A Game Warden's Life
Hunting for poachers is only a part of what Texas game wardens do.
By John H. Ostdick
Although most Texas game wardens are attracted to their occupation because they enjoy hunting and fishing, once on the job they usually find little time to do either. They spend long, often solitary nights listening for sounds of poachers. Sometimes they encounter heavily armed hunters whose judgment may be clouded by alcohol, and they never can tell when they might stumble onto a methamphetamine lab hidden in the woods.
Part peace officer and part agency public relations representative, game wardens are charged with enforcing state hunting and fishing laws, protecting natural resources and the environment and overseeing boating safety. They also spend a good portion of time educating the public through formal programs and by responding to individual inquiries about game laws -- whether on regular patrols or during chance encounters on a late-night grocery run. In rural areas, they often may be the first person on a crime scene. They often participate in disaster relief efforts.
The scope of their beat is daunting. With 40 game warden cadets expected to graduate from the academy in June their ranks will exceed 500, but Texas is a big state. Its 254 counties and 262,017 square miles are home to more than 18 million people and a staggering collection of wildlife species. More than 3 million surface acres of water lie within its boundaries. More than 500,000 hunters participated in the fall Texas white-tailed deer hunting season alone.
Enforcing wildlife laws is not all that game wardens do. As certified peace officers, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wardens are charged with enforcing all state criminal laws. Most have college degrees; each has graduated after 1,200 hours of training at TPWD’s Austin academy. Some serve a stone’s throw from where they grew up; others have woven themselves into the social fabric of their far-flung assignment counties.
"A good game warden strongly believes in conservation and likes to work with people," says Col. James Stinebaugh, director of the law enforcement division. Stinebaugh started his law enforcement career as a game warden in Freer and San Saba counties in 1967. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in the ‘60s and a short stint with the U.S. Border Patrol in 1971, the native Texan spent 27 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before rejoining TPWD in October 2001. He is unabashed in his fervor for the work.
"This is the best job in the world," he says. "A good warden likes to be outside on the coldest night and on the hottest day. An old sheriff once told me that he wanted a deputy that isn’t afraid to fight but also one who doesn’t like to fight. That fits in this job as well. If you find all of these qualities in a person, you’ve got yourself a good game warden."
In their role of protecting wildlife and the environment, game wardens take special aim at what they call real outlaws, those who blatantly ignore wildlife law whether by illegally shooting game, taking fish by illegal methods or creating toxic messes that damage the environment. Experience tells them many of these outlaws often will venture into other illegal activities, such as theft or drug trade.
During 2002, game wardens conducted investigations that led to 33,005 criminal cases involving the environment and wildlife resources. The resulting penalties brought $1.1 million into the state’s game, fish and water safety fund and generated nearly $300,000 in civil restitution. Since a warden’s regular duties encompass answering calls and routine patrols, the agency has created special units that concentrate on marine theft, environmental crimes and large-scale wildlife-related crimes.
A glimpse into the lives of a handful of wardens shows the breadth of their responsibilities.
Juan Carlos Flores
Game Warden, Val Verde County
During the fall hunting season, Juan Carlos Flores -- better known as J.C. --figures he drives 200 to 400 miles a day through the rolling, brushy terrain of Val Verde County, checking deer camps and responding to calls. He’s one of three wardens working this southwestern county’s 3,170 square miles out of Del Rio. He knows the region well, for he was born and raised in tiny Comstock (population 375).
Val Verde County is an active workplace. Flores, 46, patrols the Amistad National Recreation Area, a beautiful, clear lake fed by the region’s three major rivers, the Rio Grande, the Pecos, and the Devils.
"We have 540 miles of shoreline on the U.S. side of the border," Flores says. "We have to monitor commercial fishing from Mexico, which also means picking up a lot of gill netting and fish traps, which are legal in Mexico but not in U.S. waters."
