We hunters post a lot of dumb stuff on this site, but this ranks among the most ridiculous I have seen.
The following essay is an excerpt from my labor of love (a book) “Whitetail Widow - A Guide to Understanding the Heart and Soul of a Deer Hunter.” The discussion appears to be relevant in consideration of recent events.
The community of law enforcement has many elements (local, state, and federal) including PGC game wardens. I remain somewhat confused with the recent name change back to “Game Warden” while attempting to present a kinder gentler law enforcement agency. The PGC claims the new “Game Wardens” are now instructed to write the same number of warnings as citations.
Your thoughts are welcome.
The Hunter and The Law
“The guilty doth protest too much.”
Given hunting laws are so expansive and often bewildering, every hunter is most likely guilty of something creating an atmosphere of immediate suspicion between a hunter and a game warden. When a game warden encounters a hunter, he assumes the hunter is guilty of some violation. Similarly, upon meeting any game warden, every hunter assumes the game warden is out to arrest him.
The natural rivalry between hunters and game wardens adds an additional element of competition. As hunters push the envelope to acquire an advantage over the white-tailed deer, the game warden pushes the envelope to gain an advantage over hunters. The opposing roles result in the contest of wits, each attempting to outsmart the other. In other words, hunters are hunting deer while game wardens are hunting hunters, a sport within a sport.
A hunter’s voluntary participation in a highly regulated activity does not suggest his acceptance of authority. Disputes with officials are a normal aspect of every sport.
History of Law Enforcement
We are a society of rules and laws. The breaking of any rule or law triggers the potential of a penalty. Violations are investigated by law enforcement and prosecuted by the judicial system. Upon conviction, a penalty may be imposed such as a fine, suspension, revocation, or imprisonment.
The enforcement of the rules and laws for deer hunting has a unique and interesting history. Unlike most sports with the physical presence of an umpire, referee, or official to immediately impose a penalty, deer hunting is governed by the intermittent observation by wildlife conservation officers (or game wardens). There should be no surprise, the society of hunters (like our society in general) has a few people who elect not to follow all the rules.
The odds are really stacked against a hunter. The growing arsenal of restrictive laws combined with low success rates may tempt a hunter to occasionally bend the rules. Besides, white-tailed deer do not obey the rules of fair chase when taking refuge on private property.
Although every hunter cannot be continuously watched by a game warden, there are dozens of fellow hunters listening and watching. Ethical hunters have a strong tradition (many view as an obligation) of self-policing by reporting poachers and safety violations. Poachers are universally despised as they steal deer from all of us and give all hunters a bad name. The presence of other hunters in the field serves as a deterrent to illegal activity. Several states sponsor programs to reward residents for reporting wildlife crimes.
Hunting, justly or unjustly, is frequently believed to be associated with illegal activity. Surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found over 70 percent of the public, while supporting hunting, believe most hunters break hunting laws. The breaking of any hunting rule or law is often equated with a risk of serious injury to the public. [Duda, M. D., S. J. Bissell, and K. C. Young, 1995, “Factors related to hunting and fishing participation in the United States”, Phase V: Final Report, Federal Aid in Sport Fish and Wildlife Restoration Grant Agreement 14-48-0009-92-1252.]
Although the blanket generalization may be fundamentally unfair, the actual issue involves the distinction between legitimate hunting laws and silly rules. Psychologists suggest nine out of ten individuals will ignore (or break) a silly rule given the likelihood of punishment is small.
Hunting laws enacted to ensure the safety of the public and other hunters are nearly universally accepted. The overwhelming majority of hunters obey all safety laws. Likewise, the vast majority accept laws establishing hunting seasons and bag limits to protect the resource from overharvest.
In contrast, new hunting laws enacted to prohibit a previously lawful technique to restrict hunters from exploiting the behavior of game animals, or enacted to reduce the impact on the ecosystem may be rejected as an attempt to hassle hunters. Most deer hunters view these laws as inconveniences created to stump companions at deer camp in a game of trivia.
