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Know the West

Dangerous game

Western game wardens are hindered by huge territories, budget cuts


On a December afternoon, a frigid wind hisses through the buckwheat and tumbleweed of Portrero Canyon State Wildlife Area. This is Southern California, but the bitter chill feels more like the Dakotas. The desolate hillsides seem a world apart from Palm Springs, just 20 miles away.

California Department of Fish and Game Warden Kyle Chang has patrolled hundreds of square miles today, on a shift that has already lasted over eight hours. Portrero Canyon, a former rocket-testing site, is his final stop on the way home. It's closed to the public but accessible to determined trespassers. Graffiti and spent shotgun shells litter abandoned bunkers, and the grasslands -- part of a preserve for the endangered Stephens' kangaroo rat -- are deeply rutted by ATVs.

As Chang scans for fresh signs of vandalism, a gunshot explodes through the hills. Chang floors his pickup, racing toward the source. It could be a poacher, picking off deer in the closed area, or a drug deal gone bad. He calls for help and is pleased to hear that another warden will be there in 15 minutes. These days, such backup is a rarity.

Western game wardens have always faced unknown dangers in inaccessible territory. Now, those hazards are compounded by staffing shortages and mandatory furloughs, even as new duties and stricter environmental laws increase the daily workload.

Today's game wardens do more than keep an eye on hunting and fishing. Wardens battle marijuana groves, meth labs, environmental abuses, commercial poaching and street crime. In the past year, new laws have added marine life preserves to California's coast and created off-highway regulations for the fragile deserts of Nevada and New Mexico. Strict quagga mussel inspections are required at Western lakes and waterways. Wardens uphold local and state laws as well as federal wildlife provisions on state, federal and private lands, with some of the broadest authority of any sworn peace officers.

In California, just 221 field wardens patrol over 700 square miles each. Colorado's wardens also cover more than 700 square miles apiece, while each New Mexico warden patrols more than 2,000. Nevada has only 35 wardens, and half of them are assigned to boating duties, leaving fewer than 20 officers to roam territories of 3,400 to 10,000 square miles.

In most of the West, warden numbers have been frozen for a decade or longer. In at least four states — California, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico — budget cuts mandate furloughs ranging from one day per quarter to three days a month. As a result, wardens say, long-term investigations are delayed, poaching is on the rise and pollution spills go unattended.

"The population grows, but our ranks don't grow," says Steve Tomac, a Nevada game warden and Western regional director for the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association. "The responsibilities increase, but we don't keep up with it."

Chang's patrol began at dawn at Diamond Valley Lake, 100 miles east of Los Angeles. The 200-foot-deep basin -- a trophy fishery and regional water distribution site -- swarms with bass, trout, catfish and huge stripers. Chang checks fishing licenses and warns anglers against drinking, but his primary concern is quagga mussel larva -- clear blobs no bigger than a grain of sand that grow into mollusks capable of causing billion-dollar clogs in water systems.

The mussels, which have already overrun the Great Lakes, stow away on boats and bait. Controlling them in Western water supplies requires constant vigilance, an effort that the dwindling numbers of wardens are hard-pressed to maintain. Nevada wardens monitor boats on Lake Mead and run education campaigns — a task equaling one full-time position a year, spread among fewer than three dozen already-overworked officers, says Chief Game Warden Rob Buonamici.

In California, Chang and his colleagues have added quagga mussel detection to their growing roster of duties. At the boat dock at Diamond Valley, Chang checked anglers' bait. Most had night crawlers or lures, but one brought hundreds of crawdads, a potential vehicle for mussels. Chang inspected them to confirm that they were store-bought, not locally caught from a contaminated water source, then waved the angler on. He is here for only a couple of hours, a few times a month: "You see how easy it is when no one's here, to bring in illegal bait."

With enforcement sporadic, it's not hard for anglers to introduce invasive species and fish over limits. Poachers also kill protected animals, seeking quick cash in a slow economy. "This year and last year we're seeing unprecedented poaching," says Nancy Foley, deputy director of the California Department of Fish and Game and law enforcement division chief. "They're poaching for profit, from reptiles in the desert, to abalone off the North Coast, to deer and bear and some of their parts." This year, wardens recovered 13 poached deer in one California county alone. Extrapolate across the state's 58 counties, based on a 5 to 10 percent apprehension rate, and the total is probably thousands.

