Policing in the Wild

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

One interesting law enforcement specialty is wildlife enforcement. These officers are a mix of police officer, biologist, search and rescue specialist, public education officer, and organized crime fighter. Game wardens, park rangers, conservation agents or whatever title they use have responsibilities to human, animal, plant, and geological resource protection. They are found on state and local lands, bodies of water, and even city parks.

On the federal level, there are several layers of outdoors law enforcement. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service is an agency of the Cabinet Office of the Interior with primary responsibility over federal wetlands and wildlife refuge areas. The National Park Service maintains its own force of law enforcement rangers and investigators to deal with criminal activity and public safety in our national parks.

Not all federally owned or managed lands are national parks or wildlife sanctuaries. The Bureau of Land Management deals with federal properties, many of which have mining, forestry, oil production, or other resource extraction operations. The bureau has its own law enforcement team, as does the U.S. Forest Service. The U.S. Park Police are most visible in Washington D.C. but are also deployed in other federal park lands. Even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office has a law enforcement division.

Each state employs wildlife enforcement officers and park rangers with various responsibilities. In high tourist traffic areas, the traffic and crime issues are similar to any population. In addition, there are issues of preservation of historic artifacts and structures that are subject to vandalism and theft. Fugitives finding refuge in isolated areas is not uncommon and pose a special threat to these officers that often work alone and in remote areas.

Search and rescue operations are a natural part of these outdoors officers. Adventure seekers, both proficient and foolish, can find themselves in unexpected danger. Those who are lost and injured often naively expect a quick helicopter rescue, but the complexity of extrication from the wilderness requires a trained team with much technical knowledge.

Maintaining a balance of the ecosystem of both public and private lands is often accomplished by licensing and regulation. Enforcing these in the field requires diplomacy and sometimes stealth. Officers sometimes work undercover, sometimes under leaves and brush! The one thing every officer in the fields and mountainsides knows is that nearly everyone they contact is armed with deadly weapons.

In addition to the danger involved in working alone in remote areas, these officers face serious criminals. Certain animal products are very valuable in international trade and poachers accept the risks of encountering law enforcement agents. These parts hunters harvest the organ or body part that they can sell and leave the wasted carcass of the animal to rot. Investigative efforts include special forensic examinations and dangerous undercover work. Hunting tour guides are carefully licensed so that natural resources remain in balance. Those operating outside the law often will use illegal tactics to ensure that their clients get a trophy animal.

Organized criminal elements use our national lands as rent-free property for growing or making illicit drugs. Even in states, like Colorado, where marijuana can be grown, sold, and used legally, offenders often associated with international criminal enterprises, cultivate marijuana in remote areas of public lands. Not only are these products unregulated and untaxed, they are grown with no regard to the environment. In fact, many prosecutions for marijuana related offenses on federal land are charges related to environmental crimes, rather than for the illegal drug. Drought conditions and water rights are ignored as are the dangers of chemicals used to cultivate and process the crop. Mobile meth labs also leave their indelible mark on pristine lands. Even officers doing biology studies like bird counts and fire danger surveys must be aware of the possibility of coming across a criminal enterprise guarded by booby traps or armed guards.

These officers must be adept at all kinds of rescues. This requires hours of training in rope techniques, emergency medicine, and navigation. In addition to a typical four-wheel drive SUV loaded with equipment, the ability to work around or in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft is required. Outdoor officers may pilot a drone, operate an ATV, navigate with watercraft, all while being prepared to hike miles on foot in hostile terrain.

For most officers who choose to work in conservation law enforcement, the job is their dream career. While their more urban counterparts may make light of their job as “tree cops” or “’possom cops”, these officers garner great respect for their many skills to respond to the demands of working in the wild.

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