Game wardens: the forgotten frontline of conservation

By James A. Swan

Good stories stalk us, as much as we stalk them.
I grew up on an island in Lake Erie at the mouth of the Detroit River, where there were abundant fish and wildlife and horrific air and water pollution. When I went to the University of Michigan, aside from playing football, my other goal was to study something that would help me do something about pollution in Southeastern Michigan.
On my first day in the School of Natural Resources, my adviser asked me what I wanted to be. I told him I wanted to be a game warden. He laughed and said that game wardens did not make any money, and so he convinced me to study wildlife biology. I later switched my major to psychology when I decided that all pollution begins in the minds of people.
no-wardensThirty years later, I published “Nature As Teacher and Healer,” which summarized my research about how people develop what Aldo Leopold called an “ecological conscience.” On the book tour, I visited my family back in Michigan. One day I took over the family retail store while my father ran an errand. During a lull, a man walked in, saw some of my books on display, picked one up, saw my picture and began a conversation. After a few minutes, he said, “You’re a professor of environmental studies, but I bet you don’t know a thing about what I do.” For the next half hour he introduced me to the world of being a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent – a federal game warden.
I realized that while I had taught at major universities, consulted with federal and state resources agencies, and hunted and fished all my life, I had never even talked with a game warden, although when I went to college, I had said I wanted to be one.
I started to read and ask questions.  I became a hunter education instructor, and suddenly I was talking with game wardens and discovering what they actually did. That was a shock. California, I found, had the worst wardens-per-capita ratio of any state or province in North America, and that translated into a $100 million-a-year black market in wildlife trafficking in the state.
I wrote an article on game wardens as being unsung heroes of conservation for my column.
In 2006, two California game wardens, Jerry Karnow and Jake Bushey, took my son, Andrew, and me on a weekend chukar hunt in Northern California. We got some birds, but the upshot of that outing was hatching the idea of my producing a documentary on the state’s game wardens.
Sure, we filmed compliance checks for hunters and fishermen, but we also videoed takedowns of bear and abalone poachers, street gangs, crime syndicates, meth labs and Mexican drug cartels running marijuana groves on recreational lands. We even bagged a story of one warden who had found a terrorist cell training with automatic weapons in the desert prior to 9/11.
Two years later, on Jan. 17, 2009, “Endangered Species: California Fish and Game Wardens,” a 66-minute documentary narrated by actor/author Jameson Parker, premiered at the International Sportsmen’s Exposition in Sacramento, “The biggest crowd on the biggest day of the biggest outdoor sports show,” according to Tom Stienstra, who appears in the documentary. (Here’s a three-minute trailer for the documentary.)
On Feb. 25, a group of wardens saw to it that every member of the California Assembly and Senate received copies. Their mission was so timely. Days before, a notice had been sent out that all wardens would be furloughed two days per month, and 98 wardens and cadets had just received layoff notices. That translates into 100 wardens in the field for 38 million people. Idaho now has more wardens than California, and only 1.2 million people.
The frontline of conservation – game wardens – have been overlooked in the surge to go green, even though the wardens were wearing the color long before the environment became fashionable. Without wardens, poaching flourishes, resources dwindle and the woods become less safe. As warden numbers have declined in California, for many species of fish and wildlife – deer, abalone, lobster, sturgeon, striped bass, rockfish, and salmon – seasons and limits have become more restrictive, and regulations have increased as poaching escalates. And numbers of sportsmen go down, as does the amount of money generated by outdoor sportsmen.
There are more than 830,000 sworn law enforcement officers in the U.S., only 7,100 of which are game wardens. When you come to see what game wardens really do and learn how critical they are to conservation, you can understand why Chief Nancy Foley says in the documentary that she could use 7,000 game wardens in California, instead of 198 – and that was before the layoffs were announced.
I’m afraid that I’m now too old to be a game warden. But at least I did not let that story get away. And for a trophy, I have a mini-warden badge proudly mounted on my wall. ◊


James A. Swan, Ph.D., of Mill Valley, Calif., is freelancer, book author, television and screen actor and producer, and a columnist for He operates Snow Goose Productions. More information on “Endangered Species: California Fish and Game Wardens” can be found at:

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