Enforcing the Laws of Wildlife and Recreation (Part One)

By Kenneth J. Peak, Ph.D.
Photo by California Department of Fish and Wildlife, of a wildlife officer in uniform sitting on his horse

California Department of Fish and Wildlife Photo

Americans love to hunt, fish, and spend time in nature. Each year, over 90 million U.S. residents age 16 years and older participate in such activities. About 33.1 million fish, 13.7 million hunt, and 71.8 million participate in at least one type of wildlife watching pursuit, such as observing, feeding, and photographing animals.1 These recreationists spend around $144.7 billion on their hobbies, which supports approximately 680,000 jobs connected with hunting and fishing.2

For centuries, the passion and costs for such outdoor recreation have resulted in a need to control the related crime and disorder and to protect nature’s resources. However, while policing literature abounds with information regarding federal, state, and local law enforcement agents, comparatively little writing exists about the role of modern-day wildlife and conservation officers.3 Perhaps researchers and the general public wrongly perceive that these special-purpose agencies deal with less serious offenses or matters unrelated to “real” crime and policing.

This gap in the literature is unfortunate for two reasons. One, these members of the criminal justice system perform a vital function. Two, more attention should focus on officers operating in rural areas because 48 percent of the nation’s policing occurs in environs where agencies employ fewer than 10 sworn personnel.4

This qualitative analysis will contribute to that literature and expand knowledge about the practices and challenges of conservation officers. Americans need to understand these personnel and their agencies because the increase in discretionary time over several decades has led to additional pressure on the management of wildlife and other natural resources.5 To fully explore this topic, the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin presents this article in two parts. The first concentrates on legal authority, general duties, forensic examinations, field investigations, inherent dangers, and use of force by and against these personnel.

Dr. Kenneth J. Peak

Dr. Peak is a professor emeritus in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Download Officer Titles, Agencies, and Salaries.pdf — 134 KB

Legal Authority

Although the legal authority of wildlife officers can vary somewhat among locales, a discernible pattern exists. Some states, like Illinois, give these personnel full power as state police or peace officers, allowing them to engage in any law enforcement activity.6 Other states, such as Missouri, grant less expansive authority, especially regarding arrests without a warrant for misdemeanors committed outside the presence of police personnel.7


Cross-deputization with other jurisdictions also commonly provides legal authority when necessary. For example, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management says, “Along with their responsibilities to enforce state environmental laws, officers are cross-deputized by such agencies as the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service], National Marine Fisheries Service, and U.S. Customs Service to assist in enforcing each agency’s laws within the state.”8

Regarding burden of proof, individuals who violate wildlife laws may receive citations because these constitute “strict liability” offenses. In these situations, the conservation officer generally has to show that someone engaged in an act and does not need to prove the person’s intent. However, some officers presumably exercise personal discretion and offer leniency to individuals who committed an offense due to an honest mistake or genuine ignorance of the law.9


Full-Service Enforcement

The growing U.S. population and its increasing passion for outdoor activities necessitated considerable organizational change within state wildlife management agencies. As a result, the role of conservation police generally expanded beyond the enforcement of fishing, boating, and wildlife regulations.10 Also, beginning in the 1980s, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, and off-road driving emerged as popular recreational activities, taking more people into remote areas.

Accordingly, wildlife officers largely became full-service law enforcers. Their typical duties now have expanded.

  • Protecting natural resources from persons who illegally harvest wildlife and fish; damage waterways and land; or disregard environmental laws, rules, and regulations
  • Patrolling during hunting and fishing seasons, examining licenses, and ensuring compliance with possession limits (this includes commercial fishing enterprises)
  • Delivering hunter, angler, and water safety training
  • Conducting firearms and boating safety educational programs
  • Teaching the public about natural resources
  • Enforcing state vehicle codes and snowmobile laws
  • Assisting other police and law enforcement agencies
  • Capturing criminal suspects, including escaped convicts
  • Searching for missing persons
  • Enforcing environmental laws
  • Offering various other support services, such as rendering aid as first responders to wilderness accidents11

Further, conservation officers may run radar at a state park; help a municipal, county, or state officer enforce criminal law; serve on a federal or state task force; or support a city or county search and rescue team.12

“Wildlife officers…constitute a necessary part of policing, acting in their traditional roles and also providing other law enforcement services.”


