Behind the Game Warden Shortage 

Because of chronic understaffing due to poor pay, warden Nicole Kozicki covers half of Contra Costa County by herself.

Nicole Kozicki is leading deputy district attorney Lon Wixson through the woods where the victim disappeared. She's wearing heavy black boots, her hair is tied back in a ponytail, and she has a Glock pistol strapped to her belt. She finally stops at a 15-by-35-foot pit filled with loose dirt. Judging from the forensic evidence — the color of the soil, the trees halfway submerged in silt, the amount of vegetative regrowth — she's certain the victim was buried here.

The grisly crime scene is worse than Wixson had imagined. "I'm glad I came out," he says thoughtfully, mentally calculating the criminal charges he will file. Luckily, Kozicki thinks that this victim, although buried for several months, could still be resuscitated with the aid of a backhoe, some grass seed, a decent soil engineer, and a couple of permits.

Kozicki is a warden with the Department of Fish and Game. The victim is a creek that mysteriously disappeared last summer. What used to be a tributary of Moraga's Las Trampas Creek is now a trickle of muddy water making its way downhill through a giant pile of loose dirt. Kozicki believes the offender was an uphill landowner who dumped soil into the creek so that he could drive a drill rig across it. The fill had clearly come from the path he'd cut into the hillside. He hadn't gotten any permits, and hadn't built a retaining wall to prevent rainwater from washing the loose earth into the creek.

Last October, Kozicki ordered the landowner to remove the fill and stabilize the sloping riverbank by planting grass seed and installing matting before the winter rains came. But he hadn't — at least, not very well. During last winter's epic downpours, the creek had burst through the manmade blockage taking everything with it — the silty fill soil, chunks of wood, the matting that was supposed to be holding up the riverbank — blocking culverts and flooding over them, and eventually burying the downhill neighbor's barnful of antique cars in mud up to mid-axle. The course of the creek had changed, and the hillside is now riddled with six-inch cracks where the soil is preparing to flake away and drop fifteen feet into the water.

Summer — construction season — is Kozicki's busiest time of year. While game wardens elsewhere focus on hunting or poaching, in the East Bay wardens mostly protect the environment from unscrupulous developers and other polluters. In this case, the muddy fill could kill off waterlife by making breathing difficult, or suffocating eggs laid underwater. The loss of waterlife could also affect other creek-dependent animals such as the red-legged frog, a threatened species. Kozicki was showing Wixson the site so he could file charges of water pollution and modifying a creek without a permit.

And the more developers build out into former wildlands, the harder the wildlands push back. By noon, Kozicki will have worked another missing creek case and conducted a search for an aggressive deer, most likely a doe defending her offspring, that had attacked a pet dog so ruthlessly that its frightened owner now refuses to walk to the mailbox without a frying pan in hand. Summer also means an uptick in such homeowner run-ins with wild animals — mountain lions and coyotes that threaten pets and people, wild pigs and raccoons that root up yards, wild turkeys that destroy roofs and automobile paint jobs.

And that's only the beginning of Kozicki's day, because due to her department's chronic and profound understaffing, she covers half the county by herself. Of the four game warden positions in Contra Costa County, two have been vacant for years. Ditto Alameda County. San Francisco has a vacancy, and another position was simply eliminated because the agency despaired of ever filling it. Three positions are open in the South Bay. Statewide, only 192 of 352 positions are filled, and that's excluding fifty jobs that were recently deleted from the budget. Why can't the agency stay fully staffed? It's simple: The pay stinks.

The Department of Fish and Game was the state's first law enforcement agency, and until the early 1980s, it paid salaries commensurate with other state agencies, such as the California Highway Patrol. After all, their officers complete the same Peace Officer Standards and Training academy courses, carry similar weapons, and face similar physical danger. (In fact, game wardens are three times more likely than CHP officers to be killed by gunfire, largely because they routinely deal with armed poachers.) But CHP rookies start at nearly $54,000, while new wardens make only $37,000 a year, not a princely sum in the Bay Area, which bears the brunt of the understaffing because new wardens can't afford to live here. Game wardens don't get paid overtime, which at other agencies can considerably plump up an officer's salary. Veterans such as Kozicki, who's been on the force for seventeen years, top out around a more respectable $60,000, but with such low starting salaries the department has trouble getting anyone to stay that long, or even to apply. In decades past, thousands of candidates tested for the job every year — this year, only 178 did, which will probably result in only ten hires. That won't even replace the twenty veterans who are expected to retire this year.

Even when the agency recruits new hires, they're often lured away by higher-paying law enforcement organizations which value wardens for their education. (Unlike some other peace officers, game wardens must have at least two years of college.) After four years on the job, Kozicki, for example, nearly defected to the East Bay Regional Park District, which offered a pay increase of about $1,000 a month, but decided to stay because she'd already accrued some seniority and enjoyed the more flexible hours. Nevertheless, many others jump ship. "In the last six years we have lost one third of the total number of game wardens in this state," says Jerry Karnow, the legislative liaison for the California Fish & Game Wardens Association. This has eroded staffing to 1950s levels, although the state's population has more than tripled since then. More people mean more poaching, more pollution, more development encroaching on wild habitat, and therefore more calls for service. Yet due to understaffing, the association estimates that one in every three calls to wardens goes unanswered.

So Kozicki keeps blowing off the poor guy out in Byron who's been calling to report people who are catching over-limit and undersized striped bass. Each time he's phoned, she was on the other side of the county, more than an hour away, and couldn't get there in time to bust anyone. "I'm sure he's frustrated that he keeps calling and there is no one to respond," she sighs. "It's not that we don't want to; we're just not always in a position to do that." And while a filled-in creekbed can wait for a few days, other environmental crimes — for example, dumping chemicals into public waterways — have to be caught in the act. "Because it's a crime, you have to get evidence," Kozicki says. "In those cases, the pollutant is gone by the time you get there." The price of all of these small, uncaught infractions shows up in places like your drinking water. "This has a direct negative effect on your natural resources," Karnow says.

Help may be on the way. The California legislature and the governor's office recently agreed to a $30 million funding boost in the next fiscal year. However, that sum isn't earmarked solely for the Department of Fish and Game — it'll have to split the pot with the departments of Justice, Park and Recreation, and Forestry and Fire Protection. Whether the game wardens' share will be enough to bring them pay parity with comparable law enforcement agencies and help fill in those job vacancies is yet to be seen.

Until then, if you have an enviromental crime to report in the Bay Area, well, just keep calling back.


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