Should Maine Game Wardens Operate With an Annual Quota System?
By V. Paul Reynolds
When they receive their badges, Maine game wardens take an oath. As state conservation officers, it is their solemn duty to protect Maine's natural resources. They do this, of course, by catching violators of Maine's fish and game laws. It is what wardens do. If you exceed your legal bag limit of trout or kill a turkey out of season you are breaking the law and, in effect, stealing Maine's natural resources. Since wardens were wardens there has always been debate, and sometimes strong disagreement, about just what constitutes "reasonable enforcement." For example, deterrence is part of modern law enforcement. A warden who "shows the uniform," in an area where there is a lot of fishing activity, is engaging in an enforcement function. In some cases it may be best for a game warden to educate by simply issuing a warning to an unintentional violator. He can then come down hard on intentional violators and repeat offenders who break state fish and game laws without hesitation.
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Over the years, the game warden's attitude and approach to his duties has been varied depending upon the policies and "enforcement culture" that has come down from leadership.Some warden service administrations have drawn harder lines than others. In fact there was a day in Maine- not so long ago- that Maine game wardens were graded almost exclusively on the number of fish and wildlife violators nabbed each year. In some instances, the warden who wrote the most summons was considered the top "woods cop." He was a strong candidate for Warden of the Year. Wardens became competitive about citation writing. These were the days of the so-called quota system. This climate led to instances where wardens might have been overly aggressive, issuing summons in cases where the violator should merely have been warned and educated.
But things have changed over the years. Faced with charges of enforcement excesses, the Warden Service took a hard look at its public image. Under the leadership of former Chief Warden Tim Peabody the service made a conscious effort to improve its public relations and save the hard line enforcement for hardcore poachers and repeat offenders. The administrators of today's Maine Warden Service have become more progressive emphasizing the need for well-rounded game wardens. The goal is conservation officers who can speak to a school or rod and gun club on Monday, bust a poacher Tueday night, and show up an ice fishing derby on Saturday to teach a kid how to drill a hole in the ice and bait a tipup.
This winter, however, Maine's law enforcement grapevine was abuzz with whisperings about the return of the dreaded and controversial quota system within the ranks of the warden service. To get some straight answers, I talked with Maine's Chief Warden Col. Tom Santaguida.
My first question of the Colonel: Does the Maine Warden Service have a quota system requiring Game Wardens to issue so many summons each year to fish and wildlife violators? "Absolutely not," says Santaguida. "Wardens are not required to issue X amount of warnings or summons per year," explains Santaguida. "However each warden is performance rated, as are all state employees, using a performance-based evaluation system that measures a warden's performance on the job. And issuing warnings and summons is part of a warden's job, along with many other activities."
As Santaguida explains it, district wardens and their supervisors operate from a "work plan" for each district, which has its own unique enforcement issues. These district wardens and their supervisors meet periodically to reach a mutual understanding as to what constitutes reasonable performance standards for that particular warden and his or her particular district.
Santaguida concedes that there have been cases when a game warden's performance ratings were not up to "reasonable standards." He explains that "if you have a district warden responsible for an area where there is heavy fishing pressure and no summons or warnings were issued during that rating period, you have a case in all probability where a reasonable performance standard was not being met. In that case, the district warden and his sergeant would discuss the problem and make a joint decision about what the reasonable minimal standards of performance ought to be for that given district," says Santaguida.
Cynics may argue that if you saddle any warden with a performance standard that includes the required issuance of a minimum number of summons or warnings that that is, in effect, a back door way of instituting a quota system. No doubt there are some district wardens who see it this way. These same wardens harbor concerns that this "work plan" approach to supervising District Wardens could undo the positive relationships that wardens have re-established with Maine sportsmen.
These are realistic concerns that merit the attention of the Chief Warden's office. The periodic staff meetings between his office and the statewide Warden Service should provide a forum for addressing these issues.
As Santaguida notes, some of these changes are an offshoot of recommended changes that came from a reputable management study of the Warden Service. Times have changed since the early days when a Maine Game Warden was simply a woods savvy guy who was issued a badge and a gun and told to go catch poachers. In today's complex work climate of state and federal work regulations, wage and hour laws, union contracts, and labor law, enlightened managers must rely on performance ratings of
employees and standards of accountability.
The job of a Maine Game Warden is unique in many respects. Above all, wardens -good wardens- make careful judgements about when to cut some slack with sportsmen and when to draw a hard line. Assigning all District Wardens an across- the -board quota of summons that had to be issued each year would be a dangerous precedent that would usurp their freedom to make good field decisions. In time, a traditional quota system would also undo the progress that wardens have made in cultivating good rapport with sportsmen.
The current performance-based evaluation system seems reasonable enough. Its success will rest on how well our Warden Sergeants work with their District Wardens in implementing their district "work plans." Given the overall quality and caliber of Maine's Warden Sergeant corps, chances of success are very high.
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program "Maine Outdoors" heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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