Enforcing boating laws and conducting related investigations comprises about 57.5 percent of wildlife officers’ activities. Such efforts include responding to accidents, performing safety checks, investigating alcohol-related incidents, and attending educational meetings.13

People may consider boating enforcement benign, with officers encountering people happily skiing and fishing without violating any statutes. However, recreational boaters can behave rudely, aggressively, and recklessly, perhaps after drinking.14

Hunting and Fishing

Hunting and fishing enforcement—seen by many people as the traditional roles of conservation officers—also comprise common activities. Officers often issue a higher number of citations for fishing violations (e.g., no license; above the catch limit; or improper methods, such as fireworks or, in some states, trotlines) because they contact anglers more frequently than hunters.15

They also conduct other enforcement activities related to hunting and fishing. These focus on alcohol-related incidents, traffic offenses, drug use, outstanding warrants, firearms violations, theft, trespassing, littering, and stolen vehicles.16

Unlawful Trapping

Setting traps in states that forbid the practice constitutes a major means of poaching. Wildlife officers learn the unique habits of particular perpetrators to catch them in the act.17

Officers consider the trap’s placement on the ground and its location. They look for tire tracks, boot prints, and other identifying characteristics pertaining to where and how the violator set the trap. Some individuals make a distinct modification, such as welding on additional parts or moving the location of where the chain attaches, to attain better function or do less harm to animals.18

Trappers also employ their own visual attractors (e.g., tin foil, shiny object, or spinning device). Further, they may use a piece of laminate, an asphalt shingle, or something unique to cover the panel, or where the animal steps. What they attach the trap to—a rock or branch, for instance—also can be a signature. These individuals tend to use what has worked for them in the past.19

Report Writing

Wildlife officers face a unique challenge in one important area—report writing. Where state law makes the illegal taking of an animal a felony, the depth and breadth of report writing increases tremendously because courts may challenge such cases. These officers have an inherent need to educate prosecutors and judges about conservation laws and their enforcement. They often include attachments to their reports explaining officers’ authority in certain cases, the violations involved, and other considerations.20

Forensic Examinations


Forensic examinations related to nature-related crimes can become much more complicated than, say, determining if someone harvested game out of season or obtained a piece of fur from an endangered animal. Wildlife forensics involves a variety of evidence.

Cases can center, for instance, on boots made from the hides of endangered sea turtles; shipments of elephant tusks, coral jewelry, or shark fins; trophy elk; oil-soaked birds; wild ginseng; or blood from a dog fighting pit. In instances of seafood fraud, evidence can consist of a vessel of frozen fish.21

In addition, examinations may focus on distinguishing if a piece of leather on a watchband came from a protected animal, like an elephant or a zebra.22 Obviously, wildlife forensic laboratories must apply numerous scientific techniques when inspecting nonhuman biological evidence.


Conservation officers have only one comprehensive forensic laboratory available to them in the United States. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, established in 1985, claims to be “the only lab in the world dedicated to crimes against wildlife.”23

It serves wildlife enforcement agencies in all 50 states. In a given year, the laboratory conducts more than 400 full-service investigations, examines as many as 3,000 items of evidence, and handles several hundred requests for the identification of animal parts or products in photos submitted by special agents to confirm probable cause for seizure.24 Among its objectives, the laboratory helps conservation officers determine violations of law, as well as identify and compare physical evidence to link suspect, victim, and crime scene.25

Additionally, the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, located in Charleston, South Carolina, has the only laboratory in the United States dedicated to the forensic analysis of marine species.26 Further, eleven states—Alaska, California, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming—maintain forensic laboratories that provide analytical services and expert witness testimony related to wildlife crimes. These entities often conduct tests involving ballistics and DNA.27

Field Investigations

When performing field investigations, conservation officers work in both patrol and investigative capacities. They often do their own work in identifying bullets and performing necropsies to establish cause of death by using such indicators as pupil dilation, carcass temperature, response to electrical stimuli, and death odor. Officers also employ metal detectors to look for bullets after finding a poached animal.28

Boating accident reconstruction involves special investigative prowess. Officers must consider possible contributing factors during their investigations.

