The history of conservation law enforcement was simultaneous with the conservation movement in Wisconsin and is replete with backwoods stories of heroes and legends that were conservation wardens. Who were these people and why did they serve? