San Diego's game wardens are watching you

If you are fishing or hunting

In San Diego, one of a warden's many duties is to board and inspect commercial fishing vessels at sea.
  • In San Diego, one of a warden's many duties is to board and inspect commercial fishing vessels at sea.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

Foley tries to see who threw what — were they undersized fish? Protected fish?

Foley tries to see who threw what — were they undersized fish? Protected fish?

When Nancy Foley pulls up to the Shelter Island pier, it's a typical Monday morning. Public piers and jetties in California are the only places people are allowed to fish without a license, which now costs a hefty $19, so the pier is lined with happy fishermen enjoying the state’s generosity. Foley parks her state patrol vehicle behind the restroom, slips on a jacket to hide her uniform, flak jacket, and the revolver hanging on her hip, and strolls out to the pier to pay the good sportsmen of California a visit. But somehow the fishermen know the game warden has arrived, and almost immediately fish tossed off the pier begin to slap the water.

The dumping is over in a second. Foley tries to see who threw what — were they undersized fish? Protected fish? But even if Foley had seen who had dumped what, she would have had to recover the fish from the water to issue a citation. So another day in the life of a game warden begins with frustration.

As she leaves the pier, an angry, middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap tells her, "Hey, the Vietnamese are taking under-sized fish again. "

As she leaves the pier, an angry, middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap tells her, "Hey, the Vietnamese are taking under-sized fish again. "

Sitting on the bench behind the restroom is a group of retired gentlemen sunning themselves beside the warm, cinder-block wall. They wave and call out,

"Good morning, Nancy!"

Foley waves back. The old gentlemen are her friends, and in a state that has only 250 game wardens to cover 156,000 square miles, she needs all the friends she can get. 'They’re here every day,” she says, "they see everything, and they give me a lot of information."

One by one, Foley visits each group of fishermen on the pier. There's a young Hispanic father taking his son fishing for the first time, there are several groups of Southeast Asians, a couple of biker-looking fellows with knives as long as swords hanging on their belts, a group of housewives. Foley inspects their tackle boxes, their bait buckets, their lunch sacks. Only one person has a fish — a legal-sized calico bass. Everybody else is clean, at least for now. But in the past Foley has caught people hiding undersized or illegal fish in their coat pockets or in their pants. One man was hoop netting lobsters, which is legal, but hiding the undersized lobsters in his sleeping wife’s purse. "It's a game,” Foley sighs, "like hide and seek. They’re trying to get away with these violations, and we’re trying to catch them."

Bob Turner: “I’m not going to tell you my personal feelings about trapping."

Bob Turner: “I’m not going to tell you my personal feelings about trapping."

As she leaves the pier, an angry, middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap tells her, "Hey, the Vietnamese are taking under-sized fish again. They do it every day. Those people have no comprehension of fishing regulations. They're killing this place.”

“If I catch them doing it, I'll write them a citation,” she tells him.

“Write ’em a citation? They come from a place where people are shot for breaking the law! They don't care about your citation."

When the man’s eyeballs start rolling around and racist slurs start foaming from his mouth, Foley smiles and walks away. Of all the qualities a game warden must have, patience is probably the most important.

Being a five-foot three-inch, soft-spoken female, with no facial hair, and no tobacco juice drooling from her mouth, Foley definitely breaks the stereotype of the outdoorsy, good ol* boy game warden who has been a hunter and fisherman all his life. Foley was hired precisely because she does break that stereotype. For too long, some people say, game warden positions in this state were the exclusive domain of white males. Nancy Foley is one of 36 new game wardens, mostly females and minorities, hired about a year ago. Inside the department, which is still mostly good ol’ boys (there’s only one female lieutenant warden in the state), the grumbling hasn't stopped yet.

But Foley doesn’t let that bother her too much. Many of the younger wardens recognize that she is as qualified as any warden. She worked several years for the National Park Service as a naturalist and ranger, so her knowledge of California's wildlife is excellent, and she’s completed the DFG’s academy, so her law-enforcement skills are good too.

