Publish date:

Long Hours, Low Pay and Guns Fired in Anger

The nation's game wardens, protectors of our remaining wildlife heritage, are dedicated men who love the land and the open air and persistently do their jobs in spite of

The Susquehanna River, between Tunkhannock and Sayre, ran strong and shallow in the riffles and deep and placid in the pools; fishermen sat tranced and stubbled in old boats or stood chest-deep in the water. The Susquehanna is not a fancy river. It runs untended between untended banks, and it isn't exactly full of fish.

"Any luck, men?" Warden Stephen Shabbick laid a hand on the gunwale of an old boat and pulled gently alongside; a pale little boy, fishing with his father, looked at him doubtfully. The boy wore shorts, an undershirt, out-size sunglasses and galoshes.

"One little boy about your size, down the river, caught a 27-inch walleye," Shabbick's partner, Clair Fleeger, said. "Biggest fish we've seen today. May I have a look at your license, sir?" The boy's father produced his fishing license, then his motor license. Shabbick checked the number against the number on the outboard. He counted life preservers, pulled up the stringer and looked at two bass, small but not "shorts," and peered into the bait bucket.

"They seem to be hitting Sonics down the river," the warden told the boy's father. "Good luck!"

Shabbick and Fleeger moved upstream. They had been up at 6 and on the river by 7. They were checking licenses, life preservers, motors, fish and bait. They were watching for dead fish—a tanker of hydrochloric acid had gone into the river at Waverly, N. Y., and if there was going to be any toxic pollution it should show up in Laceyville shortly.

"It wasn't so bad with the sewage that was running in, but now they got that gosh-durned stuff from the mines," a fisherman grumbled to Fleeger. "That sewage isn't so bad—fertilizes the river."

"Well, it is and it isn't," Fleeger said temperately. "Bacteria takes a lot of the oxygen out of the water and you have a lot of fish killed. And think of all the poor people who have to drink it."

"Hey, you're the guy who promised to look at a pond for me over at Beaumont," another fisherman told Shabbick.

"I was over there that afternoon with the supervisors," Shabbick said.

"No, no, that's my brother. He's the one with the bulldozer. I wanted to move a crick."

"Got to have a permit from Harris-burg," Shabbick told him.

"It's only a small crick—there's no fish in it or anything," the man said. "It's not much of a change."

"Yes, but you still need a permit from Harrisburg," Shabbick said, and promised to check it.

And so on, up the Susquehanna, in the warm sun. The wardens checked a dead eel's length and were pleased. "All the eels in here are ones we planted as elvers," Fleeger said. "Nice to see them establishing themselves." Along the shore a live-bait box, tethered to a stake, rose and fell with the small waves. Shabbick went to check it. There is a limit on live bait in Pennsylvania. "Some people," Fleeger says, "take more hellgrammites than they would ever need to catch the limit of six bass. And at the end of the day they throw them away, dead. I've always felt that you shouldn't waste anything of nature's."

Shabbick and Fleeger would leave the river about 7 and have supper, after which they would debate going back out to check on bait hunters. A quiet day: long but not longer than usual, strenuous but not as strenuous as some.

Hunters and fishermen are inclined to think of wardens like Shabbick and Fleeger vaguely and negatively, as figures they don't want to see rising out of the bushes. Few of them know or care just what wardens do, so long as they don't do it to them, and in this they are making a mistake. It is the hunters and fishermen who pay our wardens, and it should please them to know how much they are getting for their money. In almost all states, wardens' salaries derive solely from license fees—there is no state appropriation and fines sometimes are channeled as far away from the wardens as the local school fund. It works out to a salary of some $3,000 to $5,000 a year, and for this the sportsmen get a man who works incalculably hard, who is diplomat, conservationist, legal expert, public relations man and, more than occasionally, sunburned Samaritan.

