Stagnant Pay, Tough Workload Thin Ranks of Game Wardens


Mar 11, 2001
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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.

By MARIA L. LA GANGA,  L.A. 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.
    The jobs are not incompatible. Wardens enforce the fish and game code, as well as the state penal code. While Buelna, for example, cites fishermen for not having licenses, he also has backed up police officers being shot at during bank robberies, intervened in a kidnapping and arrested suspects on drug violations.
    A beginning game warden with a bachelor's degree earns $32,763 a year. A beginning highway patrol officer with a high school equivalency degree earns $47,455. Wardens top out at $46,828 a year, while their CHP counterparts make $65,819. The state pays for CHP officers' retirement but not that of the wardens. CHP officers get paid lunch, while wardens don't.
    In California, only state hospital police and park rangers are as poorly paid as game wardens, says Sam McCall, chief legal counsel for the collective bargaining unit that represents a wide array of law enforcement agencies.
    The Highway Patrol is considered the standard for law enforcement salaries in the state, because California law requires CHP officers to be paid an average of the salaries at the state's five largest agencies.
    The reason? To allow "the state to recruit and retain the highest qualified employees for the California Highway Patrol," according to the government code.
    It's a lesson that is not lost on the wildlife agency, which would like to recruit and retain those very same people but has far fewer resources to do so.
    Last year, after an intensive lobbying effort, the Legislature appropriated $7.8 million to bring game wardens' pay up to par with the CHP. Arguing that such matters should be taken care of through collective bargaining, not law, Gov. Davis struck the item from the budget.
    This spring, the wardens began trying again. The rank and file, who are covered by collective bargaining, have begun contacting elected representatives and sportsmen's organizations to lobby for pay parity. Supervisors, who are not unionized, sued the state to improve wages.
    In the long run, says Notthoff of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the state needs to overhaul how the wildlife agency is funded. Unlike other departments, Fish and Game relies heavily on hunting and fishing licenses and other user fees, which vary from year to year.
    San Diego-based Capt. Mervin Hee, regional patrol chief for coastal Southern California, should have 49 game wardens to cover territory in five counties where 15 million people live. But he averages 10 vacancies a year, as low-paid wardens flee the expensive region for cheaper rural postings.
    His wardens are reduced to doing "triage" instead of regular patrol, and serious problems go untended because he doesn't have the staff, Hee says.
    His office tried to file formal charges in March against a sand-mining operation in a San Diego suburb. The company allegedly was filling its excavation site with contaminated material.
    The contamination was discovered a year ago, but the district attorney has yet to file charges because the Fish and Game investigation is not complete, Hee said. His overworked wardens have been forced to investigate part time.
    "You can't fault the wardens," Hee said. "They're doing the best they can in the amount of time they have."
    Mike Buelna sees firsthand how strained the wildlife agency is. He used to patrol some 250 square miles of the East Bay; that territory has grown.
    He used to be able to spend more time simply watching, which he feels is the heart of his job. It's how he catches people who illegally harvest thousands of clams for sale at local stores and restaurants. And it's how he apprehends fishermen who use illegal gear and hunters who kill more animals than the law allows.
    "The only way we know where evidence is being stashed," Buelna says, "is if we watch. I've had to shorten observation time."
    Still, Buelna says on a recent spring day as he patrols the quiet shores of Hercules and Rodeo and the bait shops of busy Oakland, being a game warden can be the best job in the world.
    He grew up hunting and fishing along California's Central Coast, learned the skills from his grandfather and father, and passed them along to his own children. On this day, the sky is clear, waves lap quietly along the shore, poppies bloom.
    He is asked, why do the job if the pay is so poor? He smiles, spreads his hands. "You don't see any fluorescent lights out here."

* * *

    Wardens an Endangered Species?
    Low pay and increasing urbanization are thinning the ranks of California game wardens. This year's pool of applicants--who receive law enforcement and naturalist training-- could be a record low, which means the Department of Fish and Game will have a tougher time tending to California's wilderness resources:
    What It Takes
    Age: 18 or older.
    Vision: Acuity at least 20/40 without correction; additional peripheral requirements.
    Health: Sound; able to swim; hear adequately.
    Education: High school diploma or equivalent; 60 college units with 18 in the biological sciences, police science or law enforcement, natural resources conservation, ecology or related fields.
    Citizenship: U.S. citizen or permanent resident eligible for citizenship.
    Legal: No felony convictions; must submit to pre-employment drug test; must have valid California driver's license.
    What They Do
    * Enforce regulations relating to fish, wildlife and habitat within the state and its offshore waters.
    What They Oversee
    * 844,000 acres, including 105 wildlife areas, 99 ecological reserves and 166 public access sites
    * 1,100 miles of coastline
    * 30,000 miles of rivers and streams
    * 4,800 lakes and reservoirs
    * 80 major rivers
    * Three of the four North American desert habitats
    * Scores of high mountain peaks
    * More than 1,000 native fish and wildlife species
    * More than 6,300 native plant species
    * About 360 threatened or endangered species
    More Information
    * Department of Fish and Game, Human Resources Branch, Sacramento: (916) 653-8120
    * Internet at:
    Source: California Department of Fish and Game

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