In the fall, Flores has deer, turkey and dove hunting to supervise, and sometimes he encounters the unexpected. Last year Flores led the investigation of a man who shot a bear: a Class C misdemeanor for a first offense, a $500 court fee and several thousand dollars in restitution.
Wildlife is not his only concern. "Being close to the border," he says, "a lot of drug runners mark spots just like a road hunter might to pick up a carcass later." (Road hunters often kill deer, mark the spot off the road with a rock on top of a soda can or other object, and return later to be sure they haven’t been detected before loading the kill.) "When you are watching these guys," he says, "you never know if they’ve shot a deer, or are picking up a group of illegal aliens or a load of dope. The response to each case can be very different."
He credits his strict parents, who still live in Val Verde County, with helping him be the first from his family to graduate from high school and college. He majored in criminal justice with a wildlife minor at Sul Ross State University in Alpine.
After graduating from the academy in 1988, it didn’t take long for him to learn how perilous his job can be. After Flores stopped three road hunters, one of the men became belligerent and threatening. Flores had unloaded their guns and put them on the hood of their car before interrogating them.
"As I was walking back to my car, I heard the loud one trying to load a .270," he says. "I ran to him, caught him between the car and door, and disarmed him. You learn from these experiences.
"The county’s ranches used to be dotted with goats," Flores continues, "but after the Clinton Administration repealed wool and mohair incentives, they all but vanished. Now, the majority of the large properties are being subdivided into ranchitas."
Today, deer leases provide a major source of local income. The fact that property is changing hands quickly makes enforcement a greater challenge, he says, raising two six-inch-diameter key rings crammed full of gate keys.
"Being a game warden is lots of work but there’s a certain freedom in doing it," he says. "A warden forges a number of friendships and finds a variety in the types of chores involved. I just lucked out being chosen to come here."
Game Warden, Kleberg County
Hector Garza’s turf is a poacher’s paradise. He patrols two divisions of the legendary King Ranch in Kleberg County, about 40 miles southwest of Corpus Christi. The entire ranch covers 825,000 acres, bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Fourteen miles of fence line extend along both sides of Texas 141 between the King Ranch and the US 281 intersection — "that’s 28 miles of easy access to deer," he says. "At any time, every quarter of a mile or so, there’s probably a deer being shot along here. Sometimes, they’ll shoot the deer and then wait for a break in traffic before dragging the whole carcass into their vehicle."
The 54-year-old Garza works closely with King Ranch security forces. He helped build a shelter on top of a donated airport beacon tower, creating a vantage point from which he can see about 20 miles along the northern boundary of the ranch, which is particularly accessible and vulnerable to walk-up hunters. The King Ranch policy is that if deer from the property jump the fence they are open game, but some hunters may shoot across its fence or maneuver over low spots to trespass.
After 20 years of patrolling Kleberg County, Garza says that although "a certain segment of our outlaw hunters still violate the law because it gives them a thrill," stiffer wildlife law penalties have significantly slowed down illegal activities.
Garza grew up in McAllen, where his father was instrumental in the growth of cross-border programs with the Boy Scouts. "I developed a love for the outdoors at an early age, when my dad and uncle used to pile us into the station wagon and drive out into the countryside to hunt for rabbits," says Garza. About five times a year, Garza helps with youth hunts on the King Ranch, for a few days helping 10 to 20 primarily urban teens learn wildlife lessons and hunting ethics.
After more than a dozen years in the navy, Garza worked in the police forces in Mission and McAllen before joining TPWD.
"As a police officer," he says, "I dealt with the negatives of society. Being a game warden is different. Even if a contact is breaking the law, it’s usually a manageable situation. The first week of the hunting season, I stopped two boys driving in the rain. The barrel of one of the rifles in their truck was wet so I knew they had been shooting out of their vehicle. They tried to tell me it was wet because their windows were open, but I pointed out to them that the back seat was still dry.
