Low DFG staffing leads to poor enforcement

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Posted by on February 20, 2006 at 20:47:22:

The Central Coast is rich in wildlife, so state Fish and Game representatives weren't shocked by the possibility that six recently cited Nipomo and Arroyo Grande residents may have poached hundreds of animals.

They were just surprised that they caught them.

With a fleet of field wardens stretched woefully thin, wardens say they are “inefficiently” and “poorly” able to enforce environmental and wildlife regulations.

One study cited by a Fish and Game official estimated that the department catches only 2 percent of all criminal wildlife violations.

“Part of that is the sheer lack of officers out there,” said Lt. Liz Schwall of the Fish and Game enforcement division.

California Fish and Game only has about 200 field wardens on patrol throughout the state for poachers, illegal dumpers and other violators, according to the department - a 23 percent drop since the early 1990s.

Ninety other wardens are employed in administrative positions, bringing the total of wardens to about 290 - far lower than the 352 they are budgeted for.

With 159,000 square miles and over 1,000 miles of coastline, wardens say they are overwhelmed.

Todd Tognazzini, the warden who discovered the six suspected poachers who are due in court Tuesday, is one of just four field wardens patrolling San Luis Obispo County.

“At this level we don't have the time to do random patrols that catch these type of crimes,” Tognazzini said.

Santa Barbara County is stretched even thinner, with three field wardens and just one field warden on full-time patrol. The other wardens patrol when they aren't working specific operations, such as checking commercial fishing, said warden Jaime Dostal, who patrols North County.

Ventura County has one field warden.

“I've been working for the department since 1981. For me personally, I think it's the worst it's ever been,” said Lt. George Gross.

Dostal says he says he spends a large part of his day in the car criss-crossing the county rather than targeting his patrol.

“If you had a full staff, generally you'd be able to focus more on specific areas where you know violations are occurring as opposed to just driving long distances to answer a call,” Dostal said.

Officials say the staffing problem is partly a product of California's budget woes and partly due to the poor pay for wardens in comparison to other state law enforcement departments.

While Fish and Game wardens are recognized as peace officers and are required to have more educational training than police or California Highway Patrol, they receive significantly lower pay.

The starting pay for a Fish and Game warden is between $37,000 and $44,000, officials said. A CHP officer straight out of the academy earns approximately $50,000, a CHP spokesman said.

The stealthy nature of poaching and other violations further complicates enforcing state environmental and wildlife laws, area wardens said.

“There's very little science out there that measures how much poaching is going on,” Tognazzini said.

Officials believe the area is ripe for poachers due to the wealth of wildlife. It's also a popular spot for poachers to visit from the nearby Central Valley, Tognazzini said.

Fish and Game officers issued 13,890 total citations statewide in 2005, according to a representative. About 75 percent of annual citations are for sport fishing violations, Schwall said.

Steelhead, abalone, salmon and other fish are a prime prey as lakes and bodies of water warm up in the spring. Shellfish are commonly targeted during the winter low-tide months, wardens said.

About 20 percent of annual citations are for hunting violations. Wardens believe the top poached game locally are deer, wild pigs and wild turkey, with poachers commonly using illegal spotlighting, Tognazzini said.

The rest are for miscellaneous violations, including environmental infractions.

While plenty of poaching occurs on public land, Santa Ynez Valley rancher Fred Chamberlin said he spots five to six poachers on his property a year, but rarely calls authorities.

“There are two reasons our deer herd is not anywhere near where it was 50 years ago,” Chamberlin said. “One is mountain lions and the other is poaching.”

Citations not only enforce the law, but also feed county coffers, which receive half of the fine amounts generated in their borders. Santa Barbara County has averaged $13,258 in revenue between 2001 and 2004, according to county records.

Dostal estimates half of wardens' encounters with possible violators are tip-driven, the other are due to patrols. CalTIP, the hotline used to generate such calls, has received over 3,200 tips annually since 2002, said Schwall.

Tognazzini made the recent bust after following up on a tip that there was a heavy concentration of water fowl near a San Luis Obispo County Lake. The investigation, which started in January 2004, revealed that the men were stuffing the lake full of grain to lure prey, Tognazzini said.

It led to warrants being served and citations issued based on hundreds of animal carcasses inside the homes of the poaching suspects. Authorities found 292 doves, 47 ducks, 77 quail, 28 pheasants and a mountain lion, officials said.

The men reportedly lacked the appropriate hunting licenses.

The suspects were identified as Randal Paul Hermreck, 54, of Arroyo Grande; and William Benjamin Wineman, 53, Ernest Chris Wineman III, 54, and William Joshua Wineman, 24, all of Nipomo.

A 17-year-old from Nipomo and a 16-year-old from Arroyo Grande also were cited.

The men are scheduled to be in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Tuesday on charges associated with a Jan. 15 poaching arrest that preceded the more extensive Jan. 30 bust. The teens are set to be in county juvenile court Feb. 28.

Officials are still considering whether to pursue federal charges against the suspects.

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