A warden's average day is conservatively estimated to be 12 hours long. It is probably in fact longer, but it would be so difficult to calculate that wardens prefer to go to bed rather than figure it out. The State of Connecticut did arrive at a figure of 48 days of unpaid overtime per man in 1960—probably low. Vermont tells its prospective wardens flatly that "a warden is paid the standard weekly rate, with no additional compensation for required overtime"—which sounds tough, but Chief Conservation Officer William Coffin of New Jersey observes, "We never have to pound a man to go out and do a day's work. We have to pound at him to take some time off." The other states agree.

On duty the warden, of course, enforces the law: 4,500 wardens over 3,615,211 square miles of country and 88,633 miles of shoreline. And in these 3,615,211 square miles are men so bent on evading the law that they have hidden hellgrammites, crawly and pinchered, under their hats, and deer in their beds. The work requires a sound knowledge of the law. As one warden has put it, "It's a specialized form of enforcement—we deal in technicalities. When you arrest a man you're sticking your neck out unless you know exactly what you're arresting him for. False arrest, malicious persecution and all the rest of it—we don't want any of that." Not getting any of it involves a thorough knowledge of court procedure and legal subtleties; game wardens today may be found .in the Treasury School in Washington, taking a condensed course in the Rules of Evidence.

And law enforcement is hardly half of it. A warden is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at the service of hunters with questions, drunks with arguments to be settled at 3 a.m., householders with squirrels in the attic or skunks under the porch. "You get a phone call; a squirrel is up a telephone pole or a cat is on a third-story ledge," says Anthony Mazza of Manhattan, "and people want you down there forthwith. They can't understand if you don't hurry down, or that the squirrel can climb a lot better than you can." A warden is available for hurricanes, tornadoes, lost children, escaped murderers and turtles held in unlawful captivity; he is around for getting people down off mountains, up from the bottoms of rivers and out of blizzards. He conducts conservation classes, speaks at boy scout meetings, answers questions at outdoor shows, wildlife exhibits and sportsmen's clubs. Then he has hours to put in doing detailed reports and preparing his cases, to see them through in court—work made by the work he has done.

It is the wardens who know the size of their fish-and-game populations and the conditions that support and threaten them—the amount of food and cover, the degree of pollution in the rivers, the strength of the predator groups. It is the game warden who knows how many elk there are and how many deer how many quail and how they are fixed for cover and for food: grit, ragweed seeds, sedge, mast. It is the warden who knows just how many fish are appearing belly up in the polluted rivers. He knows which waters need stocking and helps to stock them. He knows where deer populations are heavy and moves the deer to where they are light. In Florida he ropes and transports alligators, and in Massachusetts he carts hard-shell clams from polluted to clean waters, saving not just clams but the lives of people who would buy from bootleggers tempted to work the productive beds. In Manhattan he prowls Madison Avenue shops for hats bearing a breast feather of a protected duck and shows up in restaurant kitchens looking for brook trout lacking the tag that shows they were legitimately raised and sold.

In Pennsylvania, Clair Fleeger and Steve Shabbick measure bass. In Florida, Rhodus Hill measures shellcrackers. But the job of a game warden is more than attention to these specifics; he is the bridge between the theory of conservation and the fact of a stringer of undersized bass, and on his attention to that stringer may rest the preservation of a species. Nobody took up his gun and went out the back door to kill off the last passenger pigeon. The passenger pigeon is extinct because of a lack of vision and recognition of the law of cause and effect. The shock of the total loss of a species was probably more useful to America than the bird was—more conservation laws went down on the books. But an unenforced law is not going to conserve anything; moreover, it isn't going to work effectively unless it is framed with a thorough, current knowledge of the conditions of what is to be conserved—which brings us back to the game warden, first and last.

In spite of being strong, healthy, knowledgeable, tactful and patient for $4,000 a year, these men are not popular. The job is enforcement of unpopular law, which has always presented its own peculiar difficulties. Breaking Americans to game law has been a tedious business. This was, not too long ago, a frontier country where men lived by shooting game, and an activity turns slowly from necessity to pleasure to illegality. Necessity itself demanded the redefinition of hunting—in Colorado in 1866, for example, it was estimated that the food available would last for six weeks if distributed evenly among the population of the territory, and "it was natural that serious thought be given to different sources of supply." Nevertheless, people do not easily grasp the fact of future necessity, and it has been hard to instill a feeling for the game laws in those not capable of seeing a larger picture.