Nonetheless, unproven rumors of widespread poaching (the illegal hunting of deer) are readily believed despite evidence to the contrary. In distant decades, the illegal deer harvest often exceeded the legal harvest. Poaching is less accepted in most communities today with notable exceptions. Poaching remains a challenge, but not the same problem as in the past.
Perspective of a Game Warden
Simply stated in the eyes of a game warden, the hunter’s role is to obey and a game warden’s role is to enforce the rules of the sport.
While several state wildlife agencies have attempted to soften the game warden image by changing the name to Wildlife Conservation Officer; however, the job description remains the same - to issue the maximum number of citations. The enforcement of laws, not wildlife management, is the game warden’s profession.
The competition for selection as a Wildlife Conservation Officer is very competitive. There are several hundred applicants for every job opening, many with advanced degrees and extensive field experience. Most view the position as the ideal vocation, a lifetime vacation in the woods. Likewise, the competition for future promotions within the agency is equally competitive.
A number of state wildlife agencies establish enforcement goals (otherwise known as quotas) as a minimal standard of performance. Consistent success in achieving the established quota is a prerequisite for promotion to management positions. Groups of game wardens from different regions of the state often compete to write the most citations. The competition to be the best game warden (one with the largest number of arrests) encourages aggressive and often an absurd interpretation of hunting laws.
The enforcement of legitimate hunting laws may be as outrageous as the enforcement of silly hunting laws. Game wardens are notorious for parlaying one event into multiple citations to pad their numbers. As an example, one game warden boasts he can legally write over a dozen different citations for possessing a weapon while spotlighting deer from a vehicle, including:
Hunting out of season
Hunting from a vehicle
Hunting with the assistance of an artificial light
Hunting in a safety zone
Hunting in a park
Trespassing in a park after sunset
Hunting without a license
Possession of a weapon while spotlighting
Possession of a loaded weapon in a vehicle
Dangerous handling of a weapon
Hunting without fluorescent orange
Hunting without a crossbow permit
Assisting others in ..…
Discharging a weapon while …..
The current record for game citations occurred in Pennsylvania in 2006 when a game warden charged a hunting preserve with 2,318 different violations resulting in fines in excess of 16 million dollars. [Pennsylvania Game Commission Press Release #017-06 of 17 February 2006.]
A variety of new technologies provide the game warden an arsenal of investigative tools, including: InfraRed (IR) cameras, deer decoys, and advancements in forensics. DNA analysis can match the venison in a freezer with a gut pile in the woods. IR cameras can watch objects on a dark night. Forensic tests can determine the time of death within a few hours.
The deer decoy, a three dimensional (3D) life-size deer replica, is an effective law enforcement tool in states where shooting from a vehicle or road is illegal. The decoy is placed in an open area visible from the road with the game warden hiding nearby. Advanced models are designed with lifelike head and tail movements, and can fall over after a shot to simulate a lethal hit. The decoy is normally antlered, although not always. Different antlers may be used at various times.
Not every encounter with a deer decoy results in a citation. A young hunter may legally practice his stalking skills by sneaking up on a decoy. The realistic appearance may cause other observers to stop and watch. Stationary deer decoys make excellent photographic models.
Game wardens have affectionate names for their deer decoy, such as Robo-Deer, Bucky, or Arnold (takes a lot of hits and keeps going). Several states have expanded the use of decoys to include turkey, fox, raccoon, pheasant, and other game animals.
In the early years, the decoys were fitted with huge trophy racks, difficult for any hunter to pass up. Today, a number of states restrict the use of deer decoys to ensure normally law abiding hunters avoid entrapment by limiting the size of antlers or by restricting the use of decoys to nighttime hours.
Resuming the discussion regarding the difference of perspectives between hunters and game wardens, in many states well over half the game wardens have not experienced the joys of hunting with family and friends, or the rewards of a successful harvest. Even for game wardens with hunting experience, the perception of hunters may be tainted by their exposure to poachers.
