Crisis with low number of deputy wildlife conservation officers
Twenty years ago the Pennsylvania Game Commission had 250 deputy wildlife conservation officers in the northeast region. Today there are just 39.
There are several reasons for the drastic drop – one that has left some districts in the region without a single deputy. Time and money are the biggest factors, but the agency is hoping to overcome those odds and increase the deputy force.
It's not going to be easy.
A deputy receives an $80 per day stipend and a uniform. Everything else is on their own dime, and the start-up cost for a new deputy wildlife conservation officer – also known as a DWCO – could be as much as $1,000 for items such as a firearm, holster and radio.
A DWCO is also expected to use his or her own vehicle and gas, be on call day and night and complete a year of intensive training before he or she can join the law enforcement ranks.
It's a major commitment, but one that is vital and, despite the sacrifices, does carry some upside.
I spoke to Mark Rutowski, northeast region law enforcement supervisor this week about the program and he said being a DWCO is what gave him and many other commission conservation officers their start.
While being a deputy doesn't guauantee an eventual job as a full-time officer, it does give one a taste of what the job entails, along with valuable experience.
Even for those who aren't looking for a career as a wildlife conservation officer, being a deputy offers many perks, including working up close with wildlife and achieving the satisfaction of arresting a poacher.
Most importantly, the DWCOs play a crucial role in the success of the Game Commission's law enforcement efforts. Having several deputies on call gives the full-time conservation officer more eyes throughout his or her district, along with valuable backup in potentially dangerous situations such as a late-night vehicle stop.
Still, there has to be something missing, something not right when the DWCO ranks plummet from 250 to 39. Perhaps the solution is as simple as increasing the pay or providing more of the necessary equipment – a radio perhaps, to make becoming a deputy a little bit easier.
Something has to be done. When the agency has wildlife conservation officer covering their district alone, poachers get away, road hunters go unnoticed and violators slip under the radar.
Even worse, a job that already has an element of danger is a lot less safe without a deputy serving as backup.