Man has always felt an instinctive right to what runs wild; it is hard to get it through his head that it can be illegal to take home baby rabbits, pick mountain laurel or shoot an extra deer. Hunters have felt essentially that somehow they were not breaking the law, not really, and this casual view has plagued wardens even in the courts. In the early days, judges and juries tended to agree with the violators. A warden can still come into court with complete evidence, often gathered after weeks and even months of work, to prosecute market hunters or inveterate violators and have his case thrown out of court.

Warden Ernest Swift of Wisconsin remembers a justice of the peace who leafed through the statute books after the case had been presented. Swift watched him and finally said respectfully that he was sure he had charged the man correctly. The justice looked at him and said, "I know what you charged him with, young man. I'm just trying to find something in the statutes that will let me let him go!" And Rex Tice, now in Washington, remembers going to a district attorney in Wisconsin and telling him, "We've got a bad actor down here fishing illegally in Mississippi waters—using nets, no license, and he's selling gamefish. He's offered to sell me some, and I want you to tell me just how to buy them so we have a case. I don't want to make any mistake." The D.A. would have no part of it and said, "We have to live with these people."

Perhaps the most dispirited complaint of this sort came from a fish-and-game commissioner, James A. Shinn of Colorado, who reported in 1911 that "it is difficult to get the district attorneys to take the proper action in some cases, and we have even had a case where the district attorney, while he was supposed to prosecute, defended the violators." Fish-and-game men have been saying hopefully, since about 1880, that this state of affairs is improving. And so it is, but this is little comfort to a warden who has spent long cold nights sitting up in a boat or lying on his belly in a field to collect evidence.

There are further demands on a game warden's patience. Practically speaking, conservation cannot be achieved by apprehending every violator. There are too many potential violators on too much land, and too much is involved in prosecuting them. So the warden must somehow make violators understand what they are doing and make illegal hunters and fishermen and laurel pickers choose to desist. Offenders are apt to be entirely ignorant of the law or unable to understand its purpose; cow them or humiliate them and the ignorance only crystallizes into antagonism. Understanding and cooperation of the public are fish-and-game departments' primary aims, and they demand a superhuman tact and patience of the wardens. High-handedness defeats the purpose of the warden and endangers the effective functioning of a conservation program. It is doubtful that a traffic cop feels personally wounded when a motorist exceeds the speed limit, and he can do his duty in a fairly offensive manner without losing his job. But the wardens, who happen to be truly pained by the breaking of conservation laws, are the men most required to be even-tempered about law enforcement. (One man is a warden today because as a private citizen he beat up a game violator. A judge fined him for assault and then asked why, if he cared so much, he didn't become a game warden. The man did—losing his "privilege," though, to beat up violators.)

Kentucky has told its wardens in a special handbook that "The Conservation Officer in serving the public signifies 'authority,' but his authority should be clothed in courtesy at all times...courtesy and etiquette are based on self control. Not until a Conservation Officer has mastered himself can he ever hope to do a courteous job of law enforcement. Not until he does his job, with fairness and understanding, can the Department hope for the respect and cooperation of the public. The violation and its perpetrator should be looked upon impersonally and dealt with firmly and courteously." Kentucky goes on and spells it out, listing "courtesies to be used frequently," among them: "pleasantness but not familiarity," "cheerfulness when giving information and help," "prompt apology for any oversight or error," "acceptance of constructive criticism," "attentiveness when another person is addressing one." Discourtesies listed are: "engaging in long sidewalk or curbstone conversations," "assuming a loafing attitude while in uniform or on business" and even such splendid advice for all of us everywhere as to avoid "expressing positive opinions on unfamiliar subjects."

