Conservation police officers go by many names: game wardens, environmental technicians, forest rangers, gamekeepers or wildlife troopers.
But while the job title may vary from state to state, the mission, which is being threatened by an apparently a common problem in the form of a staffing shortage, is the same throughout the United States.
“CPOs are first responders, search and rescue, natural disaster responders, and assist watercraft and ATV operators,” said Steve Vasicek, president of Illinois’ Conservation Police Officer Fraternal Order of Police Lodge. “They are responsible for safety, education, and enforcement of outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, boating, and state parks. They also have full police powers for traffic, DUIs, drugs, and criminal investigations and arrests.”
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources divides the state into five regions and 19 conservation districts. District Seven, which includes Tazewell County, is part of Northwest Region One, headquartered in Peoria. Most of the state’s conservation districts are staffed at about 50 percent, according to Vasicek.
“When positions have become vacant, they have not been filled,” he said. “Having 50 percent staffing means their ability to respond and perform all of these duties is greatly diminished.”
Statistics from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources show that District Seven is staffed at about 40 percent. Of the district’s 10 counties, only Fulton, McDonough, Peoria and Woodford have resident officers. Illinois Conservation Police District Seven Supervisor Sgt. Scott Avery said that a dearth of officers in the field means that local enforcement of state wildlife and environmental regulations depends to some extent on community support.
“When there’s a shortage of anything, you have more work to do with fewer resources,” he said, “That means our capacity to catch violators is diminished. We ask for help from the general public. Anyone who hears about or sees some sort of poaching situation, especially at this time of year with the deer hunting season in full swing, should contact their local conservation officer or one from a neighboring county.”
A significant reason for the lack of conservation police in Illinois appears to be a lack of funding. Chicago Sun Times reporter Dale Bowman wrote in a Nov. 23, 2016, article that, due to a budget impasse between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois General Assembly, 32 conservation police Officers were targeted for layoffs at the end of the year.
“This reduction in officers further erodes the oldest state law enforcement department which at one time boasted 189 officers,” said Shawn Roselieb, Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council (FOP) assistant executive director, in a Nov. 23, 2016, press release. “Neither the workload nor the responsibilities of the officers have diminished. All of Illinois’ natural resources and everyone who enjoys this state’s great outdoors will suffer the consequences of these reductions. The only people that will benefit are the poachers, polluters and predators.’’
According to Vasicek, conservation police officers statewide agreed to a pay freeze in 2017 in exchange for Rauner’s dismissal of threats of layoffs or terminations of their fellow officers.
In a July 14, 2018, article, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Paul A. Smith wrote that a shortage of conservation wardens has Wisconsin residents concerned about less enforcement of fish and game laws and a reduction in water safety patrols.
“It’s high anxiety,” said Larry Bonde, chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress. “Across the state people have noticed fewer wardens in the field, and they’re worried.”
In one case, Smith wrote, staffing shortages forced a conservation warden to travel from Superior to Sheboygan, a distance of nearly 400 miles, to perform duties at a state park there.
According to a Jan. 10, 2018, article by Hawaii News Now reporter Lisa Kubota, a shortage of conservation officers may pose a threat to the state’s natural and cultural resources. Hawaii’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) has about 130 positions for conservation officers, of which 30 are vacant. The state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources is seeking funding to develop a training academy designed to ease the staffing shortage, Kubota wrote.
Bruce Cheek of Alexander, Ark., has been hunting for nearly 50 years or “ever since I was able to lift a BB gun.” His game has ranged from squirrels to ducks to deer, and he has pursued his quarry in the woods, wetlands and hills of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia. In a half-century of hunting trips, he has encountered two conservation officers.
“I’ve passed some on the highway, but I’ve only met two game wardens actually in the field,” he said. “I think, given the number of hunters in the field versus the number of game wardens out there, that game wardens are terribly undermanned.”
Another contributing factor in the ongoing shortage of conservation officers not only in Illinois, but throughout the United States, is that the process for training such officers is both rigorous and time-consuming. In addition to attending a three-month police academy, aspiring Illinois Conservation Police officers must also complete three more months of academy training and several months of field training.
“It’s a very lengthy process,” said Sgt. Scott Avery. “We have about 20 recruits in the state police academy right now. It will be a year to a year-and-a-half before we actually see them in the field.”
One of the most notable potential consequences of a personnel shortage diminishing the capacity of conservation officers to perform their mission, Avery added, could be on the planet that the present generation is leaving behind for future ones.
“The state’s conservation laws revolve around making sure the next generations have places to hunt, fish and hike,” he said. “Public safety is important, of course, but our number one goal is to protect the state’s natural resources. If we’re not there to do it, we have to rely on man in general to stop killing certain species.”