"I told them, ‘Look, guys, anybody can go the bank and get a loan to pay a big fine, or even take some vacation time to serve some time in jail. But have you ever considered that if you get caught doing this and are convicted of a felony, your legal hunting days are over, because you can no longer legally possess a firearm?’ I hope that notion is encouraging these boys to give it up."
Game Warden, Galveston County
Bobby Kana and partner Ray Canales are patrolling the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Galveston Bay in a lightweight skiff on a breezy, choppy November day. Galveston County includes 398 square miles of land and 478 square miles of water, including a sizable commercial fishing industry as well as offshore recreational fishermen and boaters.
As they approach a shrimp boat with a solo captain, the six-foot-plus Kana nimbly shifts to the front of the bouncing craft to prepare boarding the much larger vessel. Suddenly, the captain begins dumping something off the far side of his boat. He ignores Kana’s shouted orders to stop. By the time Kana leaps aboard the rocking vessel, all traces of what was dumped are gone and the captain is pleading ignorance.
He is cited for failure to allow inspection of an aquatic product, a Class C offense that can carry a fine of $25 to $500. As the game wardens pull away, the captain is in his pilothouse, radio crackling as he spreads the word that the wardens are out performing inspections.
"During the summer, we’ll run 12- to 14-hour days on the water, checking licenses and inspecting catches," Kana says. "During the fall and winter, we get out when the weather permits."
When the seasons are open, 300 to 400 commercial fishing, shrimping or oyster boats may be working in these waters. Today, the wardens will board about 20. A license or fire extinguisher check may lead to discovery of undersize flounder catches (they must be at least 14 inches long) or spot caliper measurement of oysters may determine if a captain’s catch has too many small oysters in it.
"Although we have brought most of it under control, we even have a little illegal netting down here," says Kana. "Some of the older families are still active; they feel it’s their heritage, I suppose. We don’t have a deer season here, but we have some tremendous deer, so we have some encounters with illegal hunters. We have a large waterfowl hunt, with all the marshes we have. We have bird-hunting clubs on local ranches. During our patrols, we’ll also come across stolen jet skis or boats with their identification numbers removed."
Kana, 40, was born and raised in Palacios, on Matagorda Bay, and has lived on the Texas Coast for three-quarters of his life, the last 10 as a game warden in Galveston. He and wife Dena both love to bow hunt. Their vacations are often bow-hunting forays — with amusement park stops along the way for their two children, Hunter, 3, and Ty, 7. "One of us will hunt, and the other will stay with the kids, and then we trade places," he says.
Kana helps coordinate a youth hunt for children age 12 to 17 at a Hill Country ranch owned by a local businessman. He also sponsors once-a-month fishing expeditions for children at a small pond near his house and at other locations in the county.
"I met my first game warden when I took my first hunter education course," he says. "I was probably about 13 at the time, and I’ve wanted to be a game warden ever since. I love the outdoors, and the work is fascinating."
Game Warden, Jasper County
Thirty years after being plunked down in East Texas, San Antonio-born Raymond Kosub feels completely at home in Kirbyville in Jasper County. About 85 percent of Jasper County’s mostly flat 937 square miles is thick with forest, mostly pine and hardwood.
"I fell in love with the country here immediately," says Kosub. "The blooms in the spring are incredible, and I never knew there were so many shades of green until I came here. It took a while to get people here to accept me, however.
"When I first arrived I was young, with nary a clue about this community," he explains. "I went to a local barbecue, off-duty and out of uniform. After a while this older guy who had imbibed a bit too much approached me about helping him check his net nearby. I declined without saying anything but another fella told the first, ‘Don’t you know who you just approached? That’s the new game warden.’ Well, that wasn’t my last awkward moment here, that’s for sure -- but that first man eventually became my father-in-law and quit his illegal netting."