Wardens, like schoolteachers, are expected to be examples to the community. They are well known by the men they deal with, and the most powerful deterrent to the breaking of game laws is the men who enforce them. It is a presumptuous demand, that a man's character and activities when not on the job be up to a certain standard (in Texas a report on applicants even asks: "What of the inside of the home? The furnishings? Describe. Does he owe anything on the furnishings? How much? Who is the 'boss' in the home?" and more, a lot more).

Another problem is plain physical danger. Fatal assaults by violators are less common than they once were, but still common. Enforcement of the game laws is especially difficult in that it involves dealing with lawbreakers who are almost always equipped to kill, and dealing with them usually under isolated circumstances. The drunken hunter aggravates the problem. Part of the flight to Mother Nature is apt to be a flight from the mother of one's own children, and one of the jolly aspects of getting away from the wife with the boys is getting into the beer. A man armed, drunk and in the wrong is no joke. "Shot at? The word is sprinkled," says William Jackson Boger of North Carolina. "None of us wardens like to feel anyone would intentionally fire upon us." But he concedes thoughtfully, "There usually is a time when you're hit 'unintentionally' by stray buckshot."

A considerable number of men have been killed in the last few years; murdered, not sprinkled with unintentional buckshot. They have been shot in the stomach and the back of the head, with rifles. An officer in Alabama lost an eye when fired upon during a routine license check; a warden in Florida was shot in the belly; there was an Indiana warden killed by a hunter out on parole a year and a half from a sentence of murder; and a deputy was killed in Carmel, N.Y., shot in the head and the back. And then there are the nonfatal but unpleasant assaults made with knives, clubs, automobiles and clam rakes.

There are also natural dangers, but nowadays they are less of a problem. Wardens generally work now in pairs, and automobiles, planes, airboats and walkie-talkies have put today's warden somewhat up on his predecessor in snow-shoes. Still, the warden's most effective enforcement weapons are his own knowledge of the territory and habitual violators, plus the willingness to follow up every lead he gets, regardless of the hour. As Mazza, in New York, observed, "You never know, if you go back to bed, that it wasn't the clue you needed."

This conscientiousness is abused in a number of ways. A warden in Louisiana is called out time after time by tips on "violators" in certain areas, only to find that the telephoners are merely making sure that their own favorite hunting grounds arc minutely patrolled; no violators will be within miles. And violators themselves are apt to call in and send a warden on a search miles from where they intend to poach. But the good warden is not often duped. Harry Chase, a Vermont warden, wrote in 1910: "The poachers may watch [the warden], but owing to his familiarity with the country and his acquaintance with the offenders there are hundreds of ways in which he can outwit them. May he not let it be known that he is going to such and such a place, and then in a circuitous manner return to his old territory?...Can he not go out under cover of darkness and return in the same manner? Can he not lay a few traps for the poachers as well as they can? Can he not guard a certain territory so faithfully that even though he does not apprehend a poacher, yet he will prevent the commission of their crimes?" Well, he can, but it is tiring.

Game wardens do take time off, but it is hard to tell where the work stops and the fun begins. Mazza is fond of sneaking up to the Museum of Natural History to study feathers. "I'll get something that sort of stumps me, a little breast feather that's old and tarnished. You compare it with bodies. You go up to the Museum of Natural History; they've got a lot of bodies up there, and you can nail it down. It's a great satisfaction." Laurel Van Camp, of Genoa, Ohio has banded and studied more than 35,000 birds in his time off; in Texas one warden has been carrying on a carcass-temperature study to help wardens determine how long a deer has been dead. A former Pennsylvania warden raised angelfish, sold them all over the country, and kept a boa constrictor in his cellar. Several men in Wyoming are engaged in a wildlife hair and fur study. And in Louisiana, Dewey Farrar takes people out to look at deer. "You have people who never saw a deer, and you like to take them out and show them. I'm around fish, looking at them all the time during fishing season, and the same with deer during hunting season. I don't care any more about killing game. You get to where you like it so well you wouldn't want to kill it."

