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California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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California Department of Fish and Wildlife

California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Patch of the California Department of Fish and Game
Agency overview
Formed 1909
Preceding Agency Board of Fish Commissioners
Headquarters 1416 Ninth Street, Sacramento, California
Annual budget $539 million (2007)
Agency executive Charlton H. Bonham, Director
Parent agency California Resources Agency

Formerly the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is a department within the government of California, falling under its parent California Natural Resources Agency. The Department of Fish and Wildlife manages and protects the state's diverse fish, wildlife, plant resources, and native habitats. The department is also responsible for the diversified use of fish and wildlife including recreational, commercial, scientific and educational uses. The department also utilizes its law enforcement division to prevent and stop illegal poaching.


The first California fish and game act was passed in 1852 by the California State Legislature and signed into law by Governor John Bigler. The Game Act placed closed seasons on 12 counties for quails, partridges, mallards and wood duck, elk, deer, and antelope. A second legislative action in 1852 protected salmon runs. Two years later in 1854, the Legislature extended the act to include all counties of California. In 1860, protection controls were extended for trout. Lake Merritt (Oakland, California) is made the first state game refuge in 1869, believed to be the first in the United States. In 1870, the Legislature, with the support of Governor Henry Huntly Haight, created the Board of Fish Commissioners. The Board stipulated that fish ladders were now required at state dams, explosives or other deleterious substances outlawed, and violations fixed for $500. Also in 1870 the first fish ladder in the state is built on a tributary of the Truckee River, and a state hatching house is established at the University of California in Berkeley. In 1871 the state appointed the first Game Wardens to handle wildlife law enforcement, making the Enforcement Division of the Department of Fish and Game the very first State Law Enforcement Agency enacted in California for over 124 years of service. Over the next thirty years, the Board of Fish Commissioners were given authority over game, as well as establishing hunting and fishing licensing.[1]

In 1909, the name of the Board of Fish Commissioners was changed to the Fish and Game Commission. Then in 1927 the Division of Fish and Game is established, set up within the Department of Natural Resources. In 1951 the Reorganization Act elevated the Division of Fish and Game to Department of Fish and Game (DFG).[1]

One of only 13 states still using "Game" in the title of their wildlife agency in 2012, the state legislature changed the Department's name from Fish and Game to Fish and Wildlife, effective January 1, 2013. Eighteen other states use "wildlife," while the others generally use "natural resources" or "conservation", reflecting trends towards expansion of the agencies' missions from sportfishing and hunting alone, to protection of nongame wildlife and whole ecosystems. The legislation followed recommendations of a 51 member "stakeholder advisory group".[2]

Regional divisions

The Department of Fish and Wildlife divides the State of California into seven management regions, whose boundaries mostly correspond to county borders (with the exception of Sacramento, Yolo and San Joaquin counties). They are:


The department employs wardens to protect California's wildlife and natural resources. DFW wardens are armed law enforcement officers with statewide arrest authority. They enforce California state laws related to hunting, fishing, pollution, endangered species, and wildlife habitat destruction. Vehicles used range from the patrol pickup to boats, catamarans, four-wheelers, snow-mobiles, horses, helicopters, and planes. The Wardens investigate, collect evidence, serve search warrants, arrest criminals, and ensure public safety. Wardens patrol the state of California and 200 miles (320 km) off the coast.

About 330 wardens patrol the state.[3]

Marine Wardens

California Department of Fish and Wildlife offshore patrol efforts are accomplished by a fleet of vessels including five 54-foot (16 m) catamarans, two 65-foot (20 m) monohulls and a variety of smaller rigid hull inflatables (RHIs). All the large boats are equipped with twin engines capable of pushing the vessels to over 25 knots. They are equipped with sophisticated electronics for detecting vessels and communications. Each large vessel is normally staffed by four personnel. These vessels are tasked with patrolling approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of coastline. State waters extend to three miles (5 km) offshore, but CDFW's patrol area extends to 200 miles (320 km) because of Federal fisheries regulations that must also be enforced. This equates to a patrol responsibility of approximately 220,000 square miles (570,000 km2); over 31,000 miles (50,000 km) per boat.

While the primary duty of each vessel is fisheries enforcement, they have also been utilized for search and rescue, homeland defense, and support for public safety operations. After the events of September 11, the vessels were deployed in California's major ports to monitor activity and support the War on Terror. These patrols were conducted with United States Coast Guard and other local agencies to monitor vessel traffic and conduct vessel boardings to detect possible terrorist activity. CDFW personnel worked around the clock for several weeks after the initial attack in New York.