Deer and elk poaching is also on the rise in northern New Mexico, and Nevada has seen spikes in its illegal reptile trade. Still, it's hard to accurately measure the damage. "With fish and wildlife being the victims, they don't call in, so we can't give you a great idea of how many we're missing," Foley says.

The furloughs were imposed to save costs, but they may result in reduced revenue for states. Wardens who aren't in the field can't issue as many fines. Nevada has seen a 5 percent decline in civil penalties over the past year, an amount proportional to its furlough time. In California, where wardens are off three days a month, Foley expects a drop in fines and citations at the end of the fiscal year.

Continuing his patrol, Chang visited the San Jacinto State Wildlife Area, a few miles from Diamond Valley Lake. This marshy grassland is flush with up to 200 species of ducks, shorebirds, upland game and raptors.

Three men training English springer spaniels remembered Chang from a previous patrol and proudly showed off their new puppies. Two young snipe hunters inquired about working as a warden. Most positions require college coursework in biology or other natural sciences.

In California, wardens make about 40 percent less than highway patrol officers. Nevada wardens, starting at $35,000 per year, earn 10 percent less than state public safety officers. Other states have cut merit pay and cost of living raises in recent years.

While most encounters are friendly, the potential for danger is always present. In November, Buonamici stopped two anglers on a routine fishing check in Nevada. One of them was an armed felon, wanted in California for multiple gang-related stabbings.

California's chief, Foley, stopped a convicted felon on a routine traffic violation in May 2008. She was making the arrest when more than a dozen Sacramento police officers arrived as backup. "I was pretty proud to be a game warden," she says. "But it was also a sad day, because there were more officers that came to assist me at that one call than I have in 10 counties."

At San Jacinto, Chang bantered with the hunters, who warned him of possible poachers. Through his scope he spotted a hunter firing at something tiny and fragile. "He just shot a tweetybird!" Chang exclaimed, darting out of his truck.

The hunter avoided Chang's gaze, but admitted leaving spent shells in the field. Chang found a shell, and beside it, splayed across a tumbleweed, the warm, bloody body of a songbird, protected under both state law and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. "So this is your first time hunting birds out there?" Chang said. "So what'd you think? You could just shoot whatever?"

"I got no excuse, sir," Juan Manuel Villa, 40, apologized. "I thought it was a dove. Actually at first I thought it was a quail."

"Well, it looks a bit like it," Chang conceded. "If it was about 10 times bigger." He wrote the citation, then drove 20 miles to a ramshackle  swap meet, where merchants hawk exotic birds and lizards along with house wares and cosmetics. Several have been investigated for selling smuggled parrots and native birds, so Chang checks the site regularly.

At the end of the day, Chang makes a final sweep through Portrero Canyon. That's where the sound of gunfire launches him into action.

Warden Brady Hill radios that he's on his way. The two wardens converge on a group of parked pickups, and Chang bolts out of his truck. "Gentlemen, everyone step out of the vehicles for me," he calls. Seven teenagers creep out, hands overhead, faces pale with shock.

"Be careful, you've got a dog coming up behind you now," Chang warns as Hill advances with his patrol dog, Buddy, an 18-month-old black German shepherd. On Hill's orders, Buddy will sniff out deer, bear, shellfish, quagga mussels and ammunition — and attack if needed.

Chang frisks the teens, and then the wardens inspect the youths' guns — an assortment of heirloom shotguns, rifles and pistols. After an ID check comes in clear, Chang cuts a deal. No citations, no fines; just cleanup duty. "Remember when you were young, doing stuff like this?" he asks Hill. "That's the only reason I'm going to let them go." Escorting them out, Chang is relieved. "You never know if it's gangsters practicing, or just kids target shooting," he says.

He's been on patrol 11 hours now, so a poaching investigation and an illegal turtle possession case will have to wait. He has no idea when he'll find time for them. "It's like triage," he says. "You're running from call to call, handling the worst of the worst."