Game wardens generally work alone, often in remote areas, and at night. In San Diego, one of a warden's many duties is to board and inspect commercial fishing vessels at sea, vessels often captained by salty dogs who think of women as those creatures they’re happy to see when they get back to port. Though some people may see Foley’s small stature as a disadvantage for a law-enforcement officer, she says both her gender and stature are an advantage. "Sometimes a big man has to take on another man, like they’re trying to butt heads or something. But when I contact most people, I’m no real threat to their masculinity. I think I’m fortunate to be a female officer, because I can handle the situation differently than a male. I’m not a big, strong female, but I can use my head, and I can use my mouth, and if I get into trouble, I can think of a way to get out of it. I can handle most things myself, and if I can’t, I can back out. But I haven’t had to do that yet. I’ve had no problem. But I can tell you that if I do have to fight, I’m gonna win. I have to.”

There has been only one instance so far, Foley says, when being a female was a disadvantage, and that was in dealing with an immigrant from the Middle East. She was on Harbor Island checking fishing licenses, when she noticed a man who had been fishing with his family quickly get up and begin walking away. “Stay here a minute," she said. “I want to talk to you."

At first the man refused even to recognize her. He wouldn’t give his name, show her his driver’s license, or allow his wife to speak to her. Foley suspected the man didn’t have a fishing license, and she tried to explain to the man, "This is not a crime that will put you in jail for the rest of your life, but I do need the information on your driver’s license to fill out the citation.”

Apparently the man wasn’t worried about the citation — he just wasn’t going to accept it from a woman, even if that meant having to fight her. A crowd was starting to gather to watch the spectacle of a small, female game warden trying to bust an obstinate male twice her size.

Foley was finally able to persuade the man to sit down. She called for a back-up, and when the male officer arrived, the fisherman immediately took out his wallet and handed the officer his license.

Foley’s territory covers San Diego County south of I-8, from the ocean to east of Otay Lakes But she often travels outside that territory, too.

Her duties have included everything from responding to a call of a seven-foot alligator loose in somebody's front yard, to getting a judge to order a stop-work order on a sand and gravel company that was destroying wildlife habitat on the San Luis Rey River, to confiscating a .22 rifle from a man shooting gulls and pelicans from Sunset Cliffs.

Not long ago, the department got a call from the Oceanside police. An officer there had made a traffic stop on a pair of young Hispanics in a pickup. When the officer approached the truck, he saw two deer lying in the back.

The officer didn’t know if it was deer season or not, so he called the DFG. When Foley arrived, she inspected the deer — a doe and a buck, both shot. The men had no hunting licenses or deer tags, and it was not deer season. The men also had four loaded weapons in the vehicle. The men later confessed to killing the deer on Palomar Mountain. They were convicted, but, as Foley says, "That didn’t bring the deer back."

Foley spends a lot of her time on the cliffs at the tip of Point Loma, where there is nearly a 360-degree view of the ocean and bay. Using binoculars and spotting scope, she watches fishermen, hoop netters, and commercial lobster fishermen. She says she has learned to tell by where a hoop netter puts his catch whether or not they’re of legal size. And often they’re not. Last month a hoop netter was caught with 97 lobsters, 94 of them undersized; the legal catch is seven per night.

Foley says that even though the courts have upheld the legality of observing hunters and fishermen from remote sites with spotting scopes, sometimes it feels like an invasion of privacy. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people go to the bathroom off the sides of their boat," she says. "People do all kinds of strange things.”

One time Foley and a couple of other wardens were in Imperial County working the opening of duck-hunting season. They were on a dirt road trying to observe a group of hunters without being seen themselves. Suddenly a car came down the road, and all the wardens ducked into the bushes. The car passed Foley, then stopped and the driver got out. "The guy urinated two feet away from where I was hiding. He was yelling at his wife and never knew I was there. The two guys I was with were practically rolling on the ground to keep from laughing. The worst part was dealing with them after the guy drove away."