Working with Federal, State and local agencies, CDFW participated in the first terrorism drill on the West Coast involving a large cruise ship. Working with agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, USCG, and local SWAT teams, CDFW boat crews reacted to a terrorist event aboard a cruise ship targeting the West coast. The drill was successful in establishing the protocols and identifying the resources available for such a crisis. Since this first drill, CDFW vessels and crews have participated in the escort of cruise ships in various ports throughout California. CDFW vessels and crew have also worked closely with USCG vessels to assist in other projects dealing with homeland security issues.

In September 2002, CDFW was recognized by the USCG and the US Department of Transportation for its efforts in assisting during the aftermath of 9/11. Frank Spear, the Chief of Enforcement for the vessel program accepted a newly minted "Transportation 9-11 Medal" from Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta. The medal was meant to honor CDFW's contribution to the protection of two of California's busiest ports, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Working with the USCG, various CDFW vessels patrolled San Francisco Bay protecting both the San Francisco and Oakland airports, bridge abutments and conducting vessel boardings. Other crews worked in Los Angeles assisting the USCG in securing munitions ships, cargo ships, oil tankers, cruise ships, and conducted background checks on crews and passengers.

While remaining vigilant for terrorist activity remains a priority, CDFW vessels have returned to their primary mission of fisheries enforcement. However, challenges remain that have affected the patrol effort. New legislation, such as the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and Federal fisheries legislation has over tasked the vessel program. Coupled with the shortage in the warden force, this has created problems for effective enforcement in the offshore environment. Vessels have been forced to remain tied to the dock because of personnel shortages. Most vessels are forced to "borrow" personnel from other districts. This, in turn, creates additional shortages. There must be a concerted effort to recruit and retain adequate personnel to staff the large patrol vessels as well as maintain coverage along our coastline. The resources must be allocated to effectively patrol our large area of responsibility. CDFW has the expertise to do this with proper support. It is critical to the protection of California's coastline that CDFW receive assets and personnel to do the job.

Special Operations Unit

The Special Operations Unit (SOU) of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is a team of wardens formed for the purpose of investigating, infiltrating and apprehending those who poach California's wildlife for profit.

The SOU focuses their efforts on priorities set by the Department. Investigating illegal commercialization of fish and wildlife is high priority. In addition, investigations are directed by the Supervisor of the SOU and those investigations focus on fragile species highly targeted by the black market.

The duties of an SOU warden are in much contrast to a uniformed warden. Much of the SOU's time is spent traveling extensively to different areas of the state wherever commercial cases occur. The duties include long term investigations required to successfully apprehend and prosecute the worst of the worst abusers of California resources The current SOU has taken many steps to enhance their investigative abilities with training in a wide variety of topics. Technology has moved to the forefront of many investigations with equipment such as GPS tracking units, infrared scopes, pen register phone taps, and much more. In some cases, the use of technological equipment save many personnel hours in an investigation, however, circumstances in other cases still require time intensive moving and stationary surveillance techniques, coupled with short and long term undercover infiltration of suspects.

The SOU wardens are also members of the Western States Wildlife Investigators (WSWI). WSWI members are made up of Wildlife Investigators from California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Idaho. California SOU has always been looked upon by these other states as being on the cutting edge in investigations and a unit to try to emulate. Supervisors of SOU are current members of a steering committee from WSWI responsible for the creation of an eighty-hour Covert Wildlife Investigators Academy. This course was created to alleviate liability concern for the above-mentioned states Fish and Game Departments regarding putting covert officers in the field without proper training.

California SOU was selected to conduct the first academy in 2002, held at the Presidio in San Francisco. SOU accomplished Peace Officers Standard and Training (POST) certification prior to the first academy held in 2002. This academy was deemed such a success the WSWI steering committee asked California SOU members to again sponsor the academy in 2003. This academy was also a success and SOU has been requested to help instruct and facilitate the 2004 WSWI Covert Wildlife Investigators Academy in Colorado. All of these accomplishments were met without the use of department funds.

The SOU has a one hundred percent case acceptance rate by the various District Attorney's Offices utilized throughout the state as well as a one hundred percent conviction rate. In a very conservative estimation of court dispositions and resource savings from the SOU cases in the past five years, the following is true:

  • Over $1,000,000.00 in fines and penalties
  • Accumulatively over one hundred years in state prison and county jail terms
  • The forfeiture of over twenty vehicles and boats
  • Over twenty-five lifetime revocations of fishing licenses, and numerous one to five year fishing license revocations.
  • A noted drop in illegal commercialization of wildlife crimes.