  • Alcohol or drug use—substance abuse by the operator or passengers
  • Congested or hazardous waters—a small or narrow body of water or one with dangerous currents or rapids
  • Equipment failure—faulty appliance, generator, battery charger, communications equipment, fire extinguisher, mast, GPS or radar, onboard lighting, electrical component, engine, or navigational equipment
  • Excessive speed or failure to yield, incorrect anchoring, improper lookout (for other vessels, persons, or objects), or distractions (eating or drinking)29

“Although the legal authority of wildlife officers can vary somewhat among locales, a discernible pattern exists”

Patrol Dangers

The work of wildlife officers differs from that of other police personnel because of its isolated nature, often dangerously far away from backup. During the course of their duties, they may, for instance, pursue hunters at night; face dangerous criminals; encounter agitated animals; and endure hardships involving weather, insects, and snakes.30

Because they face high levels of danger and isolation when performing their duties, conservation officers work in an environment “as dangerous as…the inner city.”31 In fact, 284 such personnel from 65 different agencies have been killed in the line of duty since 1886.32

While municipal and county police likely disarm anyone they find carrying a weapon, wildlife officers must respect lawful hunters’ right to possess loaded guns. Thus, if an encounter escalates to anger, altercation, or violence, weapons remain more available to adversaries. Officers must practice basic police survival techniques, such as using effective verbal skills and remaining cognizant of their body positioning.33

One researcher compared the dangers faced by wildlife agents with those of other police. Assaulted wardens were alone one-and-a-half times more often and three times more likely to face assault with a weapon. Wildlife officers encountered assaults with a firearm or cutting object seven times more frequently than other police and suffered injury from an assault more than twice as often. They confront individuals who are violent, armed, and perhaps under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.34

To illustrate the inherent danger of the occupation and to prepare persons wishing to work in this field, one agency issued a cautionary note: “Before pursuing this career path, candidates should consider both the attraction of working outdoors as well as the inherent dangers of the profession.”35 This blunt warning may make prospective and new wildlife officers more aware of the security risks, hence, reducing the fear of isolation and danger. Similarly, another agency noted that “Duties involve an element of personal danger due to the nature of law enforcement work.”36

One aspect of the job that may prove hazardous and should command officers’ close attention involves encountering marijuana grows. Cartels will stop at nothing to protect their crop—this may mean killing an officer who stumbles upon it.37 Wildlife officers generally do not look for grows, but they will assist state and local officers if requested.

Use of Force

Limited research exists regarding wildlife officers’ involvement in use of force situations. One study compared the force used by and against those in the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries with that of other sworn officers in the state.38

  • When issuing citations conservation officers used force eight times more than other sworn police.
  • The most dangerous situations for assault on wildlife officers occurred during arrest attempts and assistance to other police; these incidents composed two-thirds of the total. About 8 in 10 transpired when the conservation officer initiated physical contact subsequent to the offender’s repeated noncompliance with verbal commands, abusive and insulting language, obstruction of justice, or resistance to arrest.
  • Most assaults involved a lone assailant and single officer.
  • Assailants were reported as under the influence of alcohol or other drugs in 57 percent of assaults involving known individuals. The person’s behavior proved the most important precipitating factor in attacks on officers.
  • In 54 percent of assaults, perpetrators used their hands, fists, and feet.
  • Forty-six percent of the attacks resulted in reported injuries by wildlife officers.
  • Wildlife officers were over seven times more likely to suffer assault with a firearm or cutting object than police.
  • Use of force incidents often occurred on weekends, with the largest number on Saturdays; 88 percent happened during the daylight and early evening hours. The spring months accounted for the highest proportion—29 percent—of force encounters; the lowest percentage occurred during the fall (September, October, and November), at 17 percent.
  • Wildlife officers drew firearms on suspects about four times more often than state police.39


Wildlife officers are comparatively overlooked by police scholars. This is unfortunate because they constitute a necessary part of policing, acting in their traditional roles and also providing other law enforcement services. They perform dangerous functions in isolated environments.

This article aims to fill a void in the literature. Part two will continue the examination of these officers’ roles and will address factors affecting their discretionary authority, as well as technologies and legal loopholes employed by offenders.

“The work of wildlife officers differs from that of other police personnel because of its isolated nature, often dangerously far away from backup.”

Dr. Peak can be reached at peakk@unr.edu.


