Utah study recommends against merging park rangers with wildlife officers
Utah State Parks rangers and Division of Wildlife Resources conservation officers should not be joined into a single law enforcement unit but should work to eliminate duplication of duties and train together as often as possible.
That was the conclusion of a law enforcement efficiency task force set up by the Department of Natural resources at the request of the Utah Legislature.
Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, a Utah Highway Patrol officer, was chairman of the task force and presented its findings to the Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations subcommittee last week.
Perry said that wildlife officers and park rangers perform such different duties that merging them into a single unit would be problematic.
"If I am looking for a chemical engineer, I am not going to hire a civil engineer," he said. "We looked at it as if law enforcement officers can do any job. The guys who do parks have a specific education and passion for what they do, versus wildlife officers and their educational background. My initial reaction was that 'cops are cops, let's merge them together and train them together.' But talking to officers and looking at history, it's not a good fit. It's a round peg in a square hole type of thing."
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, wondered if there is a need for state law enforcement officers at all. He said that county sheriffs could enforce parks and recreation and wildlife laws and do a better job because sheriffs are elected and closer to the people.
According to Mike Fowlks, law enforcement chief for the DWR and a task force committee member, none of the 50 states uses county sheriffs exclusively to enforce wildlife or parks laws.
But there are differences.
In Oregon, for example, State Parks spokesman Chris Havel said there are no commissioned peace officers on that department's staff.
"We enforce park rules within park boundaries, such as don't leave your campfire," he said. "But, for actual law enforcement, we contract with the county sheriff or the Oregon State Police to come out and enforce the law."
Oregon also uses trained state police officers as game wardens separate from its wildlife agency.
California's system is similar to Utah's, where there are commissioned state park peace officers and trained game wardens.
Other states, though, combine the functions of parks and wildlife officers into a single law enforcement agency.
Garfield County sheriff James D. Perkins said that although he has major issues with federal U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management law officers in his county, he has a good working relationship with DWR conservation officers and little involvement with state park rangers.
"The guys I've [worked with] have been respectful of the office of the sheriff, but I have heard there are problems in other parts of the state," he said. "Personally, I haven't seen a lot of problems."
Perry said he disagreed with the idea of turning over wildlife and parks law enforcement duties to county sheriffs.
"Doing that would do a huge disservice to state parks and wildlife," said the Republican from Box Elder County.
He said having sheriffs enforce wildlife and parks laws would require them to buy equipment such as snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and boats, adding a huge burden to county sheriffs.
Testifying before the legislative committee last week, Rich County commissioner Phil Cox emphasized the importance of having wildlife and parks officers available in his small county, which has only four full-time law enforcement officers. He said that Rich County's population of 2,100 can grow to as large as 45,000 on a busy summer holiday weekend as people from all over the state come to Bear Lake to go boating, fishing or hiking. The agencies work together to provide as much coverage in as short an amount of time as possible.
Cox said county deputies work closely with state officials, something Perry confirmed. His duties as a trooper often take him to the Raspberry Days festival in August at Bear Lake to supplement Rich County and parks and wildlife officers.
Fowlks said conservation officers and park rangers need a particular type of expertise to do their jobs.
"That's why we send our guys to college," he said. "We want them to understand the biological reasons behind wildlife law. We are consistent. With 29 sheriffs, you are going to get 29 different variations on how wildlife laws should be enforced around the state."
Budget cuts forced Utah State Parks to lay off eight park rangers and decommission 14 others from law enforcement work.
Perry said there were some cases such as the manager who oversaw the Green River State Park golf course in which decommissioning was likely justified. But he said his study showed that it saved little money to decommission officers.
He also said park rangers usually make less money than conservation officers, an inefficiency he said should be eliminated.
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Task force recommendations
The Law Enforcement Efficiency Task Force that reviewed efficiencies within Utah State Parks' and the Division of Wildlife Resources' law enforcement sections made these recommendations:
Park rangers should use the same rank structure used by the DWR and local law enforcement agencies.
The two agencies should increase coordination of law enforcement and non-law enforcement responsibilities at various levels, through the use of the shared law enforcement database and through coordination meetings.
State Parks rangers should spend the majority of their time performing enforcement duties.
Create a model and a one-year study that would allow conservation officers and park rangers to register off-highway vehicles and boats in the field.
A uniform should be designed that would be sufficiently different from non-law enforcement personnel to avoid public confusion.
Park rangers should drive law enforcement vehicles.
Park rangers should maintain full law enforcement authority.
Park rangers and conservation officers should not be consolidated into a single unit.
Salaries and hourly work schedules consistent with other state agencies should be considered.
The current education requirements for conservation officers and park rangers should be maintained.
Decommissioned park rangers should be reinstated.
Training classes for park rangers and conservation officers should be consolidated whenever possible or practical.
Utah park ranger and conservation officer information
State Parks reduced the number of full-time rangers from 85 to 59 this year. It currently has 55 rangers assigned throughout 43 state parks, three assistant region managers and one program chief.
In fiscal year 2011, park rangers issued 4,197 citations documenting 6,277 violations; issued 7,601 case reports; provided 238 medical assists; participated in 96 search and rescue operations; performed 350 vessel assists and tows, and performed 1,647 vessel safety inspections. They spend 92.41 percent of their time dedicated to public safety efforts.
The Division of Wildlife Resources law enforcement section consists of 49 district conservation officers, 10 sergeants, eight field investigators, five regional lieutenants, two captains and a chief.
In fiscal year 2011, DWR officers contacted 174,353 people, checked 78,664 licenses, documented 906 illegal kills valued at $556,105; issued 4,614 citations documenting 5,495 violations, and created 858 cases documenting 1,823 violations including 266 felony-level wildlife violations. Ninety-two percent of their time involved wildlife law enforcement work efforts.
Sources: Utah State Parks, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources