Sunday, November 3, 2013

Number of Pennsylvania Conservation Officers Plummeting

By Bob Frye

Amil Zuzik, a deputy conservation officer with the
Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stands for a portrait
at Twin Lakes Park in Westmoreland County on
 Thursday, October 31, 2013
It ain't about the money.

Professional athletes say that all the time, even as they leave one team they profess to love for another offering a richer contract.

But it's true when it comes to Amil Zuzik.

He's worked at the same “job” for 38 years. He hasn't had a raise in a decade, yet he supplies and maintains most of his own equipment over that time, occasionally deals with criminals ranging from the guy who gets caught up in the moment to the serial offender. And he uses vacation time to get trained.

That's what it takes to be a deputy waterways conservation officer for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

“I started with the idea of wanting to be out there to protect the fish and wildlife. There are just not a lot of people out there to do it,” Zuzik said.

“I enjoy it. I enjoy getting out and talking to the guys you meet, the boating aspect of the job, the way it keeps me busy.”

There aren't many like him these days, though.

Deputies — whether with the Fish and Boat Commission or the Pennsylvania Game Commission — have long been counted on to help full-time officers enforce fish and game laws, track down poachers, collect dead deer from along the roads, investigate pollution cases, and speak to school children, civic groups and others about Pennsylvania's natural resources.
But they're disappearing.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission had about 1,900 deputy wildlife conservation officers on patrol statewide at its peak in the mid-1980s. This year it's got 364. Counting those expected to retire by year's end, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has about 100 deputies now, compared to a high of about 400 in the 1980s.

With the compliment of full-time officers largely unchanged since then — the Game Commission has 136 for the entire state when fully staffed, the Fish and Boat Commission 85 — the “thin green line” protecting Pennsylvania's natural resources is thinner than ever.

“When I was an officer in the field, I had two districts, and each of them took in about 350 square miles, which is about average. And I was it,” said Mike Reeder, now chief of the administration division in the Game Commission's bureau of wildlife protection.

“Especially during hunting seasons, you're getting calls from every which way. If you didn't have any deputies, a lot of those calls would go unanswered, a lot of wildlife crimes would go unsolved.”

The deputy force is an aging one, too.

“Most of the deputies we have in this region, I would say, average 50 years old. And it may be higher than that. That's just being conservative,” said Tom Qualters, chief of law enforcement for the Fish and Boat Commission's 10-county southwest region office, which is down from 100 deputies to 15, none in Washington or Armstrong counties.

“We're just not getting the interest from young people we once did.”

There are probably a lot of reasons for that.

Deputies are provided with uniforms and badges, but have to provide their own firearm, holster, belt and other “leather gear,” an investment of $700 or more. There's lots of training involved — in law, personal defense, public relations, fish and wildlife management, and more — that can take up to a week in some cases. They have to pass physical fitness and shooting tests annually. On patrol they often drive their own vehicles, burning their own gas.

For all of that, Fish and Boat deputies earn $65 for an eight-hour day, with the number of days they can work capped by an annual budget. Game deputies get $85 a day.

“We do expect a lot of out of them. And they don't get a lot in return,” said Corey Brichter, head of the Fish and Boat Commission's bureau of law enforcement.

“It probably comes out as a wash, what they spend on their own versus what we can pay them,” Qualters said.

That almost begs the question of why anyone would do it.

For Bill Hesse of the South Hills, the reasons are many. He's a deputy wildlife conservation officer for the Game Commission who's been on the job for just one year or so. He balances the job with working full time and being a husband and father to three children ages 9 to 13.

“In my opinion, for someone who has the same kind of interests that I and the other guys on the job do, hunting, fishing, conservation and the outdoors, it's just a great experience,” Hesse said.
“For me, when I started, I wasn't sure what to expect. But it's been so much more of a rich experience in many ways than I could have expected. I've made some good friends out of it.”
Whether the commissions' deputy programs have bottomed out is unknown. The number with the Game Commission, for example, has finally held steady for three years or so, but recruiting people is not getting easier.

“I don't know where the program is going,” Qualters said. “I'm not sure what the future holds, and I don't think anyone else does, either.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments will be moderated. Anyone may comment.