The Department of Fish and Wildlife has an Air Services Unit. Their aircraft are piloted by Warden Pilots. Up to eight pilots fly and maintain seven single and multi-engine, turbine-powered airplanes from four bases statewide. The scope of the Warden Pilot's duties varies. They pilot airplanes on law enforcement patrols over land and water, day and night. They also stock fish in high Sierra lakes; transport personnel, and perform scientific research.

Pilots are required to hold a commercial pilots license, qualified to fly multi and single-engine airplanes in visual and instrument (IFR) conditions. Many of the pilots hold an FAA airline transport pilot license. Pilots are experienced FAA airframe and power plant mechanics. Some pilots possess, as an additional rating, an inspection authorization on their mechanics license.

Pilots are required to be able to maintain their own fleet. Pilots are all experienced in low altitude flying, where most of the work is done. They must pass check flights annually from the FAA and an internal check ride by their own check pilots. Pilots are experts at vertical and oblique aerial photography. They are experts at airborne radio telemetry.

Pilots are also Game Wardens; all are graduates of post certified academies. Pilots have been full peace officers since 1950. They are responsible for keeping up all the required training to maintain their status as peace officers.

They police ocean fisheries for pollution, night poaching, illegal stream diversions, marijuana plantations, and oil spills.

Office of Spill Prevention and Response OSPR

The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska was a wake-up call for the United States. It clearly identified the need to develop a comprehensive oil spill prevention and response program. In no place, outside of Alaska, was that call heard louder than in California. Public concern hit a threshold, in February 1990, when the tanker vessel American Trader discharged 10,000 barrels of oil into Southern California waters, oiling an estimated 3,400 birds and forcing the closure of 25 kilometers of prime beach for five weeks. As a direct result of the public's demand for action, the California legislature passed the Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act of 1990 that established the Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR). OSPR, as a division of the CDFW, is the lead state agency charged with the mission:

"... to provide the best achievable protection to California's natural resources by preventing, preparing for, and responding to spills of oil and other deleterious materials, and through restoring and enhancing affected resources".

OSPR, and its mission, is unique in that it is the only state agency in the United States with combined regulatory, law enforcement, pollution response and public trust authority along the coast or within tidally influenced waters. Thus, OSPR's dual regulatory / trustee authority assures that oil spill prevention and response to spills will safeguard wildlife and the ecosystems in which they live and restore these resources when injured by pollution incidents.

The Enforcement Program within OSPR enforces laws that prevent oil spills, dispatches personnel, and investigates spills. Fish and Game Wardens are sworn peace officers with the authority to enforce both criminal and civil statutes. Wardens conduct spill investigations and gather and prepare evidence that is essential to any court case.

During a spill response, the State On-Scene Coordinator (or Incident Commander) is usually an OSPR Warden. The OSPR Enforcement Program includes the Department's 24-hour Communications Center, which received more than 3300 spill reports in 2004. There are approximately 30 officers (Captains, Lt's, Wardens) assigned to the Enforcement Program in California.

Wildlife Forensics Laboratory

To protect wildlife from abuse by poaching, California Fish and Game Wardens must be able to determine as much as possible about the sex, species, age, and origin of bloodstains, tissues and other animal parts they confiscate or find. For example, in the course of an investigation, tissue samples may be collected at the site of an illegal kill, bloodstains may be found in a vehicle, and frozen meat seized at a residence. Other examples are as widespread as is the variation in fauna throughout the State of California, from the crest of the Sierras, the Desert and to the Pacific Ocean. Such samples can provide not only investigative information, but, can also later be used as evidence in criminal trials. A critical link in the impact of this physical evidence is the amount of information that can be obtained through analyses at a Forensic Crime Lab.

The term "forensic" is most simply defined as the application of science to the purposes of the law. "Crime Labs" are laboratories which, as their primary function, conduct forensic analyses on physical evidence primarily in criminal cases and provide legally acceptable reports and expert testimony regarding their findings. For wildlife purposes, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has maintained a Wildlife Forensic Laboratory (WFL) since the early 1950s. The WFL's sole purpose and mission is to use accepted forensic science procedures to examine, analyze, report and testify at criminal trials on physical evidence seized by CDFG Wardens in criminal poaching cases. As such, the WFL is a State Crime Lab. It is the only State Wildlife Forensic Lab. This mission is mandated by the California Judicial System in order to enforce and prosecute criminal cases. During the past fifty plus years thousands of poachers have been convicted of crimes perpetrated on wildlife partially because of results provided by the WFL on evidence submitted by Fish and Game Wardens. In addition the deterrent effect on poaching just by the mere existence of the WFL is immeasurable.

