Dangerous game

Western game wardens are hindered by huge territories, budget cuts

  • California game wardens Brady Hill and Kyle Chang stop illegal target shooters.

    Deborah Sullivan Brennan
 

Page 2

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."

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