One night Foley was on the cliffs at Point Loma. It was seven o'clock at night, and she was ready to go home, when she saw a blacked-out boat in the water below, maybe 400 feet away.

"When you see a boat with their lights out, that gives you a clue that maybe they’re doing something wrong,” she says. It was so quiet Foley could hear the men in the boat talking and coughing, and she could see them lighting cigarettes. It was during lobster season, and the men were hoop netting. But Foley had already discovered that one of the finest traits in a game warden is the ability just to wait and watch. After a while, the men shined a flashlight on one of the small buoys that mark commercial lobster traps. One by one, the men went around to all the traps, pulled the traps, and stole the lobsters that were inside. Foley watched the hoop netters until two in the morning, then when they headed in, she met them at the Shelter Island ramp and wrote them a citation.

Another of Foley’s duties is to go to swap meets and gun shows looking for people selling illegal animal parts. The claws, jawbones, and teeth from black bears or mountain lions have become popular jewelry items, and a bearskin rug will sometimes bring as much as $1000. So far bear parts haven’t been turning up in San Diego in great numbers, but in Los Angeles County, DFG wardens recently issued 11 citations in three days at a swap meet where illegal bear parts were being sold. Last year DFG wardens in Los Angeles arrested 23 Asian herbalists selling bear gallbladders, which supposedly are valued by Asians as a folk cure. Most of the gallbladders, it turned out, were taken from pigs, but it's still a violation even to offer bear parts for sale.

In San Diego County one of the oddest duties of a game warden is to watch for people illegally capturing reptiles in the desert. The Anza-Borrego desert is home to several reptiles that are found nowhere else in the world, and there's a big business in capturing and selling the rare reptiles to scientific collecting houses that specialize in reselling the specimens to colleges and universities.

The collecting of some species of reptiles is permitted by law — usually the limit is two, the reptiles can't be sold, and the collector must have a fishing license. Other reptiles, like the desert tortoise, the San Diego horned lizard, and the southern desert boa, are strictly protected.

DFG wardens often patrol the desert areas at night, particularly on calm, warm, moonless nights when the reptiles — and collectors — are out in great numbers. The wardens turn off their lights and park on a knoll overlooking a stretch of highway. Reptile collectors often have their low-beam headlights adjusted lower than normal, and their pattern of collecting is easy to spot; they drive until they see a reptile crossing the road, then they stop, get out, capture the reptile, then drive again.

"Collecting reptiles is more common than many people realize," Foley says. "One night just south of the Anza-Borrego park boundary, on S-2, every single car we stopped that night was collecting reptiles.”

After a year on the job, Foley says she's convinced she’s found a career as a warden. But she admits she’s still "just a pup" — a rookie — and has a lot to learn. "If you want to know what being a game warden is really all about," she says, "you should go talk to Bob Turner, the warden in Pine Valley*

Most people either love or hate the California Department of Fish and Game. Some people love and hate the department, and sometimes the department loves and hates itself. An example of the latter case is a recent morning DFG warden Bob Turner spent at the K mart parking lot in El Cajon. During three hours there, Turner tagged 153 bobcat hides that had been trapped and skinned by the 20 to 30 professional trappers who work in the East County.

Before trappers are allowed to sell their hides, they have to bring them to a game warden for inspection and receive a tag. Over the entire trapping season this year. Turner tagged about 500 bobcats, most of them taken in San Diego County. He believes there were probably even more taken locally, since many professional trappers roam from county to county, or even state to state, and are allowed to have their hides tagged in any county.

Bob Turner, who was Nancy Foley’s training officer, is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable game wardens in Southern California. He was born and raised in San Diego County, his father was born and raised in Jacumba, and Turner grew up hunting in the backcountry he now patrols. He has a degree in zoology from San Diego State, and he spent ten years working as a state park ranger — much of that time in Anza-Borrego — before becoming a DFG game warden in 1981.

