Danger is part of the job, wildlife conservation officers say
When Rod Burns steps into the woods today, he won’t be looking for deer on the first day of hunting season.
As 750,000 people carrying firearms and knives head out on the state’s busiest hunting day of the year, Burns and other Pennsylvania Game Commission conservation officers will put their lives at risk while making sure hunters follow the law.
On Nov. 11, Wildlife Conservation Officer David Grove, 31, was shot and killed while on patrol in Adams County, becoming the first Game Commission officer killed in the line of duty in 95 years. On Nov. 20, according to various reports, shots were fired in the direction of a conservation officer and deputy investigating a case of illegal baiting in Lackawanna County.
Such dangers are the nature of the job, game officers say.
“We’re pretty vulnerable because most of the people we deal with are already armed and loaded,” said Burns, a conservation officer in western Greene County for the past 12 years.
“But this is what we do. Driving a truck is dangerous. Being in the Army is dangerous. Building bridges can be dangerous, too,” he said. “But if someone falls off one, you don’t stop building them. You take precautions, but you do what you do.”
Opening day of deer season is more hectic than most other periods but not necessarily any riskier, said Gary Fujak, a wildlife conservation officer in western Allegheny County.
Officers visiting rifle ranges, responding to nuisance calls or picking up road-killed wildlife, even in summer, face potential trouble, he said.
“Anything can happen at any time,” Fujak said. “The danger is part of the job, so you have to remain vigilant and make sure you come home safe at the end of the day.”
When fully staffed, the Game Commission has 136 full-time conservation officers, plus office managers who work in the field at this time of year and hundreds more deputies.
Yet in 2008, officers filed just 12 reports of being assaulted or dealing with people resisting arrest, said Rich Weaver, a conservation officer supervisor in the commission’s southwest region office in Bolivar. That was down from 21 incidents reported in 2007.
“I have had very, very few cases where anyone has tried to get physical with me or where I’ve felt threatened in that way,” said Gary Toward, a conservation officer in Westmoreland and Armstrong counties since 1993.
Yet officers do sometimes get hurt. According to the 8,000-member North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association, about 70 officers have been killed accidentally or intentionally in the United States since 1980.
One problem is that officers sometimes must deal with criminals who count poaching wildlife as just one of their misdeeds, Weaver said. The man accused of shooting Grove, Christopher Johnson, 27, was a convicted felon forbidden by law from owning a firearm. Police said Johnson shot Grove after being handcuffed on suspicion of shooting deer illegally at night. Investigators said Johnson told them he did not want to go back to jail.
“A lot of the people we deal with are very familiar with the criminal justice system,” Weaver said. “Rarely are these people the average hunter. When you start looking at their past, they’ve been in other trouble.”
In addition, conservation officers typically work in remote areas in all kinds of weather, day and night.
Weaver said the commission is re-evaluating how officers handle interaction with the public in light of Grove’s slaying.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to think we’re not doing the same thing we always have,” said Burns, who helped train Grove in 2007. “What happened to Officer Grove was a terrible tragedy, but it wasn’t a major surprise to any of us. It could happen to any of us at any time.
“But we were on patrol the night he was killed, and we’ve been on patrol every night since. We just do our jobs.”
Deer season rules
Pennsylvania’s firearms deer season opens today and continues for two weeks, excluding Sundays. Among the rules:
â¢ Hunters must respect private property and safety zones. It’s illegal to hunt, chase or disturb deer within 150 yards of an occupied building without the occupant’s permission if using a firearm or 50 yards if using a bow or crossbow.
â¢ Shooting from a vehicle or within 25 yards of the roadway after exiting a vehicle is illegal.
â¢ Hunters may use rifles to shoot deer in most of the state. The exception is Allegheny County, where only shotguns are permitted.
â¢ Hunters must wear 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on the head, chest and back combined.