The ‘Thin Green Line’ Could Use Some Help

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Wildlife enforcement in California. Photo courtesy California Fish and Wildlife.

Nearly 143 million Americans—49.2% of the population— participated in an outdoor activity at least once in 2013.  This may sound encouraging, but in 1960 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower convened the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, 90% of Americans participated in outdoor recreation.

Wildlands have recently gotten a lot of attention. President Barack Obama used his executive powers to increase wildlands with the hope of getting more people outdoors as well as encouraging conservation.  That sounds good, but as the acreage of wildlands has increased, support for protecting wildlands has decreased.

The result is a dangerous imbalance between the threats we face in our wilderness areas, and our ability to address those threats.

 Every day, the media showers us with stories about crime in America. Actually, violent crime today is almost 1/3 of what it was in the l970s. However, a little known fact is that crime and violence are significantly increasing on state and federal forest land and in wildlife refuges, national monuments and parks—while the number of law enforcement officers for the wildlands is decreasing.

Both federal and state law enforcement officers police wildlands. At both levels, they provide scarce protection.

There are only about 250 US Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agents, fewer than there are whooping cranes (about 340).

A decade ago, there were nearly 1,000 Forest Service Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs); today there are 550 to cover all our National Forests.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for managing more land than any other federal conservation agency. Yet there are only 300 BLM law enforcement officers.

There are 1,500 Rangers to cover the over 300 US Army Corps of Engineers-administered lakes and recreation areas in the entire US, and most do not carry firearms.

In 2005, there were 1,548 National Park Service Rangers. By 2014, the number had dropped to 1,322—and there are fewer than 400 seasonal rangers.

Trash left by illegal pot growers. Photo by James A. Swan

Trash left by illegal pot growers. Photo by James A. Swan

There are approximately 7,000 state game wardens for the entire U.S.—about as many law enforcement officers as the New York City Police Department deploys on Times Square at New Year’s Eve.

Fewer officers and more crime means that it’s increasingly dangerous to be a wildlands law enforcement officer.

According to PEER, (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) there were 34 incidents involving attacks on US park rangers in 1995. By 2005 the number rose to 477—a 13-fold increase. And in 2012,  reported assault incidents rose more than 40% in wildlife refuges and in areas patrolled by the U.S. Park Police, and by more than 12% in national parks. Many assaults were not reported.

According to the FBI, game wardens nationwide are now nine times more likely to be assaulted in the line of duty than a police officer.

In California, a state with 38 million people, there are just 250 game wardens in the field. According to former President of the California Game Wardens Association, warden Jerry Karnow, in the last five years, there have been nine officer-involved shootings. Two of them involved deaths: a suspect wanted on a warrant for drug dealing in Hawaii (2015); and a fatality resulting from a shootout involving game wardens and other law enforcement.

Most people think of game wardens as “fish cops” who check licenses and make sure hunters and fisherman don’t go over quotas.   Actually, in most states, game wardens enforce all criminal, traffic and civil laws, as well as wildlife law, and they conduct search and rescue, control problem wildlife, teachi hunter education and support wildlife biology research.

And they do their own CSI: In California, game wardens are also Deputy U.S. Marshals.

The problem of crime on wildlands is compounded by marijuana grows operated by international cartels.  According to Lt. John Nores, Jr., head of The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Spec Ops Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET),  the state’s 11-man team performs about 175 drug enforcement missions a year.”

Lt. John Nores and dog. Photo courtesy California Fish & Wildlife.

Lt. John Nores and dog. Photo courtesy California Fish & Wildlife.

“We’ve taken out 2.1 million poisoned –MJ (marijuana) plants since then, most treated with the EPA banned pesticides like Furdan and Metaphos; and these grows are very dangerous,” he said in an interview. “The growers are heavily armed and this year we’ve found six pungi pits—sharp sticks concealed by leaves, leading to grow sites.”

Nores added that a conservative estimate suggests there  are between  3,000 and 4,000 outdoor-trespass cartel grow operations throughout California each year, a much higher number than others that have been found in 23 other US states.

“The water damage and loss in the state through these drought years is staggering:  1.3 billion gallons of California water stolen by these cartel growers between 2014-2015,” he said.  “Our team alone has prevented 378 million gallons of water being stolen over 3.5 years of operations.  We estimate less than half of the [California] grow sites each year are detected and eliminated.”

MET’s sole K-9 dog, Phebe, understands the pot growing problem. She has made 113 bite apprehensions since 2013.

The experience of the MET team isn’t unique. Cartel marijuana grows have been found in national parks, wildlife refuges, BLM lands and state and local parks in 23 states and on 72 national forests. Almost four million plants are removed from illegal grows on public lands nationwide every year, less than 20% of what is believed to be actually out there

Another serious wildlands challenge is the prospect of terrorists sneaking across borders into the U.S,, hiding and training on wildlands, and committing terrorist acts on wildlands (especially arson).  According to Judicial Watch, some Mexican smuggling networks specialize in providing logistical support for extremists attempting to enter the United States.