Kosub, 53, is one of three wardens in Jasper County, about 15 miles wide and about 60 miles north to south. The Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies selected Kosub as its game warden of the year in 1999. His duties include water safety and fishing law enforcement at Sam Rayburn Reservoir, B.A. Steinhagen Lake 13 miles west of Jasper, and the 200 miles of the Neches and Angelina rivers bordering or flowing through the county.
In the months following the space shuttle explosion over Texas last February, Kosub was one of many state game wardens who participated in the somber search for the craft’s debris, struggling through the thick woods around San Augustine and Nacogdoches and aiding diving crews in Toledo Bend.
"We found quite a few pieces," he says. "It was strange because without the spring foliage, you could see the smallest of pieces out there. They just looked so different from everything you’re used to looking at in the forest."
Kosub swings his mud-splattered truck down to Yellow Bluff, a wooded area on the Neches River that was once home to a ferry crossing, post office and country store. Nature has reclaimed all signs of them, but Kosub uses the spot to launch his boat when he is working the river. Swampy marshes, dotted with oak and pine trees, spread out on each side of the road.
"We have a lot of problems here with illegal netting and shocking fish," he says. "While these boys used to use bulky devices, such as old telephone cranks, the technology has changed and allowed them to be sneakier. Some have gotten downright ingenious with their electrical sources — some triggers can be tucked inside a snuff box.
Road hunting and the use of deer dogs remain large issues here as well. "Some people here are still hell-bent on using dogs, no matter what," says Kosub.
In the early 1980s, an encounter with four night hunters who had been drinking almost turned deadly when they got the upper hand on Kosub. Before the evening ended, they had held a gun to his head and threatened his life several times. "I thought a lot about my family that night," he says. He eventually prevailed. "I guess that those men just didn’t have killing me in them," he says.
"I also get a lot of alligator-related calls in the spring," Kosub says. "I got one call about 3 a.m. from a frantic man who reported a giant alligator in his front yard. It was about 9-foot, all right. I told the man whatever happened he needed to keep a spotlight on that ‘gator at all times. I got a rope on it, but it ran under the man’s house. Of course, the man dropped the light. I finally jumped on the alligator’s back, tied off his legs, and taped his mouth.
"That’s the strange part of this job. You can sit at night for weeks by yourself and nothing happens. And then one night of activity will make up for it."
Cynthia Guajardo Sorrell
Game Warden, Environmental Crimes Unit, Harris County
Harris County, a highly industrialized area with the nation’s largest concentration of petrochemical plants, might not seem a hotspot for game wardens, but it’s proving just that for 29-year-old Cynthia Guajardo Sorrell. Sorrell is the newest of six wardens and one captain assigned to a statewide environmental crimes unit.
A year ago last May, a warehouse owner reported a tenant had fled his building, leaving a toxic mess behind. "The barrels we found at the site were just bulging," Sorrell says. "One was smoking. Within 30 minutes at the site, everyone involved in the investigation started developing headaches. Something I stepped on in there ate the soles off my Doc Martens."
About five months into her new job, she learned she was pregnant. Doctors advised her not to visit testing sites because of exposure concerns, so she has shifted her focus to research on other officer’s cases for the duration of her pregnancy. This involves double-checking and logging evidence, working on warrants and following paper trails.
"I’m still a game warden at heart," she says, laughing as she moves her truck through Houston traffic. "I see tracks off the side of the road and I tap the brakes. My first inclination is to investigate the trail. Many of the aspects of this job run counter to many of my intuitions as a game warden. As a game warden in the field, you are very hands-on -- you touch, smell, you dig through. In this job, you don’t do any of that until you know what you are dealing with. When I come onto a site, a whiff of a chemical may obliterate my sense of smell or render me sightless."
Born and raised in El Paso, Sorrell graduated from the academy at 22 and took her first assignment in Jacksonville.
"I wanted to go to East Texas because I had heard that it was the best place to become a good game warden," she says. "But I suffered major culture shock, as there had never been a female officer in that region before. I had to earn every inch of respect I got."
