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Weekly Department Feature: New Jersey's conservation officers combine law enforcement, education

August 27, 2001
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Weekly Department Feature: New Jersey's conservation officers combine law enforcement, education

TRENTON, New Jersey -- New Jersey's conservation officers have helped round up a loose tiger and gone undercover, posing as diners in restaurants suspected of serving illegally purchased venison and striped bass and as hunters eager to sell illegal meat and animal parts.

But the officers in the Fish & Wildlife Division's police force spend most of their time on more mundane matters -- enforcing the regulations on commercial fisheries and fishing and hunting licenses and the laws protecting endangered species. Education is one of their most important tasks, said division spokesman Al Ivany.

With fewer than 50 officers in a state with 8 million people, thousands of white-tailed deer, a growing black bear population and hundreds of miles of coastal and river waters, the officers have their work cut out for them.

The duties of the 45 officers on the job include everything from checking hunting and fishing licenses and enforcing laws on seasons to undercover investigations of operations that sell wild game or animals illegally to joining in a hunt for an escaped tiger. Al Ivany, a spokesman for the Division of Fish and Wildlife, said that education is also an important part of their work.

"They’re constantly on the move," Ivany said.

New Jersey requires its conservation officers to have far more training than most states, Ivany said. Applicants must have a four-year degree with a major in an environmental or biological science or natural resource or wildlife management. Once they are accepted, they go through 10 weeks of departmental training, followed by 18 to 20 weeks at the state police academy or another certified police academy and four to six months of field training.

The trained officers have police powers to make arrests and carry service weapons. And they enforce regulations that can include heavy fines for violators. For example, Ivany said, in recent years some people who claimed that they have shot black bears in self defense have been fined $3,000 when investigators determined that they were not under threat when they fired. But most of their confrontations with the public in recent years have been non-violent, although two fish and game wardens, as they were then known, gave their lives to protect nature, William Holblitzell in September 1921 and David W. Brocker in November 1951.

In 1999, the officers carried out a major undercover operation aimed at illegal selling of striped bass, deer and black bear parts. Eventually, 21 restaurants were fined up to $3,000 per incident for illegally serving bass, which cannot be fished commercially because of PCB contamination, and venison, which is protected from commercial sale. Another restaurant owner faced fines totaling $13,000 for illegal purchases of venison, and a New York man was charged with trafficking in black bear parts, deer fetuses and deer antlers for use in folk medicine.

The tiger incident was not a normal part of conservation police work. The animal, believed to be an escapee from a private preserve near the Jersey Shore, was spotted in the woods. Conservation officers and local police surrounded the beast and attempted to tranquilize it. But when night fell, officials decided that the risk to the public of having a tiger on the loose was too great, and it was shot. But conservation officers must also enforce the law when zoos and preserves house animals they do not have permits for or when animals are being kept in poor conditions.

The officers are organized into four divisions, with two supervisors and 10 field officers in each when the department is at full strength. They are responsible for the north, central and south regions of the state and the surrounding waters to three miles offshore. The last group has to police not just people fishing for sport but New Jersey’s commercial fishing industry, which has become increasingly heavily regulated because of concerns about over fishing.

Throughout the state, interactions between humans and wildlife are on the rise. Populations of deer and black bear have exploded because suburban and exurban areas provide better habitat than the farmland they replaced. In the Pine Barrens of South Jersey, buyers of houses in one development discovered they were living near a major hibernating area for timber rattlesnakes, classified as an endangered species in the state. In another recent incident, a dachshund suffered a fatal rattlesnake bite in a state park after its owner let the dog off the leash and it jumped over a log and took the snake by surprise.

Educating residents on how to coexist safely with wild animals works better than rigid enforcement of the laws after the fact, Ivany said. The officers go to schools and constantly talk to hunters and fishing enthusiasts about the importance of wildlife protection.

"Those are the people that come into contact with more people than any of us," Ivany said. "When I was a kid in school, I loved hearing (talks and lectures from) the conservation officers."

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