In Pennsylvania, Clair Fleeger and Steve Shabbick measure bass. In Florida, Rhodus Hill measures shellcrackers. But the job of a game warden is more than attention to these specifics; he is the bridge between the theory of conservation and the fact of a stringer of undersized bass, and on his attention to that stringer may rest the preservation of a species. Nobody took up his gun and went out the back door to kill off the last passenger pigeon. The passenger pigeon is extinct because of a lack of vision and recognition of the law of cause and effect. The shock of the total loss of a species was probably more useful to America than the bird was—more conservation laws went down on the books. But an unenforced law is not going to conserve anything; moreover, it isn't going to work effectively unless it is framed with a thorough, current knowledge of the conditions of what is to be conserved—which brings us back to the game warden, first and last.
In spite of being strong, healthy, knowledgeable, tactful and patient for $4,000 a year, these men are not popular. The job is enforcement of unpopular law, which has always presented its own peculiar difficulties. Breaking Americans to game law has been a tedious business. This was, not too long ago, a frontier country where men lived by shooting game, and an activity turns slowly from necessity to pleasure to illegality. Necessity itself demanded the redefinition of hunting—in Colorado in 1866, for example, it was estimated that the food available would last for six weeks if distributed evenly among the population of the territory, and "it was natural that serious thought be given to different sources of supply." Nevertheless, people do not easily grasp the fact of future necessity, and it has been hard to instill a feeling for the game laws in those not capable of seeing a larger picture.
Man has always felt an instinctive right to what runs wild; it is hard to get it through his head that it can be illegal to take home baby rabbits, pick mountain laurel or shoot an extra deer. Hunters have felt essentially that somehow they were not breaking the law, not really, and this casual view has plagued wardens even in the courts. In the early days, judges and juries tended to agree with the violators. A warden can still come into court with complete evidence, often gathered after weeks and even months of work, to prosecute market hunters or inveterate violators and have his case thrown out of court.
Warden Ernest Swift of Wisconsin remembers a justice of the peace who leafed through the statute books after the case had been presented. Swift watched him and finally said respectfully that he was sure he had charged the man correctly. The justice looked at him and said, "I know what you charged him with, young man. I'm just trying to find something in the statutes that will let me let him go!" And Rex Tice, now in Washington, remembers going to a district attorney in Wisconsin and telling him, "We've got a bad actor down here fishing illegally in Mississippi waters—using nets, no license, and he's selling gamefish. He's offered to sell me some, and I want you to tell me just how to buy them so we have a case. I don't want to make any mistake." The D.A. would have no part of it and said, "We have to live with these people."
Perhaps the most dispirited complaint of this sort came from a fish-and-game commissioner, James A. Shinn of Colorado, who reported in 1911 that "it is difficult to get the district attorneys to take the proper action in some cases, and we have even had a case where the district attorney, while he was supposed to prosecute, defended the violators." Fish-and-game men have been saying hopefully, since about 1880, that this state of affairs is improving. And so it is, but this is little comfort to a warden who has spent long cold nights sitting up in a boat or lying on his belly in a field to collect evidence.
There are further demands on a game warden's patience. Practically speaking, conservation cannot be achieved by apprehending every violator. There are too many potential violators on too much land, and too much is involved in prosecuting them. So the warden must somehow make violators understand what they are doing and make illegal hunters and fishermen and laurel pickers choose to desist. Offenders are apt to be entirely ignorant of the law or unable to understand its purpose; cow them or humiliate them and the ignorance only crystallizes into antagonism. Understanding and cooperation of the public are fish-and-game departments' primary aims, and they demand a superhuman tact and patience of the wardens. High-handedness defeats the purpose of the warden and endangers the effective functioning of a conservation program. It is doubtful that a traffic cop feels personally wounded when a motorist exceeds the speed limit, and he can do his duty in a fairly offensive manner without losing his job. But the wardens, who happen to be truly pained by the breaking of conservation laws, are the men most required to be even-tempered about law enforcement. (One man is a warden today because as a private citizen he beat up a game violator. A judge fined him for assault and then asked why, if he cared so much, he didn't become a game warden. The man did—losing his "privilege," though, to beat up violators.)
Kentucky has told its wardens in a special handbook that "The Conservation Officer in serving the public signifies 'authority,' but his authority should be clothed in courtesy at all times...courtesy and etiquette are based on self control. Not until a Conservation Officer has mastered himself can he ever hope to do a courteous job of law enforcement. Not until he does his job, with fairness and understanding, can the Department hope for the respect and cooperation of the public. The violation and its perpetrator should be looked upon impersonally and dealt with firmly and courteously." Kentucky goes on and spells it out, listing "courtesies to be used frequently," among them: "pleasantness but not familiarity," "cheerfulness when giving information and help," "prompt apology for any oversight or error," "acceptance of constructive criticism," "attentiveness when another person is addressing one." Discourtesies listed are: "engaging in long sidewalk or curbstone conversations," "assuming a loafing attitude while in uniform or on business" and even such splendid advice for all of us everywhere as to avoid "expressing positive opinions on unfamiliar subjects."
Wardens, like schoolteachers, are expected to be examples to the community. They are well known by the men they deal with, and the most powerful deterrent to the breaking of game laws is the men who enforce them. It is a presumptuous demand, that a man's character and activities when not on the job be up to a certain standard (in Texas a report on applicants even asks: "What of the inside of the home? The furnishings? Describe. Does he owe anything on the furnishings? How much? Who is the 'boss' in the home?" and more, a lot more).
Another problem is plain physical danger. Fatal assaults by violators are less common than they once were, but still common. Enforcement of the game laws is especially difficult in that it involves dealing with lawbreakers who are almost always equipped to kill, and dealing with them usually under isolated circumstances. The drunken hunter aggravates the problem. Part of the flight to Mother Nature is apt to be a flight from the mother of one's own children, and one of the jolly aspects of getting away from the wife with the boys is getting into the beer. A man armed, drunk and in the wrong is no joke. "Shot at? The word is sprinkled," says William Jackson Boger of North Carolina. "None of us wardens like to feel anyone would intentionally fire upon us." But he concedes thoughtfully, "There usually is a time when you're hit 'unintentionally' by stray buckshot."
A considerable number of men have been killed in the last few years; murdered, not sprinkled with unintentional buckshot. They have been shot in the stomach and the back of the head, with rifles. An officer in Alabama lost an eye when fired upon during a routine license check; a warden in Florida was shot in the belly; there was an Indiana warden killed by a hunter out on parole a year and a half from a sentence of murder; and a deputy was killed in Carmel, N.Y., shot in the head and the back. And then there are the nonfatal but unpleasant assaults made with knives, clubs, automobiles and clam rakes.