Georgia hunters in fight about game wardens

mlee@macon.comMay 21, 2013 

David Waller, former head of wildlife management at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said a proposed change to law enforcement in the department would leave game poorly managed and protected.

ATLANTA -- A proposed reorganization of law enforcement duties in Georgia’s state parks and wildlife habitats would result in a single, efficient chain of command, the Department of Natural Resources says. Some hunters and others worry, however, that the change would result in public areas open to illegal hunters and crooks.

Wildlife technicians -- all-purpose staff at Georgia’s Wildlife Management Areas and Public Fishing Areas -- would shed their law enforcement duties, and the state would shed the cost of their certifications a under a five-year DNR plan to create an agencywide Law Enforcement Division. That division would police crimes related to wildlife, such as poaching or taking endangered species, as well as public safety crimes that happen on DNR properties, such as drug possession.

“It’s a chain-of-command change, so they all answer to one colonel. ... But we don’t have any intention of reducing numbers,” DNR Commissioner Mark Williams said after a Tuesday DNR board meeting where the plan was formally introduced.

But a hunters group says DNR properties would essentially lose 86 law enforcement officers if technicians can no longer issue citations, file charges or make arrests. That argument comes from the Georgia Wildlife Federation. Its CEO, Todd Holbrook, who until last year was a DNR deputy director, called on the board to delay action on the rule and formally solicit comments from the hunting, fishing, and park-visitor communities.

He made similar points in an open letter to the board that was co-signed by Trout Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Quality Deer Management Association.

They want a plan that assures “taking time and/or money from hunting and fishing activities won’t be the mechanism that pays for enforcement on state parks,” Holbrook said at the board meeting. It’s hunting and fishing licenses that pay for game protection and conservation.

David Waller, a retired DNR Wildlife Resources Division director, testified against the plan at the meeting. He said a separate Law Enforcement Division would focus on high-profile offenses such as drug busts, not poaching.

Other law enforcement agencies such as sheriffs and the state patrol deal with public safety, he said, but “we’re the only people that are in wildlife resources. ... If we go to a separate division, they won’t have anybody doing that.”

For certain crimes such as murder, DNR law enforcement calls in more specially trained colleagues, such as sheriff’s investigators.

Williams said he “categorically” disagrees with charges that poachers or other crooks could go uncaught.

“We intend to have complete coverage over the state of Georgia to protect all our resources: cultural, natural and wildlife,” Williams said, adding that the agency does not foresee any reduction in numbers or coverage.

The board is scheduled to vote on the change at its June 25 meeting in Statesboro.

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