1 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Survey–2011 Survey, accessed April 4, 2017, http://wsfrprograms.fws.gov/Subpages/NationalSurvey/2011_Survey.htm.
2 Hunting In America: An Economic Force for Conservation (Newtown, CT: National Shooting Sports Foundation and Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, 2013), accessed April 4, 2017, http://www.nssf.org/pdf/research/huntinginamerica_economicforceforconservation.pdf.
3 For this article the titles “wildlife officer” and “conservation officer” are used interchangeably to represent all such personnel who enforce wildlife and environmental laws.
4 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Local Police Departments, 2013: Personnel, Policies, and Practices, Brian A. Reaves, NCJ 248677 (May 2015), accessed April 4, 2017, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/lpd13ppp.pdf.
5 David N. Falcone, “America’s Conservation Police: Agencies in Transition,” abstract, Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management 27, no. 1 (March 2004): 56-66, accessed April 4, 2017, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242341319_America%27s_ conservation_police_Agencies_in_transition.
6 Illinois Compiled Statutes at 20 Ill. Comp. Stat. 805/805-535.
7 Missouri Revised Statutes at § 252.085, Mo. Rev. Stat. (2016).
8 Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Division of Fish and Wildlife, “Rhode Island Law Enforcement,” Rhode Island Hunting and Trapping: 2015-2016 Regulation Guide, 23, accessed May 16, 2017, http://pub.eregulations.com/doc/jfgriffin/15rihd/2015090101/25.html#32.
9 Stephen L. Eliason, “Throwing the Book Versus Cutting Some Slack: Factors Influencing the Use of Discretion by Game Wardens in Kentucky,” abstract, Deviant Behavior 24, no. 2 (2003): 129-52, accessed April 5, 2017, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/ 01639620390117219.
10 John C. Sherblom, Lisa Keränen, and Lesley A. Withers, “Tradition, Tension, and Transformation: A Structuration Analysis of a Game Warden Service in Transition,” abstract, Journal of Applied Communication Research 30, no. 2 (January 2002): 143-62, accessed April 5, 2017, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232917357_Tradition_tension_and_ transformation_A_structuration_analysis_of_a_game_warden_service_in_transition.
11 Falcone, 62.
12 Ibid.
13 Timothy J. Carter, “Police Use of Discretion: A Participant Observation Study of Game Wardens,” abstract, Deviant Behavior 27, no. 6 (November 2006): 591-627, accessed April 5, 2017, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01639620600781555.
14 Ibid.
15 Randy Lusetti, game warden, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Division of Law Enforcement, interview by author, Reno, NV, February 26, 2016.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
21 “SWGWILD,” Society for Wildlife Forensic Science, accessed April 6, 2017, http://www.wildlifeforensicscience.org/swgwild/.
22 “Wildlife Forensics,” encyclopedia.com, 2005, accessed April 5, 2017, http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3448300603.html.
23 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forensics Laboratory, Forensics Lab, accessed April 5, 2017, https://www.fws.gov/lab/index.php.
24 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, Accomplishments 2013-2014: Protecting the Nation’s Wildlife and Plant Resources (January 2015), 45, accessed April 5, 2017, https://www.fws.gov/le/pdf/final-annual-report-fy-2013-2014.pdf.
25 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forensics Laboratory, About the Laboratory, accessed April 5, 2017, https://www.fws.gov/lab/about.php.
26 U.S. Department of Commerce, National Ocean Service, What is Marine Forensic Science? accessed April 5, 2017, http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/forensics.html.
27 Ken Goddard, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory, interview by author, telephone, June 17, 2016.
28 Ibid.
29 For a comprehensive listing of items considered in boating accident investigations, see Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Marine Headquarters and Boating Division, Guidelines for Investigator’s Boating Accident Report, Eleanor Mariani, revised April 2017, accessed April 3, 2017, http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/boating/bar_guidelines.pdf.
30 Craig J. Forsyth, “Chasing and Catching ‘Bad Guys’: The Game Warden’s Prey,” Deviant Behavior 14 (1993): 213-16, accessed April 5, 2017, http://www.jmu.edu/icle/pdf_files/ Applied%20Research/Violators%20Analysis/Chasing%20and%20Catching.pdf.
31 Ibid.
32 “Conservation Law Enforcement: More Dangerous Than You Think,” Officer Down Memorial Page, November 30, 2010, accessed April 6, 2017, http://blog.odmp.org/2010/11/conservation-law-enforcement-more.html.
33 Tyler Turnipseed, chief game warden, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Division of Law Enforcement, interview by author, Reno, NV, February 12, 2016.
34 Timothy J. Carter, “Force Against and by Game Wardens In Citizen Encounters,” abstract, Police Quarterly 7, no. 4 (December 2004): 501, accessed April 6, 2017, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247748618_Force_Against_and_by_Game_Wardens_In_Citizen_Encounters.
35 Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Conservation Police, accessed April 6, 2017, http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/conservation-police/.
36 West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Natural Resources Police Officer: Job Description, July 1, 2010, accessed April 6, 2017, http://www.wvdnr.gov/lenforce/8550.shtm.
37 “Conservation Law Enforcement.”
38 Carter, “Force Against and By Game Wardens.”
39 Ibid.