Wildlife needs more protection, not less

Posted: Tuesday, August 12, 2003

The article that appeared in Alaska Magazine in August of 1985 was right on. "They, Alaska's game wardens, should be put on an endangered species list," it said. Why? Because they are going if not already gone.

From statehood to 1972 Fish and Wildlife officers were within the Department of Fish and Game and allowed to work the number of hours it took to do the job. Over 60-hour weeks were common. No overtime, no comp time. Hours were worked because that's what it took to do the job.

In about 1972, collective bargaining (union) came to be. Hours were restricted; overtime had to be approved prior to being worked.

The Fish and Wildlife officers at that time felt that the flexibility of the job was being restricted and voiced a concern through a newly formed Fish and Wildlife Officer Association. With the lack of flexibility, how do you stop in the middle of a fish and wildlife investigation because of the clock?

In May of 1972, then Gov. Bill Egan transferred the Division of Fish and Wildlife Protection out of the Department of Fish and Game into the Department of Public Safety.

At the time, I felt this transfer was the best thing that ever happened to the division, but, as time went on, I realized our primary duty of protecting the state's fish and wildlife resources was being diluted with public safety duties. Fish and Wildlife officers were being assigned duties normally performed by Alaska State Troopers; in other words, transporting prisoners, doing traffic enforcement, performing vehicle inspections, etc.

Our titles were changed from "officer" to "trooper," our badges were changed from "officer" to "trooper," and our vehicles' color was changed to match the troopers. The fish and wildlife subjects that were given to the Fish and Wildlife officers at the Public Safety Academy in Sitka were eliminated from the curriculum.

Now, since a Fish and Wildlife officer's duties are considered menial and seasonal, they will be used "for additional law enforcement duties during downtime between hunting and fishing seasons," per Public Safety Commissioner William Tandeske.

Downtime? What downtime? Fish and Wildlife officers need to be on duty more during the closed seasons than during the open seasons.

Gov. Frank Murkowski's post-transition team noted that the trooper morale was down. Will changing their uniforms from brown to blue pick up morale with the Fish and Wildlife officers?

Oh, I forgot, by changing some 86 officers' uniform color from brown to blue, they are going to save the state money!

If changing of the uniform colors and the elimination of a distinct Fish and Wildlife enforcement division is so great why haven't more states done so? (I could find only one, Oregon). If the color is not important, why do all of our military service people wear different uniforms? Why do the state troopers were a different uniform than city police officers? Why do federal officers wear a different uniform from the state? We would sure save some big bucks if all enforcement wore the same uniform.

A Fish and Wildlife officer's job is to protect the state fish and wildlife resources by preventing the violations. Officers need to be seen by the public, thereby presenting an omnipresence. Issuing tickets is secondary. If officers are out there chasing tail lights on vehicles, who is being shortchanged?

What good is there in having a Department of Fish and Game with some 300-plus employees and biologists proposing bag limits and seasons, a Board of Fisheries and a Board of Game if there is only a diluted fish and wildlife enforcement effort?

Many have said law enforcement is law enforcement; it's all the same. Bull.

The person applying to the state trooper division does so because that's where his interest lies, if he wanted to be a fish and game wildlife officer, he would apply to that division (if there was one).

Merging the two is not right for the troopers, officers or the fish and wildlife resources.

I am all for the safety of the public and assisted many troopers before and after the division transfer. But how about the state's fish and wildlife resources, are they not important?

I believe our fish and wildlife resources are the most valuable resource that we have. People do not come here to see oil flow in a pipeline. They come to see wildlife, to fish or to hunt.

With a percent of 1 percent of the state's total budget and 86 officers today, who do you think is getting the short end of the stick? Particularly if more duties are added to an already overburdened Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Like Col. Joe Hard said, he couldn't support what was happening to the Fish and Wildlife Division and got out. I, too, got out for the same reasons.

Alaskans, don't let this happen to your fish and wildlife resources, they need more protection not less.

Lt. Col. Don Tetzlaff is a retired fish and wildlife officer who lives in Anchor Point. He served in the division from 1963 to 1986.

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