Law Enforcement: The red-headed step child of conservation
Refered to alternately as game wardens, conservation officers, or — in a recent move to invoke more respect for officers — conservation police officers, members of the conservation law enforcement community are perhaps the most important link in the chain if any wildlife or natural resource legislation is to succeed. After all, the government could regulate that you tie your shoes with the left hand only, but unless there are boots on the ground ensuring that the public is following those regulations, people will continue doing what they’ve always done, be it poaching endangered species or tying their shoes all willy-nilly with whichever hand they want.
Conservation law enforcement officers work is the most dangerous of any law enforcement work, barring recent years in the US Border Patrol. More COs are assaulted, shot at, and killed in the line of duty than FBI agent, city police, state troopers, or US Marshals. This is in-part due to the nature of the work. COs often patrol in the wilderness, sometimes out of radio and cell-phone range, and typically hours away from backup in case of emergency. Suspects are often hunters and sportsmen, armed, sometimes under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, and occasionally prior violators or felons. Despite officer’s best efforts to maintain control of the situation, sometimes a simple traffic stop or license -check can end in tragedy.
State wildlife agencies are often underfunded, typically understaffed, and yet are perhaps the most important factor in wildlife and natural resource policy. Most agencies make do with a few hundred officers, where a thousand could be put to good use. As a result, areas of responsibility are often thousands of square miles, and whole counties go without an officer in residence. These agencies succeed because every officer is required to do very much with very little, and most rise to the occasion, as conservation officers are exceptionally passionate, hard-working, and proactive. That says a lot in the law-enforcement profession where members are typically hard-working anyway.
Some small amount of salvation may be found from an unlikely source: reality TV. With the recent rise in reality programming, even on such historically reputable channels such as Discovery, National Geographic, Animal Planet, and the History Channel, the search is on for exciting professions that make a good show. First came the fishing shows, then the logging shows (neither of which have any place on a channel with any sort of conservation ethic). Finally, the channels realized that, — just as COPS was wildly successful as one of the first reality TV programs — the trials and tribulations of conservation officers would make a good show. Now Planet Green has Operation Wild, which focuses on the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and National Geographic is comic out with a new show that I am especially excited about: Wild Justice, which follows California Game Wardens as they patrol the land and water of one of the most populous and biologically diverse states in the country.
Since television is such a huge part of our culture, and children are as much raised by TV as their parents, I think it’s important to have quality programming that highlights conservation issues in a realistic and interesting manner. Planet Earth was great, but very little of that show discussed the fact the much of the wildlife shown is on the brink of extinction. People need to see the state of wildlife, of nature, and the amount of effort it takes to keep it safe so that our children can enjoy it, as well. Shows like those I mentioned are a step in the right direction, in my opinion. NOw if we can just get people to turn of watch them instead of American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.