So Turner knows what he’s talking about. But because he's a government employee, he can’t always talk about what he knows. “I’m not going to tell you my personal feelings about trapping,” he insists. "Trapping is part of the fish and game laws in this state, and I’m sworn to uphold those laws.”

But when Turner describes the realities of animal trapping, the disgust in his voice betrays his true emotions: "A gray fox is a small animal, so usually the trap breaks their leg bones, and the only thing holding them in the trap is the skin that gets pinched between the bones,” he says. "You leave a fox in that trap for very long, he’ll pull or chew himself out and leave his leg in the trap. Bobcats will thrash around a bit but usually quiet down and huddle up after they’re trapped. Coyotes, on the other hand, tear up everything and fight from the minute they’re caught until the minute they’re clubbed or shot."

Shooting an animal costs money, and if a trapper is shooting dozens of animals, it can get expensive. So the preferred method for killing trapped animals is to club them to death. "What they do," Turner says, “is club them just above the bridge of the nose. That knocks the animal down and stuns it. Then they stand on the animal's chest and stomp until they break its ribs and collapse its lungs."

In some cases, even that doesn’t kill the animal. “A few years ago, I checked a trapper who had a fox in the back of his truck. Its leg was broke, and he’d stomped it, but it was still breathing." Apparently the trapper figured he’d kill the animal properly when he had time.

Bobcats in years past would bring 250 to 300 dollars; this year $85 is what they got for them.

A game warden’s job is to protect wildlife, and in an agency whose revenue comes almost entirely from license fees from hunters, fishermen, and trappers, protecting wildlife has usually meant protecting game animals so they can later be hunted and trapped. Critics of the department, who in increasing numbers are members of the department, say that besides being brutal and inhumane by modern standards of animal treatment, the DFG’s animal trapping policy brings heaps of scorn upon the agency. Animal protection groups have termed the Department of Fish and Game's policy "cash for critters.”

Bob Turner believes that in California the public’s awareness of wildlife has increased to the point that the DFG can’t continue to follow the old-fashioned policies of managing wildlife for a small, select group of hunters, trappers, and fishermen. "There are only 1080 licensed trappers in California," he points out, “yet there are literally millions of people in the state who despise trapping."

Ten years ago, when coyote hides would bring $75 apiece and prime bobcats were bringing $300, there were trappers in California who earned small fortunes for three months of work.

(The fee for a trapper’s license in this state is only $50.) Coyote hides from California were made into fur coats and sold in Japan or Europe, where they were marketed under exotic-sounding names like "Siberian silver wolf’ or "Canadian lynx.” Those days are over — at least for the time being. “This year,” Turner says, "fox pelts were worth about $14. Coyotes this year were worth nothing, so trappers shot them or clubbed them and threw them in the ditch. Bobcats in years past would bring 250 to 300 dollars; this year $85 is what they got for them.

"The market has been damaged by the animal-rights groups. The fur dealers won't buy the hides now because they can’t sell them to the European markets. Also, this is the first year that trapping was banned in three California counties, by county ordinance."

(The three are Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and Nevada Counties. The DFG is fighting the ordinances in court.)

Many trappers live in a wild-West fantasy in which they see themselves as a rugged, dying breed of man and the DFG as an encroachment on their right to make a living off the land. They rationalize their treatment of animals by saying that if predators aren't controlled, coyotes and bobcats will reproduce in such large numbers they will take over the countryside and begin eating our pets, children, and anything else they can gulp down. Turner’s response to that is, “What do you think all these animals did before trappers started trapping them? Animal populations, you see, will regulate themselves. There will be as many predators out there as there is food to support them.

"Right now we're taking large numbers of bobcats out of the population, the survivors are having large litters, and all their offspring are surviving. If there were no trapping, there would simply be smaller litters and fewer survivors."

