By Reggie Ellis
The California Fish and Game Warden's motto ends with the phrase, "above all, be fair."
But the real problem is not the judiciousness of the wardens, but the broken criminal justice system. The system views the Fish and Game Code like Enron's Code of Ethics -- a nice thought but nothing to be taken too seriously.
"If there is a domestic abuse, child abuse or drunk driving fatality there are support groups in addition to the police department to put pressure on elected judges and make sure these things don't fall through the cracks," said Lt. Craig Cooper with Tulare County Fish and Game. "We are only a small group fighting for wildlife. They don't have a support group."
Cooper said there are only about 260 Fish and Game wardens in the state, forcing each to cover more than 2,000 square miles, putting staffing at the lowest it has been since 1960. Fish and Game violations are often the easiest to prosecute because most people are caught in the act. However, more serious crimes such as poaching and polluting are nearly impossible to prosecute. Not for a lack of evidence, but because the overworked district attorney's office is unfamiliar with Fish and Game cases and many judges treat them as less than parking tickets. This cuts into revenue made by Fish and Game on fines and penalties and leads to more budget cuts for future generations. Just last year Fish and Game was forced to cut 71 positions due to the state budget crisis.
"Tulare County is extremely weak on environmental crimes," Cooper said. "The entire system is broke. The DAs try to keep the wheel turning but they keep pulling it out of the stack to keep the wheel turning until the time (Statute of Limitations) is up. They need to start taking [wildlife] crimes serious."
The most common environmental crimes are stream bed alterations. When someone who owns property along a stream, river or other waterway decides to put in a boat ramp or a bridge, state law requires them to contact the Department of Fish and Game to assist them with the project. Cooper said his job is to prevent the project from impacting the local wildlife not to approve or deny the project.
"I don't have the authority to tell a landowner what he can and can't do," Cooper said. "I'm here to tell him how to do it with the least amount of impact on wildlife."
Cooper said these violations are prevalent because of land owners' attitude of, "I own this property and I can do what I want." However, there are lots of wildlife concerns when the flow of a stream or construction along a bank takes place. As development increases in California there are fewer and fewer acres of land suitable for wildlife to inhabit. The waterways have increasingly become the last bastion for wildlife. The foothill ecosystem begins with bugs that live near water. Those bugs are food for birds which are hunted by coyotes or bobcats.
"All life revolves around water," Cooper said. "Water ways are the only habitat that has been left protected."
Cooper said landowners often want to remove trees for driveways or stream access. However, those trees provide shade for the water. By removing the trees the temperature of the surface water increases until it is too hot to support the bugs. Driving back hoes in and out of the stream for construction causes other problems. The construction can churn up the dirt choking the fish or crush thousands of eggs in a stream spawning bed.
Most people try to circumvent Fish and Game to avoid paying a $160 fee. But Cooper said the fee is really a savings as you are getting advice from an experienced Fish and Game warden and a biologist. Cooper said the biologist can offer tips about the best types of wood used for boat ramps and the warden can offer tips on building bridges and ramps with relation to water flow, seasonal elevation, etc.
Cooper said if he cannot come to an agreement with the landowner about the details of the project, then it is sent to arbitration.
"I've done 1,200 agreements and none has ever gone to arbitration," he said. "We aren't Nazi environmentalists. Just let us know what you want to do ahead of time so we can assist you and protect the wildlife at the same time."
Cooper said local politics play a large role in sabotaging the prosecution as well. Many of the influential people in Tulare County -- farmers, contractors, developers -- are also sportsmen. When push comes to shove, judges are more likely to cut fines and offer plea bargains with reduced charges for constituents who have a lot of money -- something that doesn't seem to happen in surrounding counties.
"It all comes back to hurt future generations," Cooper said. "All the politics erode public resources like wildlife and public land."
Cooper said because of the lack of wardens, Fish and Game relies on responsible citizens to call in any violations they witness. The CalTIP (Californians Turn In Poachers and Polluters) hotline was introduced in 1981 to provide an around the clock toll free phone number to anonymously report criminal activity. The number is 1-888-334-2258 (DFG-CALTIP). Without the help of the general public Cooper said the beauty of Tulare County may disappear in time.
"One day people are going to leave the cities to go see Bambi," Cooper said. "When they they ask where all of the deer are we are going to tell them, 'The last deer died 20 years ago, where were you?'"