1 man, 600 miles
California Fish and Game warden Bill Miller stops at Public Pier 36 on Donner Lake Friday to check a family of anglers for legally purchased fishing licenses. They have, so Miller chats with the young boys about what they’ve caught and how the trout are biting.
Patrolling alone in a territory where he should have one if not two colleagues, Miller divides his work duties among three Sierra counties encompassing an estimated 600 square miles.
Friday morning Miller drove from his home-based office outside Downieville to patrol the Tahoe-Truckee area.
“We have by far the largest state jurisdiction. We cover every square inch of California, except Yosemite, and 200 miles out to sea,” Miller said.
But there simply are not enough wardens to adequately patrol so broad a region, officials say.
“We don’t have as many wardens as we would like to cover as much area as we’d like,” agreed Kyle Orr, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game. “Essentially, it’s that the recruitment is tough due to pay.”
California employs about 200 game wardens to patrol an area covering nearly 160,000 square miles.
The department used to have a Truckee-based warden, but the position has been vacant since October, Miller said. The absence of a game warden in the popular recreational area proved unacceptable to the small corps of wardens.
“Without a warden in Truckee, the squad has taken it upon itself to come up here,” he added.
Miller racks up nearly 800 miles each week on his state-issued truck that comes stocked with old military sniper rifles in an effort to patrol not only his regular beat of Sierra County but Tahoe-Truckee as well.
Despite issues with insufficient staffing, Miller said he enjoys his station as a game warden. In eight years with the department he has had his share of fascinating tales in the field ” bear poachers, marijuana groves, methamphetamine laboratory dumps and night-hunting sting operations.
California game wardens are responsible not only for protecting natural resources from poaching and overuse, but for public safety, too. They enforce hunting and fishing regulations and address pollution and stream bed issues.
Unfortunately, the department remains notoriously short-staffed.
“The main argument is the pay ” we can’t attract wardens,” Miller said.
Fortunately for Miller, the pay isn’t the only issue because his love of the job overshadows the compensation.
“I’ve wanted to do this job for as long as I can remember. I grew up hunting and fishing,” Miller said. “[As a warden] you protect what you enjoy doing.”
California game warden salaries start at $3,700 per month, while comparable departments like the California Highway Patrol pay new officers more than $6,000, according to a 2007 Fish and Game Department Expose report update.
“We just have 190 of us fighting for a pay raise,” Miller says.
Now that he has a family to support and a mortgage to pay, if he were to start anew Miller said he would find the meager salary a problem.
Department funding is an issue due in part to reduced sales of hunting and fishing licenses, the warden said.
“I think it’s just the decline in that kind of sporting activity,” Miller said. “A true sportsman will buy a license … they’re just supporting their hobbies.”
Rob Allen, California Department of Fish and Game assistant chief at headquarters, agrees that staffing deficits are not only a question of salary but society’s dwindling regard for hunting and fishing activities.
“In order to do this job you have to have a dual interest ” you have to have an interest in the environment and what goes on in it, and in law enforcement,” Allen said.
The department was recently awarded $3 million for relocating and expanding the Fish and Game academy to improve the prospects for hiring new game wardens.
But officials say that while the approved recruitment campaign is a small success, it won’t solve all the problems.
“It does not fix the situation of recruitment and retention that we need for wardens,” Jerry Karnow, a warden and legislative liaison for the California Fish and Game Wardens Association. “Because of the lack of that, it is having a direct negative impact on our natural resources and outdoor heritage opportunities.”
Miller is a sworn peace officer, has a four-year college degree and spent a year in the Fish and Game academy learning both regular police work plus eight weeks of warden-specific training.
Dressed in a summer uniform of green pants and a khaki button-up shirt bearing a California Fish and Game emblem, Miller looks every inch the peace officer.
“I’m as much of a cop as any other cop,” he remarked.
Miller is required to carry a gun and has had to draw it on occasion. He once got trapped and harassed by a group of hunters he fined for illegally killing ducks.
But because this region ” Sierra, Nevada and Placer counties ” is short-handed, it is important for the wardens to stick to primary job duties and make a presence in the community.
“The belief that a warden can show up anywhere at anytime, that’s what we want the public to see,” Miller observed.
And true sportsman value wardens on patrol, like the fishing guide on the Little Truckee River that Miller stopped to chat with last week.
“We love seeing you guys out here. What that’s done is it’s kept the bigger fish in the river,” Chris Evison, a Truckee River Outfitters catch-and-release fishing guide, told Miller.
In general, game wardens tend to be reclusive, enjoy the outdoors and have an education in either law enforcement or biological studies.
“We take pride in what we do. We just want to be left alone. We don’t want to be in the public,” Miller said.
And they do it not for the money but for their dedication to protecting California’s natural resources.
“One of my favorite tickets to write is for littering,” Miller said.