Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Conservation Law Enforcement: More Dangerous Than You Think

WCO David Grove
Earlier this month Wildlife Conservation Officer David Grove conducted a traffic stop of a suspected poacher just outside of the Gettysburg National Military Park. The poacher turned out to be a convicted felon who was determined not to return to jail. As Officer Grove placed handcuffs on the man a struggle ensued and the felon shot him several times, killing him. Officer Grove's murder made national news. After all, how often is a "game warden" killed, let alone gunned down, in the line of duty?

The answer is "too often." Of the five conservation officers killed so far this year, four have been killed by gunfire. In addition to Officer Grove, two rangers with the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and an officer with the U.S. Forest Service have been fatally shot.

Because most people live their lives without ever coming into contact with a conservation officer, it is easy to understand the misconceptions the general public has about their duties and the dangers they face. National Geographic's new program 'Wild Justice' does a wonderful job in profiling the extreme dangers that these protectors face. Of particular concern these days is the use of wildlands by cartels to harvest their marijuana crop. These cartels will stop at nothing to protect their crop - even if it means killing a law enforcement officer who stumbles across the grow.

Another major concern: Just about everyone a game warden encounters during hunting season is armed. The overwhelming majority of hunters are responsible, practice appropriate gun safety, and respect both the environment and authorities. But there are those irresponsible hunters, and even criminals like Officer Grove's killer, who are out there and pose a grave danger to officers and other hunters alike.

Officer Chris Upton
C/O James Spignesi
Officer Chris Upton, with the U.S. Forest Service, was fatally shot by a hunter who mistook him for a coyote while on patrol in Georgia earlier this year. In 1998, Conservation Officer James Spignesi, with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, was fatally shot by a poacher who claimed the shooting was an accident. What made Officer Spignesi's death all the more tragic, was that the shooter was an off duty corrections officer.

Whether they're enforcing hunting laws, fishing laws, protection conservation areas and natural resources, or investigating illegal wildlife trade, conservation officers and game wardens have an incredibly tough job. Their backup may be literally hours away. With high profile cases like the murder of Officer Grove bringing attention to the dangers, and programs like 'Wild Justice' promoting the profession in a positive way, my hope is that conservation officers will continue to be acknowledged, recognized, and thanked for the extremely important work they do every day and every night. And for those who few conservation officers and game wardens who never made it home from patrol, we will remember you always.

Since the first known deaths in 1886, 284 game wardens / conservation officers / natural resource officers from 65 different agencies have been killed in the line of duty. They will always be remembered.