The impact made by forensic analyses of physical evidence in criminal investigations and in criminal trials can hardly be overstated. As former California Attorney General and now Congressman Dan Lungren stated in a news release on January 17, 1996 in which he proposed funding for State Human Crime Lab upgrades, "I have been trying to find some silver lining to the O. J. Simpson case, it may be that millions of people now understand the importance of criminal forensics. That has not always been the case". In addition the television series CSI has added to the public awareness, even though it may not always be realistic. The statement by Lungren alludes to a fundamental ignorance by many non-law enforcement government entities and individuals of the necessity for high quality criminal forensics in California Criminal Justice. This problem manifested itself at the CDFG when, up until 1992, the WFL was under the Wildlife Management Division rather than the Wildlife Protection Division, whose needs they served. During that time, the WFL was extremely under budgeted, given very low priority for supplies, manpower, and equipment, discouraged from scientific modernization, and was consistently the first section scheduled for elimination during the Departments constant cyclic budgetary problems. Virtually all public crime labs in California are assigned directly under a law enforcement agency to minimize this type of problem. They are either under their City or County Sheriff or Police Department, the County District Attorney's Office, or in the case of the California state government human crime labs, the California Department of Justice. Accordingly, the WFL appropriately became assigned under the Wildlife Protection Division in 1993 where the unique needs of criminal forensics could be monitored and directed by the CDFG's law enforcement entity which exclusively uses these highly specialized and judicially intensely scrutinized services.

Merger with California Highway Patrol

It has also been discussed to merge the Law Enforcement Division of the California Department of Fish and WIldlife into the California Highway Patrol.[4][5] By doing so, this may allow for better protection of California's environment and natural resources. The underfunded DFG Law Enforcement Division[6][7][8] has faced low numbers of Game Wardens also known as Conservation Police Officers for the last ten years; a similar idea is already in place in Oregon and Alaska, where the Oregon State Police[9] and Alaska State Troopers[10] serve as game wardens under a separate fish and wildlife division within the two departments.

Wild Justice Television Show

This National Geographic production is a reality series created by Original Productions, the same team that produces "Deadliest Catch," "Axe Men," "Ice Road Truckers," and many other popular reality series. It follows game wardens from California's Department of Fish and Wildlife throughout the state, but especially in Northern California’s Central Sierra section. The various episodes follow poachers, marijuana grows on public lands, hunting season and illegal game trade, as well as wardens performing a number of other law enforcement and educational tasks. When "Wild Justice" premiered in November 2010, it set the record for a documentary non-scripted reality series premier on the National Geographic Channel, with 3.2 million viewers. An inspiration for the series is the 2009 documentary "Endangered Species: California Fish and Game Wardens," narrated by Jameson Parker and produced by Snow Goose Productions.[11]

California Fish and Game Commission

The California Fish and Game Commission is an organ of the California state government, and is separate from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.[12] Although the Department's name was recently modified by changing the word "Game" to "Wildlife", no such name change has occurred for the Commission.[2]

See also


  1. ^ a b Jim Zobel (November–December 1999). "Department of Fish and Game celebrates 130 years of serving California". California Outdoors. Retrieved 2012-12-29. 
  2. ^ a b Don Thompson (2012-10-04). "Hunting, fishing groups leery of California department's name change".  
  3. ^ 2008 Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, by Brian A Reaves, US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2011
  4. ^ California Fish and Game Commission Meeting March 6, 2008
  5. ^ A how-to guide in revamping woeful DFG Tom Stienstra San Francisco Chronicle December 8, 2002
  6. ^ A world without game wardens? ESPN March 6, 2008
  7. ^ Game-warden shortage is about to get worse San Francisco Chronicle September 23, 2007
  8. ^ Lots of ocean, but few game wardens! Sacramento Bee August 23, 2007
  9. ^ Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division
  10. ^ Division of Alaska Wildlife Troopers
  11. ^ Sipe, Charles. "Editor". 
  12. ^ About the Fish and Game Commission

External links

  • California Department of Fish & Game official website
  • California Fish and Game Wardens Association
  • California Game Wardens Foundation
  • California Fish and Game Commission

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