Wolf Song of Alaska News

Number of Wildlife Officers Thinning in Alaska

Smaller Herd: State boards' requests for help get a no from commissioner.

Alex deMarban / Anchorage Daily News / April 19, 2006

State wildlife enforcement officers, increasingly pressed into service as patrol troopers, are chasing down domestic violence offenders, transporting prisoners and busting speeders.

They're also spending less time enforcing fish and wildlife laws, members of the state Board of Fisheries and Board of Game say.

The boards want the double duty cut back because, they say, it could mean the state's caribou, moose and salmon aren't being adequately protected.

In a unanimous resolution passed last month, they asked the Legislature and the governor to give the program an additional $18 million.

They also want the Department of Public Safety Commissioner Bill Tandeske to consider re-establishing a separate division for the state's 71 wildlife enforcement officers.

The governor isn't asking the Legislature to spend the money, said his spokeswoman, Becky Hultberg. Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks and co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he's seen no move in the Legislature to grant the request.

And Tandeske's response? In a word: No.

Tandeske merged the Division of Fish and Wildlife Protection with the Alaska State Troopers in 2003 to improve communication, reduce administrative costs and help relieve the understaffed trooper division. Fish and wildlife protection officers have the same basic training as state troopers and the same police powers.

Tandeske's decision combined the so-called brown-shirt officers who guarded fields and streams with blue shirts who patrol towns and highways.

While wildlife enforcement may be falling in some areas, Tandeske said, it's largely because retirements have thinned the ranks of the state's fish and wildlife troopers.

And they aren't being pulled away from their fish and game duties, the commissioner said. They assist patrol troopers only during off-seasons.

The teamwork is bringing dangerous lawbreakers to justice, he said. Wildlife troopers, for example, recently helped their patrol counterparts near Fairbanks nab 22 domestic-violence offenders who had outstanding warrants.

"It didn't cost the state any more money," Tandeske said. "How is this a bad thing?"

But the statistics, and the complaints from around the state by hunters and fishermen, paint a picture of wildlife officers with less time to enforce fish and game laws, said resolution author and game board member Ron Somerville of Juneau.

The time wildlife officers spend helping patrol troopers has more than doubled since the merger, according to statistics provided as raw data by the troopers and crunched by board support staff.

Contacts -- interaction with the public -- are down 20 percent. Wildlife officers issue 8 percent fewer warnings.

Investigative work such as high-seas stings and of big poaching operations also fell sharply. That work once brought lots of money in commercial fines to the Department of Fish and Game from wildlife convictions. The contribution has fallen from $1.1 million in 1990 to $51,000 in 2005, the data shows.

The head of the wildlife troopers, Steven Arlow, wouldn't discuss the boards' statistics but offered other evidence that enforcement hasn't suffered. The number of warnings and tickets issued by wildlife troopers has increased in some areas, he said. That includes commercial crab fisheries and key hunting categories, he said.

The wildlife troopers have become more efficient, he said.

But law enforcement has clearly suffered in other areas, said Board of Fisheries chairman Art Nelson of Anchorage. The shortage of wildlife troopers is especially acute in rural Alaska, where they help patrol troopers challenged by long distances and small trooper posts.

Enforcement has fallen in Northwest Alaska as caribou and moose hunting has escalated, said Mayor Ross Schaeffer of the Kotzebue-based Northwest Arctic Borough.

The wildlife trooper based in Kotzebue before the merger hasn't been replaced, he said. Now, one is sent up for two weeks to cover fall hunting seasons that last two months.

Schaeffer said he's seen illegal same-day airborne hunts, out-of-season harvests and plenty of wasted meat.

Wildlife troopers in Fairbanks are on call for the game unit around Kotzebue, Arlow said. The unit, one of the state's largest, extends from the Kotzebue Sound to Cape Lisburne.

The shortage in game police has made it difficult to put wildlife officers in many areas of the state, Arlow said. Yakutat also has a vacant post.

The $12 million program is authorized for 83 officers but has 12 vacancies.

Those numbers will improve soon, Tandeske said. Ramped-up recruitment efforts will put 24 new troopers on the ground in May. That will free other troopers to become wildlife officers.

That system is part of the problem, Somerville said. The state doesn't recruit fish and game police like it did before the merger. It hires troopers first and gives them the option of becoming wildlife officers. As a result, you can't apply to become a wildlife trooper.

The state had as many as 110 troopers in the 1980s, he said.

And while wildlife officers are trained to help patrol troopers, patrol troopers aren't cross-trained to do fish and wildlife work, he said.

That won't change either, Tandeske said. He wants troopers solving murders and stopping rapes. And he wants his wildlife officers to become patrol troopers first so they have a broad public-service mind-set.

A lifelong trooper who came out of retirement to lead the department in 2002, Tandeske said the troopers have solved every murder for the last three years. He can't remember the last time that happened.

As more patrol troopers opt to become wildlife troopers in the future, the public will get more law enforcement everywhere, he said.

Somerville said he hopes the commissioner is right.

Daily News reporter Alex deMarban can be reached at ademarban@adn.com or 257-4310.

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