New Look: Some Warden Teams Fit Conservation Mission, Others Expand Reach

Published on Wednesday, 15 January 2014 22:19 - Written by By Steve Knight Outdoor Writer

I am not sure I am comfortable with the new persona of Texas game wardens.

In recent months the department has announced a number of special teams within the Law Enforcement Division, and while some seem to easily fit into what most hunters, fishermen and landowners see as the mission of wardens there are others that are pushing wardens into a whole new arena.

I am guessing it is partly an effort to bring the Law Enforcement Division into the 21st Century, but there also seems to be something else as well. Maybe it is the lure of increased funding from the Texas Legislature to take on other tasks versus the relatively mundane chore of checking hunting and fishing licenses and bag limits.

Using wardens who volunteer for the special duties, in recent years the department has developed teams that dovetail into their game enforcement and water safety duties such as a search and rescue unit, an underwater search and recovery unit, a forensics reconstruction and mapping team that is able to re-enact boating and other accidents and a marine theft unit.

In the year since it was formed, for example, the marine theft unit has seized 61 boats and investigated 148 fraud cases. That is a good cause.

The agency has also formed a number of other teams and while some of their duties loosely fit within the scope of what wardens have traditionally done those seem to be almost secondary or lower of why the units were formed.

For example, there is the department’s so-called Texas Navy. A recent Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine story said wardens now maintain a fleet of 564 vessels. Most of those are the boats wardens use to patrol local lakes. There are also five gun boats with .30-caliber machine guns that aren’t for checking the bag limit of saltwater fishermen. In the article TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith said those were for the department’s roles in maintaining maritime security. In other words — a state navy.

Just guessing, but drug patrol and human smuggling are probably their chief duties.

There is also a new K-9 unit. A few wardens around the state have been given dogs that can and have been used for search and rescue, discovering illegally taken game or finding drugs.

Unfortunately, a video announcing the new unit focused entirely on their training at a Utah facility to find drugs. You had to listen closely to hear anything about lost hunters, campers or game violations.

What did jump out at most who saw the video is a warden’s statement that says, “Like it or not we are going to run into narcotics violations. They go hand in hand with hunting and fishing violations.”

Excuse me?

As were others I talked to, I was offended by that statement immediately. I have tried to chalk it up to the warden being someone unaccustomed to being in front of a camera and not getting his message across clearly because it can be taken two ways. I certainly hope the negative connotation isn’t the truth or the department view.

Probably the most disturbing thing, at least from the magazine article, is a picture of a warden dressed in full SWAT gear. This is certainly way off the grid for wildlife and fisheries conservation.

Change doesn’t come easy. I remember when wardens first traded their revolvers for Glocks. Wes Clogston, the local captain here at the time, jokingly referred to them as electric guns and said he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with all the extra bullets.

I was somewhere recently and saw two wardens, one dressed in the typical slacks uniform and the other in tactical pants. I have to admit, to me the tactical dress was alarming. It said I am here expecting trouble; not, I am here to protect the resources and make sure you have a safe and fun experience. Maybe someone younger would be less put off by it.

Yes, Texas game wardens are certified peace officers just like the local police, sheriff’s office or Department of Public Safety. In recent years the wardens have been required to do more police and border patrol duties. The department issued eight press releases last year on wardens being involved in drug cases. Several were huge shipments.

The issue here is that much of the division’s funding comes from hunting and fishing license and federal remimbursement for those sales. Of the division’s approximately $67.5 million budget, $59.5 comes from licenses or boat registration and titling.

TPWD Law Enforcement officials say conservation is still their primary goal, and that the new units just makes them better prepared as well as more ready to assist other agencies when needed.

I find that hard to do. To use a biblical explanation, no man can serve two masters.

Some border patrol jobs can look like conservation work, but one or the other is going to suffer.

What I know about Texas game wardens I learned from guys like Clogston, Jerry McRae, Larry Williford, Butch Shoop and J.C. Romines. They were around in a different era with different priorities.

While it is hard to imagine Texas needs another agency, maybe this is a time to start one and siphon off those wardens and others who don’t want to be just conservation officers, and return the warden corps to those who do.

And at the same time, it might also be time for the agency’s commissioners to review the code book to make certain game laws are in fact uniform and enforced the same statewide.

Have a comment or opinion on this story? Contact outdoor writer Steve Knight by email at outdoor@tylerpaper.com. Follow Steve Knight on Facebook at TylerPaper Outdoors and on Twitter @tyleroutdoor.