Fellow East Texas wardens still talk about arriving on the scene of a distress call several years ago just as the slightly built Sorrell was pulling a 250-pound man out of Lake Tawakoni. The resuscitated man would have died without her immediate aid, they say.
Wardens are required to have four years of TPWD experience before they can be eligible for the environmental crimes unit. Although she had come to love East Texas and was engaged to a local police officer, Sorrell had attended some briefings about the unit and was very interested. "I actually interviewed and got this job two weeks before my wedding," she says. "My fiancé was very supportive, and it seemed like a now-or-never thing. We got back from the honeymoon, and then I moved."
Once relocated, Sorrell became immersed in the study of chemicals. "My first six months of the job involved intensive training and specialized education programs," she says. "In many ways, I still feel like I’ve just come out of game warden school again."
As a game warden in the field, Sorrell notes, she would start a case, finish it fairly quickly, and go to the next, all part of the cat-and-mouse game of catching poachers. But in the Houston unit, the caseload work may stretch into months or years. "You don’t get the immediate gratification of catching the bad guy right away," she says. "In fact, you may never see the mouse at all."
Game Warden, Van Zandt County
When Steve Stapleton, a trim, redheaded warden, walks through the original Dogtown area of Canton’s flea market grounds in uniform, the greetings from the scattered old-timers gathered here are tepid. Although deer dogs are now illegal, this is where historically they have traded hands, and old traditions die a long, slow death in East Texas. Word that he is on the grounds spreads quickly.
Most of the Canton vendors are regulars. As Stapleton moves into the main grounds, checking nongame trading permits and looking for the illegal trading of endangered, threatened or protected species or pelts or feathers of the same, he admits that shortly after his uniform was spotted, any vendors offering illegal materials probably pulled them back out of sight.
"We’ll work the grounds undercover if we hear of any specific illegal activity going on," he says. "Showing the uniform down here reminds everyone that we’re on the job, however."
A short time later, as Stapleton turns onto Highway 19, he notices a man walking to his parked car with the carcass of an owl in his hands. One of the wings of the bird is missing, and the man is so engrossed with removing the other one that he doesn’t notice Stapleton make a U-turn behind him. The man tosses the torso of the owl aside, and is about to place the second wing on the rear floorboard of his car with the first, when he looks up to see Stapleton getting out of his truck.
Although the owl was dead when the Naples man found it -- a car had struck the beautiful, brown-and-white bird -- harvesting its plumage is still illegal (possession of a protected species, a Class C misdemeanor that carries a $500 fine). Stapleton writes the man a citation, which prompts a heated discussion between the violator and his wife as Stapleton pulls away "I think that will be a lively ride home," the warden says.
Stapleton, 33, has patrolled the 849 square miles of Van Zandt County for the past three years. He graduated from East Texas State University with two degrees, then earned a degree in wildlife biology from Colorado State University, working for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado and Arkansas before being accepted into the Austin academy.
In the course of a day he might check out the deer and the paperwork at a small meat processing plant. He’ll stop at a shallow spillway at the Tawakoni dam to make sure no one is taking fish with illegal methods. At the end of 2002 Stapleton saw little of his wife and 2-year old son. Working with a fellow warden, he led an intense, 17-hour-long investigation in which five men were apprehended and three whole deer, two quartered deer and one bobcat, several firearms and spotlights were seized. During the Christmas holidays, Stapleton worked with a Newton County operation targeting deer dogs.
As dusk approaches, Stapleton makes his way to a small private lake at the far end of Van Zandt County. Hiding in the woods, he soon hears an explosion of guns banging away at ducks on a roost hole.
"The law dictates all duck hunting halts at sunset, but these three guys started shooting sitting ducks 30 minutes after dark," he says. Stapleton is waiting for them when they return to their truck nearby. "We didn’t know you was there," is all they can say.