A short true story to illustrate the point:
A few years ago, a young officer from the U.S. Forest Service, with no hunting experience, was assigned to a managed hunt on a military base. The rules required each successful hunter to attach a special field tag prior to transporting the deer to the check station where the field tag would be exchanged for a possession tag.
The field tag for the managed hunt caused considerable confusion as it was different than the tag issued with the state’s hunting license. Further causing confusion, other managed hunts in the state did not require any special field tag to transport a deer to the check station. After several violations, the young officer stated the next person to bring in an improperly tagged deer would be fined and would forfeit the deer.
A few days later, an enthusiastic hunter in his late twenties (with only three years of experience) shot his first deer. In his excitement, he failed to properly field tag the deer. Upon transporting the deer to the check station, the young officer informed the hunter he would be fined for not properly tagging the deer and the deer would have to be confiscated. However, the young officer would show leniency and waive the fine, but the deer would still have to be confiscated.
After hours of debate with the officials of the managed hunt, other hunters, and two phone calls from the hunter’s wife, the young officer refused to reverse his position. Consequently, the hunter tore up his permit and vowed never to return.
Unfortunately, the hostility between hunters and game wardens may increase in the future, as new game wardens without exposure to the joys of hunting assume positions of authority. The trend is likely to continue as the job requirements of a game warden, with long hours during hunting season, conflict with the hunting schedule of an avid deer hunter. A game warden may simply be too busy to hunt.
The great majority of game wardens are champions of hunting ethics, whether or not they have any practical experience. In fairness, not all game wardens are hostile to hunters. As the family of hunters are unfairly tainted by the behavior of poachers, the reputation of game wardens are tainted by the behavior of a few power-consumed individuals, who actually enjoy arresting a young hunter when the antlers of his first antlered buck are one-sixteenth of an inch short of the minimum length.
Sportsmen generally favor strong law enforcement programs to deter poachers, although a healthy debate persists over the benefit-to-cost ratio. The typical law enforcement program returns about 10 cents in fines for every dollar in expenses. With the changes in the dynamics of the hunting population as baby boomers pass through their prime hunting years, the support for strong law enforcement programs may diminish. With the changing demographics, a number of organizations propose shifting money from law enforcement to other programs of benefit to wildlife, such as habitat construction and preservation. A proper balance between law enforcement and wildlife management needs to be achieved. The simplistic argument by wildlife managers to simply add estimates of illegal kills and non-recovery losses to harvest data is not a valid scientific technique.
The benefit-to-cost ratio presents game wardens a self-destructive dilemma. If they increase the number of citations to lower the net cost to state wildlife agencies, a higher number of hunters, who feel harassed by game wardens, may quit hunting resulting in additional revenue shortfalls. For many state wildlife agencies, the damage has already been done. Nonetheless, the majority of game wardens fail to understand the direct correlation between their future income and their present (and past) behavior toward hunters. In most states, the revenue from hunting licenses directly supports the salaries of game wardens. In essence, they are biting the hand that feeds their family.
On the other hand, the relationship between a game warden and a hunter may be different if game wardens approached each encounter with a different attitude. Instead of the standard initial greeting, “Let me see your license.” the game warden could inquire, “Did you see anything?” and then engage the hunter in a respectful discussion. The game warden may offer the sighting of a large buck a few weeks ago, and state he is not aware any hunter got him. Then the game warden may ask, “May I see your license?”
The interaction can be positive and leave both parties delighted to have met. Given hunting can be a lonely sport, the hunter would likely welcome a pleasant conversation concerning the sport he loves. Although the game warden likely meets dozens of hunters in a day (and some may not be as pleasant), he must be able to set aside the last interaction and greet the next interaction with a sense of positive engagement reflecting a similar love for his chosen profession. An engagement with a junior hunter is particularly important as any unpleasant interaction could scar respect for the profession for the lifetime of the junior hunter.