Seven months before 9/11, a California game warden found a group of men in the California desert shooting automatic weapons. The warden called in deputy sheriffs, who raided the men and took away their automatic weapons. The incident was reported to the FBI, but apparently no further action was taken.

On 9/11, two of the men in that group flew the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Online, al-Qaeda’s website has given instructions about how sympathizers can set fire to forests

Like the old-time town sheriff, game wardens work from a home office, are on call 24/7, and patrol remote areas alone where almost everyone they encounter is armed with a knife, gun or bow and arrow.

The nature of their work has resulted in some special powers.

Two examples:

  • The “Public Trust Doctrine”: Fish and game are public property governed by and managed by state governments. Migratory birds are managed also by the federal government. Under the Public Trust Doctrine, certain resources are preserved for public use, and government is required to maintain them for the public’s reasonable use. Unless you’ve stocked a lake with your own fish, planted raised game birds, or have a fenced enclosure where you have deer or wild boar that you’ve raised for hunting, wild animals are governed by the state and federal government, so wardens can come onto private land without permission.
  • “Exigent Circumstances”: Because game wardens often work far from towns, it is almost impossible to obtain a search warrant to deal with every contact in the field. So, you can legally be stopped by a game warden who can inspect anything you are carrying (he or she cannot frisk you without probable cause) without a search warrant because of an “exigent circumstance.”  In California, it’s a crime to refuse to show a wildlife officer “… all licenses, tags, and the birds, mammals, fish, reptiles or amphibians taken or otherwise dealt with under this code, and any device or apparatus designed to be, and capable of being, used to take birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, or amphibians” (Fish and Game Code, section 2012). The US Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court both have recently affirmed this right.
James A. Swan

James A. Swan

As we move into a new presidency, it will hopefully be recognized that wildlands are key to the health and happiness of America.

They need adequate law enforcement to make this happen.

James A. Swan, Ph.D., is a Co-Executive Producer of the “Wild Justice” TV series and co-author with Lt. John Nores jr. of War In The Woods: Combating the Marijuana Cartels on America’s Wildlands, which has been optioned for a feature film. He welcomes comments from readers.


8 thoughts on “The ‘Thin Green Line’ Could Use Some Help

  1. One correction, there are no armed US Army Corps of Engineers rangers. Congress has denied the authority to protect themselves and the public since the program began in the 1970’s. In a recent review (within the last 5 years) by USACE headquarters it was determined that they would not try to change this. Self-Defense training is patchwork and minimal.

  2. Thank you for bringing this issue to the forefront. All of our Green Line Officers, Wardens,etc. Should absolutely be armed for their protection, our protection and the wildlife and lands the are there to protect. Our new in-coming administration and Congress need to make this a priority which goes along with their moto “Keeping America Safe”

    • Definitely AGREED. If one is doing Nothing wrong, then there is NOTHING to hide from the law-enforcement, and should have NO fear of them.–

  3. Train and hire me. I live in bonney lake Washington. I love the outdoors and would love to help to protect it. I’m a very quick learner and very motivated person. Thanks, andrew

  4. I am aware that the Parks and Wildlife now require a 4 yr scholarship from a college, in order to become a game’warden, etc. If for urgent help, and proper screening, couldn’t we hire some that are known to be trusted, and Honest, through years of just an officer knowing a person, and referring one for the job.–We do need more help, if for nothing more, but to help protect the ones of you that area already officers, game’wardens, park rangers, etc. of some type, through our government. Protection to you, that are trying to protect us, and up’hold the law, should be a definite priority to everyone. An officer knowing of another to be credible and qualified for the jobs, is much more trusting than the poly’graph test….which is not worth the time of the one giving it.–

  5. Many state and municipal park rangers are not armed either, like here in Minnesota. I was a county and state park ranger for 26 years. The county required us to carry pepper spray, but only the Chief was a sworn police officer and carried a firearm. It was only after a parks worker was killed in a contact station robbery and some rangers were assaulted on duty that the state finally relented and allowed us to carry small canisters of capsicum spray. (There was a “park shotgun” that the managers–only–were trained to use to dispatch problem wildlife, but it only was ever used for certification every two years. ) Of the four uniformed employees, I was the only one who actually carried the spray, and I actually got a verbal reprimand for doing so on one occasion. Before the spray was issued, all we had was a state parks radio and a cell phone to call for help. Finally, the Enforcement Division intervened and got us permission to be on the county sheriff’s radio in case of emergency. I am glad I retired when I did, because I was talking with a former coworker, and it doesn’t sound like it is going to get any better anytime soon.

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