After talking to the three, he finds their aim as bad as their judgment.
"The ducks shouldn’t have stood a chance," he says, "but these guys were pretty bad shots and only got about six or seven.
"You know," he continues, shaking his head, "most of the wardens get into this job because they love wildlife, but they end up dealing mostly with people. We don’t have any wildlife problems; we just have people problems."
Work with the Wardens
Operation Game Thief, a privately funded crime-stoppers program aimed at curtailing poaching, offers a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of someone who commits a wildlife crime. If you have any information about a crime involving wildlife, call the confidential line at (800) 792-GAME.
The Evolution of Enforcement
The modern-day Texas Parks and Wildlife Department enforcement arm, one of 10 internal divisions of TPWD, traces its origin to 1895, when the Texas Legislature created the Fish and Oyster Commission to regulate fishing. In 1923, the State Parks Board was created as a separate entity. Several evolutionary steps later, the State Parks Board and the Game and Fish Commission were merged in 1963 to form the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. With the passage of the Wildlife Conservation Act in 1983, the legislature placed authority for managing fish and wildlife resources in all Texas counties with TPWD. Previously, commissioners courts had set game and fish laws in many counties, and other counties had veto power over department regulations.
Like other field law enforcement officers, game wardens know that peril may always be near. Although most of their contacts may be non-confrontational, loaded guns are a constant in their work, and the myriad challenges of their job may put them in harm’s way at any time.
Fourteen TPWD officers have died in the line of duty since 1919. The most recent was Jefferson County game warden Michael Pauling, 47, who died Aug. 2, 2001, after stopping to assist a woman who was distressed from an argument with her boy friend. As Pauling was leaning inside the couple’s vehicle to check on the welfare of two boys inside, the Port Arthur man sped away. Last fall the driver was convicted of aggravated assault on a public servant, a first-degree felony, and was sentenced to 55 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Pauling, a game warden since 1996, was survived by his wife and two sons. In May, Pauling’s name was added to the Game Warden Memorial in Athens.
What Game Wardens Do
A sampling of reports filed from the field during the past year
A Lavaca County game warden investigating reports of road shooting finds a fresh candy wrapper in the area. He later goes to a local store and determines the identity of a customer who just purchased that brand of candy, leading to the apprehension of the illegal shooter and partners in crime.
Following up a report of an alligator attack at Lake Hawkins, a game warden for Gregg and Wood counties interviews four minors and one adult at the scene. He determines that the injured party was the victim of a boating accident and the attack report was an attempt to cover up the alcohol-related incident.
A Brazos County game warden questions a man pouring blood from an ice chest. The man at first denies killing anything but then recalls killing a hog; about this time, the man’s dog appears with a deer tail clutched in its mouth.
Smith County game wardens perform a routine check on a vehicle, in the process discovering marijuana and a homemade pipe constructed from a hollowed-out deer antler.
Refugio County game wardens file disorderly conduct charges against two men after they water ski in their "birthday suits" along the Aransas River, passing near a populated river camp.
After observing what appears to be a domestic violence incident involving two men and a woman at a local gas station, a Kaufman County game warden asks for identification. The two men produce Texas Department of Corrections inmate cards. One of the men and the woman have outstanding warrants, and a subsequent search of the vehicle finds stolen property, an active mobile methamphetamine lab, and packages of cocaine and crystal methamphetamine.
In Nueces County, a game warden assists with a drug raid at a Corpus Christi home after a tip that the two suspects there also possess 12 baby alligators.
When a San Augustine County game warden overhears local deputies and ambulance personnel talking on the radio about not being able to locate a camp where someone is reported to be having a heart attack, he relays that he knows the camp and responds. The road into the camp is too muddy for the ambulance to navigate, so the warden uses his four-wheel drive vehicle to transport the victim to the ambulance. The victim is eventually released from a local hospital and scheduled for heart surgery.