Georgia entering vacation season short of game wardens

Published 7:27 pm Saturday, June 1, 2024

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ATLANTA – With the traditional summer vacation season getting underway, Georgia continues to suffer from a chronic shortage of game wardens to serve its 2 million hunters and 600,000 to 700,000 anglers.

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) boasted 250 game wardens back in 2000. But a series of budget cuts had dropped that workforce as low as 181 in fiscal 2017 before it rebounded to 234 in the fiscal 2025 budget that takes effect July 1.

“We’re still not up to where we were 24 years ago,” said Col. Mike England, director of the DNR’s Law Enforcement Division. “How many people are in Georgia in 2000, and how many do we have now?”

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The DNR isn’t alone when it comes to workforce shortages. The $36.1 billion state budget the General Assembly adopted in March includes $3,000 pay raises for workers in state agencies suffering high turnover rates on top of the 4% cost-of-living increases most state and university system employees are getting.

While game wardens are among the workforce groups that will qualify for those additional raises, the increases also are going to a wide range of employees including state troopers and child welfare workers.

But England said game wardens face more difficult work schedules than their colleagues, which contributes to high turnover rates.

“We don’t work shifts,” he said. “Game wardens are on call 24 hours a day.”

Because hunters and anglers tend to pursue their hobbies on weekends, game wardens are only off duty one weekend per month, England said.

“Our officers can’t go home and drink a beer because they may be on call,” he said. “They get tired of the schedule.”

Mike Worley, president and CEO of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, said the shortage of game wardens has not affected the agency’s ability to process applications for hunting and fishing licenses in a timely manner.

“Our technology has helped us a lot,” he said. “There is really not a backlog for hunting and fishing licenses. It’s really about the enforcement.”

Worley said the shortage encourages law breakers to engage in such criminal activities as bringing deer into Georgia that might carry disease or smuggling turtles and other reptiles out of the state for sale on the black market.

“When I run into a game warden in the field, I find them very courteous, thoughtful, and respectful,” he said. “(But) how often are you checked by one of these officers? It’s not often. … There are folks who will roll the dice and take their chances because we don’t have enough of them.”

The DNR’s budget for the coming fiscal year includes $577,000 to hire six additional game wardens. England said that won’t do more than put a dent in the workforce shortage.

“All we’re doing is chipping away a little at a time,” he said.

With games wardens working such long hours because they’re spread so thin, England said it has taken a special type of person to stick with the job.

“Our people are very dedicated,” he said. “They love their job. Those who don’t move on.”