when you catch them doing something wrong it's usually a 'you got me' type of thing," he said. "Fishermen will look you right in the face and lie to you."
But, even among game wardens, there is talk of the one that got away. "Every warden has somebody in their district doing something wrong," Walton said.
"But you can't catch him because he's slick or lucky or whatever."
On a recent Saturday, Walton checked the papers of six archers hunting deer and found them in order. But the sound of gunshots nearby worried him. Shooting deer out of season is a crime punishable by a $500 fine or six months in jail.
Walton spent the next hour moving from spot to spot in his truck, pausing for long intervals at high vantage points, combing the hot, scrubby distances with binoculars or simply searching ravines and slopes crowded with vegetation.
'Your Eye Gets Trained'
"Your eye gets trained to pick out movement, what's not natural," Walton said.
Despite an exhaustive reconnaissance of the hillsides, however, Walton could not find the source of the gunfire.
Some poaching, he said, is merely the work of overeager sportsmen trying to get a jump on the deer season. These are the hunters who shoot deer during bow season or kill more than the single deer allowed by the state. Walton monitors the hunters by looking for a tag that is supposed to be attached to an animal after it is killed.
But far more common, Walton said, are those who poach for a living, contributing to a multimillion-dollar illegal industry statewide.
In 1983, the most recent year for which figures are available, the state collected $41.8 million in revenue from both commercial and private hunting and fishing interests. State Fish and Game Department officials estimate that another $2 million was lost in the same period to illegal hunting.
Some Items Illegally Sold
Walton said poachers traffic in a variety of illegal items, including bear claws, deer antlers and the horns of federally protected sheep.
"Anytime you make something illegal you create a market for it," Walton said. "People have got to have one hanging on their wall."
Poachers, he said, can also get a good price for deer meat obtained illegally, and even such items as bear gallbladders, said to be an aphrodisiac, can sell for up to $100 an ounce. The venison is typically sold to restaurants, he said, whereas many Oriental herb shops are willing to purchase the bear gallbladders.
Walton's battles with poachers during his five-year career as a game warden have included encounters with "professionals" who are in it for profit and amateurs who are out for a good time.
The bears, deer and bighorn sheep that inhabit Walton's territory are often targets of illegal hunting. Last November, Walton helped county sheriff's deputies arrest seven men who were hauling a bighorn carcass out of the woods, apparently after stalking the animal most of the day.
Several Hunters Got Fines