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California and the West

Stagnant Pay, Tough Workload Thin Ranks of Game Wardens

State services: Salaries once were nearly even with the CHP's but now are 40% lower. Recruitment faces its 'worst year ever,' a top official says.

April 23, 2001|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RODEO, Calif. — Mike Buelna, a California game warden for the past 16 years, earns close to top dollar at the Department of Fish and Game, but he barely makes as much money as his 26-year-old daughter Kristi, who just joined the East Bay Regional Park police.

Brand-new game warden Brian Racine, 23, figures it's a good thing his job leaves him no time to date; he could never afford it on less than $33,000 a year. "I bet I could qualify for food stamps," says Racine, who is on call 24 hours a day without backup as the only warden patrolling San Mateo County's 449 square miles.

LiAne Schmidt left teaching to attend the state's game warden academy. Gov. Gray Davis, she notes, "goes around talking about how California public school teachers are the lowest paid and how we need to remedy that." A smirk. "Here I am, leaving teaching, going to Fish and Game, and taking an $800-a-month pay cut."

In a state whose image depends on its mountains and streams, plants and animals, game wardens feel that California has turned its back on the men and women who protect them--to the detriment of those very resources.

Their salaries are 40% lower than their counterparts at the California Highway Patrol. There are at least 35 vacancies for wardens from Calipatria to Eureka. In the next five years, the department expects that 185 wardens could retire out of an agency that has only 406 when every position is filled. The 2001 class at the warden academy at Napa Valley College in Napa, where students learn how to be law enforcement officers and naturalists, is a paltry 17 cadets.

"[This] is shaping up to be the worst year ever in terms of getting applicants interested in the jobs," says Jack Edwards, assistant chief of patrol at Fish and Game. He acknowledges that attracting new officers is difficult for all law enforcement agencies, but he believes his department is in a recruitment crisis fueled by low pay and a population increasingly estranged from its outdoor roots.

And when the department cannot recruit wardens, it "undermines their ability to perform their public trust duties" in protecting the environment, says Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit national public interest group of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists. "Certainly the state should be providing the resources necessary to enforce the resource-protection laws we have on the books."

Nationally, recruitment for game wardens has become more difficult, particularly in the Southeast, says Randy Hancock, president of the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Assn. But in Colorado, where Hancock is a wildlife officer, "we do not have the shortage of applicants that California is experiencing."

One reason wildlife agencies are having such a tough time recruiting is the increasing urbanization of America. Most of Fish and Game's baby boomer wardens like Buelna were raised hunting and fishing in the state's backwoods. Many of its new cadets, like Schmidt, have never cast a line or aimed a rifle at a deer. Those who spend little time in the outdoors, wardens note, don't look for careers protecting it.

"Therefore," says Hancock, "it is harder and harder to get people to accept wildlife officer jobs that pay low, even if the benefit of working outdoors most of the time outweighs the dollar deficit for a lot of us."

Another culprit is the changing nature of the job. In years past, wardens spent more of their time with sportsmen, patrolling for poachers and enforcing limits on game. Today, more time is spent with homeowners and developers, enforcing regulations such as stream bed-alteration agreements, as California's open space fills in.

Patrol Lt. Miles Young is the Fish and Game supervisor in charge of Alameda, San Francisco and Contra Costa counties. He has five wardens, two of whom work full time on stream bed alterations. That leaves three to patrol 1,505 square miles seven days a week, 24 hours a day, in an area whose population has grown 13% over the last decade.

"We don't come anywhere near covering it," laments Young, who has two vacancies in his region. "It means that your wildlife has no protection. A lot of people don't care, but I have to feel somewhere down the line that someone cares what's going on out there."

But at the heart of the recruitment problems is money. When Young joined the wildlife agency in 1977, wardens were paid about 5% less than Highway Patrol officers, and CHP officers regularly transferred to Fish and Game.

"It was worth 5% to be outdoors," recalls Lt. Michael Carion, coordinator of the Fish and Game academy, who notes that today, wardens are paid about 40% less than their CHP counterparts.

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