Overwhelmed and Outgunned

After fourteen phone calls and over a week of wild goose chasing, I finally received a call from Rob Allen, assistant chief of law enforcement at California Department of Fish & Game. Allen called in response to my many calls to the department’s public information officer, Kyle Orr. I did eventually reach Orr, just before he ran out the door to assist in the eradication project of non-native pike from Lake Davis. He apologized, saying he was swamped with media calls from all over the state and now he was being whisked away from his Sacramento office to exterminate pike.

Allen provided the missing piece of the puzzle. Everyone at Fish & Game is just too darn busy to talk. Officers who fill the 361 law enforcement positions statewide provide the front line for wildlife—and they also try to pick up the slack generated by 70 positions lost to budget cuts. And that’s just the law enforcement segment. Similar stories abound throughout Fish & Game. There’s way more work than employees can handle.

Fish & Game breaks the state up into seven regions, with regions one, two, and three in Northern California. When I reached Sandy Morey, manager of region two, she told me the web site is out of date and she no longer holds that position, though that was news to her staff. The managers of the other two Northern California regions did not return calls. An unnamed entry-level biologist that I managed to reach called me on his own time in hopes that his story might ring alarm bells.

He expressed his bewilderment that he was only the second biologist to be hired in five years. A hiring freeze was in effect during former governor Gray Davis’ term, and it seems to have continued under Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Because of tight budgets, the biologist says that management scrutinizes each expenditure. “We have to get three bids on any item over $100. If I want a new pair of waders, I have to go to at least three different places for prices, submit that to management, and wait for an answer before I can buy them. In the meantime, I’m working in leaky waders. Valuable time and money are wasted in the process.”

Most of the money that Fish & Game receives is directly tied to the national and state economy. According to Allen, when there is a shortage within the state, California’s budget is augmented by the general fund. “If the economy is doing well, then the department does well,” he says. “The bottom line is money. The funding issue is a yearly rollercoaster that every state department has to ride.”

The main problems with a fluctuating budget relate to planning and administration. Since positions are often cut as a result of funding shortages, there should be a number of open positions, waiting for the boom years. This is not the case. If a position remains vacant for more than six months for any reason (funding shortages, retirement, illness), it is eliminated. And then, say both Allen and the biologist, it’s “darn near impossible” to reinstate those positions. So officers and scientists end up doing mountains of paperwork, either trying to reinstate positions or filling the gaps left by downsized jobs.

The end result is that the department’s mandate—to protect fish and wildlife—suffers. Long-term investigations and stakeouts are hard to manage with such a short staff, and yet that is often the only way to crack operations such as the black market traffic in abalone. “The illegal commercialization of red abalone remains a serious concern,” says Nancy Foley, Fish & Game’s chief of law enforcement. California’s fragile abalone populations declined from a high of more than 5.4 million pounds of commercial abalone in 1959 to a low of 229,000 pounds in 1992. Abalone commerce was banned in 1997. Currently only free diving, where divers hold their breath, is allowed during a limited recreational season with daily and annual limits. Abalone poaching is a very difficult activity to police, and recent crackdowns of black market sales in San Jose and Cupertino demanded the efforts of forty wardens. Allen sums up, “The major problem facing Fish & Game—both for law enforcement and biology—is the ever-increasing population and development of California.”

Every new piece of legislation creates even more duties for already over-extended wardens and biologists. September’s designation of the Central Coast Marine Protected Area is the first of five regions to be protected along the California coast under the Marine Life Protection Act. The lofty aims of this landmark program mean Fish & Game must create a new infrastructure for research and enforcement related to the act.

And meanwhile, the number of game wardens in California is one per 185,000 residents, the lowest in the nation. Says the biologist, “There are no serious advancements being made. It’s basically about keeping your head above water.”

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