The territory where Turner spends most of his time ranges from the Mexican border to Julian, and Alpine to Imperial County. It's one of the most interesting and varied terrains on the continent, an area that contains an amazing range of plant and animal life, from the alpine meadows of Cuyamaca to the badlands of Anza-Borrego.

While most DFG wardens think of Southern California as the first place you're assigned to as a rookie and the place you leave the first chance you get, Turner loves his territory and has no plans of leaving. When other wardens kid him about being a game warden in Southern California, he smiles and says facetiously, “Hey, I was born and raised here. I don't know any different.”

In many ways, Bob Turner fits the mold that fish and game wardens in California have come from for the past 100 years: He’s a white male who grew up hunting and fishing, he’s independent, easygoing, yet tough minded. But somewhere along the line Turner, and a lot of other young wardens these days, stepped out of the traditional mold of the Field & Stream hunter and fishermen. The last time Turner went deer hunting in San Diego County, he found a big buck in his scope. "I said to myself, 'Knowing what I know about wildlife in this county, do I really want to kill this deer?’ I couldn’t pull the trigger.”

Turner has taken a very personal interest in the deer population in San Diego, and that interest has led him through a broad spectrum of thinking that has occasionally brought him into conflict with the department. When he first became a warden eight years ago, he spent a lot of his time in the field trying to catch poachers, and he had his share of busts: "One morning about seven o’clock, I just happened to be driving north on Highway 79 into Cuyamaca State Park. As I came around a corner, I saw a guy holding a gun up. I saw the muzzle flash, then, as soon as

"I've seen the deer population take a dive since 1955, when hunters took 1306deer in this county. Last year they took 160."

the guy saw me, he lowered the gun and put it in the car. So I pulled in behind him, got out and said, ‘Whatcha shootin’?'

"'Coyote.’

“I looked over and saw a little fawn thrashing around, trying to get up. I said, ’Fella, that’s no coyote.' I took his gun away and cited him for possessing a loaded gun in a state park, discharging a loaded gun in a state park, shooting across a highway, hunting deer without a license or tag, killing an illegal deer [a fawn], and shooting a deer with a .22. The judge gave him his gun back and fined him $65”

Wardens all over the state are disgusted by the paltry fines judges routinely give for fish and game violations. Part of the problem is that after a judge sees so many violent criminals like rapists and murderers, a poacher scarcely catches his attention. “I try to tell them these people are raping and murdering our wildlife," Turner says. But so far that argument hasn't impressed many magistrates.

Many judges come from an urban background, with little experience in the outdoors, and they have no way to attach a value on a deer’s life, Turner says. The DFG is currently trying to correct that problem by establishing dollar values, as odd as that may seem, on each species of animal. That way, judges can levy uniform fines — say $1000 for poaching a deer.

But even then. Turner says, chasing poachers may not be the most effective use of a warden’s time. "I could spend a week in the field trying to catch poachers, and I’d be lucky to catch even one. And even if I did, the deer would already be dead.... I don’t think poaching is that big a factor on the deer herd right now, simply because there aren’t that many deer out there to poach. We catch spotlighters out there all the time, but we don’t catch them with deer. ! [Spotlighting is a violation in itself.] The poachers are looking, they’re looking hard, but there’s just no deer."

Anybody familiar with the deer herd in San Diego County has come to suspect that what Turner says is true, that there is something seriously wrong with the deer herd here. Biologists working for the DFG have repeatedly denied there is a problem, but Turner says the facts prove them wrong. “I’ve seen the deer population take a dive since 1955, when hunters took 1306 deer in this county. Last year they took 160. That’s a tremendous drop. I think something really aggressive has to be done to correct that trend, and all the other wardens in the county think so too."

By far the single greatest threat to deer locally, Turner believes, is the destruction of habitat.