Until the middle of the 19th century all criminal law in this country, including what game laws there were, was enforced by sheriffs, constables and the police. By about the 1860s, game laws in many states had become more stringent, too complex to be handled by the local constabulary, and enforcement was put into the hands of special officials, generally called game wardens. The game warden in 1962 is often called a conservation officer, a wildlife protector, a wildlife manager—partly in recognition of the wider and subtler scope of his duties and partly, it has been explained, because the term "warden" carries with it some old and not reputable aura from the days when the job was a patronage handout and each new administration sent in a whole new team. In point of fact, no really disreputable aura ever firmly attached itself to wardens as a group, simply because the character of the men who have wanted this job has been too consistently and unassailably excellent. But then, as now, such men were hard to find.

In 1906 Fish and Game Commissioner John Woodard of Colorado observed in his annual report to the governor, "Good game wardens are hard to secure, as not everyone will make a good game warden, and politics should be left out of that part of the business. Generally, when you get a good game warden, he does not suit the politicians in his part of the state, and the Commissioner is asked to put in some man under pay as game warden in order to pay some political department. This is always detrimental to the protection of the game and fish of the state."

John Woodard didn't do it. The devotion of the fish-and-game protectors to protecting the fish and game has always been single-minded and complete, and utterly specific and literal. These annual reports by commissioners to the governors of their states always have arrived filled with detailed word on the number of every species offish and game, their well-being and what was being done to promote it; they contained dissertations on the beauty and usefulness of the fox squirrel and the pheasant and whether they had enough to eat; accounts of drainage systems put in with pipes of a new diameter; directions for the artificial raising of gamefish down to instructions (for the governor, seemingly) about stirring pans of fertilized eggs with a feather.

One wonders what the governors thought of them: lengthy, earnest, filled with detail and philosophy, breathing more passion than probably all the love letters mailed to the young ladies of the state in the same year. Did the governor of Georgia nod agreement when he read, "No more interesting question will come before the legislature than the subject of proper legislation for the oysters of this state"? Was the governor of Wyoming attentive through the report of his commissioner, W. H. Seebohm, which read, in part (and very small part): "Upon a recent visit to Jackson I bought 482 tons of hay ranging in price from $6 a ton to $8 a ton, to be fed to elk...this makes a total of 607 tons which will be available in case of emergency during the coming winter months. As stated above, the Biological Survey Department has purchased hay every year for the past three years, for the feeding of elk, but owing to a deal now pending between that department and Robt. E. Miller, for Mr. Miller's ranch, located near Jackson, which the department desires to purchase for a game refuge, no hay has been purchased by it for the feeding of elk during the coming winter and, therefore, I thought it advisable to purchase the hay while available, owing to the fact that the coming winter may be severe and require the feeding of elk." Seebohm also told the governor more than the governor could conceivably have wanted to know about moving the Wyoming elk around on sleighs—and it might compare with what John B. Lubbock of Texas confided to his governor about shipping carp around in barrels.

Every warden in history, of course, has not turned out true blue. The commission reports reveal a few incompetents, and there must be other non-Rover Boys like the Maryland warden who was convicted in 1959 and fined for shooting over a baited field. But as a New York warden has pointed out, slackness in a man, let alone dishonesty, shows up fast. "You can pinpoint an area where he doesn't do his job. Complaints pour into the main office in Albany. But a man doesn't do a bad job if he's interested, and you aren't in this if you're not interested."

The old fish-and-game protectors, like their modern counterparts, were not in business for the money. Americans are proud of their geographical inheritance. They go hunting and fishing and return to the cities restored and grateful. They take trips into their geographical inheritance, and sit down on it periodically. An American may look at the Grand Canyon, and tears come to his eyes—but this is an infatuation. The game warden loves the land to the extent of working for it those 12 hours a day. Go to Pennsylvania and watch him counting night crawlers in a bucket.