"Between Escondido and San Diego, you used to be able to hunt in those mountains. But now it’s a sea of houses. Deer won't survive in a housing development."

The solution, Turner says — not just for deer but for all wildlife — is to save the little habitat that's left. "We have to stop the development. But that's a hard thing to do in a capitalistic society, because the goal of every developer is to make as much money as he possibly can, without any regard for wildlife."

Turner says there are several other factors that are having a devastating impact on the deer in San Diego County too:

• Road kills. “There’s more traffic on our roads, so there’s an increase in the road mortality. On the stretch of I-8 between Alpine and Pine Valley, 70 deer a year are being killed." The DFG is looking at the possibility of putting up a six-foot-high chain-link fence on both sides of that stretch of freeway.

• Dogs. "In the backcountry, people’s dogs are running deer all the time, and their owners don't even know it. They say ‘Spike's been on the porch sleeping all day.' Well, sure, he's sleeping all day — he’s been out running deer all night."

• Mountain lions. "There's been a big increase in the mountain lion population. There are more lions in San Diego County right now than there have ever been. And their biggest prey is deer." Though some lions in the county are being killed through depredation permits issued to cattlemen, animal protection groups have stopped proposed mountain lion hunts in California for two consecutive years. But many environmentalists are beginning to believe lions should be reduced in number, perhaps by professional hunters working for the DFG.

• Hunting. “We can’t continue a five-month deer hunt in San Diego County," Turner says. (Last year the archery hunt in San Diego began on September 3, and the last day of a special archery hunt ended January 31. The general season lasted a total of four weeks.) “All the other western states I know of hunt deer for ten days to two weeks.... Our deer reproduce in November and December. It’s important to leave them alone during that time. Otherwise, we won’t have any deer left."

Technically speaking, a game warden's duties are wildlife protection, not wildlife management, and Turner has been criticized within the department for overstepping his duties. But, he says, "I believe that part of wildlife protection is wildlife management." He challenges the DFG’s biologists to prove him wrong concerning the deer herd, but he says they can’t because "the last deer population study in the county was done in 1947. So I tell the management people, You have no data.’"

Turner has been severely critical of the wildlife management division of the DFG for not doing its job. "Our management goals, which we set in 1976, said that we would restore and maintain a healthy deer herd. We've done nothing whatsoever to restore our deer herd in the last 13 years. The hunters are mad. They’re tired of paying for hunting licenses and tags without ever getting a deer. They blame the low deer population on us, and they're correct, we are to blame.”

In the last four years, deer tag sales in San Diego County have dropped 37 percent. Statewide there has also been a tremendous decline in deer tags sold in the last 15 years. Because its funds have traditionally come from hunting, trapping, and fishing licenses, rather than general staite funds, the DFG was faced with budget deficits. The department tried to compensate by raising the cost of hunting and fishing licenses but were still left with less revenue. Just this year, though, the DFG announced a new program in which the public will be charged a user fee to visit wildlife refuges throughout the state. Initially the plan includes only nine refuges, including the Imperial-Wister Wildlife Area in Imperial County, but will later be expanded. Besides raising new revenues for the DFG, the program will give an opportunity for non-hunters and non-fishermen to contribute to wildlife protection and will help ease the "cash for critters” criticism of the agency.

Environmentalists have been supportive of the plan and have said they are more than willing to contribute their fair share to wildlife management, as long as their viewpoints are represented in the DFG's management plans. If Bob Turner has his say, they will. "I think what's really important, and what the department has got to start looking at is that we have to manage wildlife for all the people of the state — not just select groups."

It's inevitable that Turner's criticism of the DFG will bring him into conflict with the department. Every bureaucracy is cursed and blessed with individuals like him who know too much and care too much to go along with the program blindly. Perhaps the most constructive thing experienced game wardens like him can do for the department is become its best-informed critics. But, he says, if the day ever comes when he isn't allowed to do that, "Hey, I can always sell shoes.”

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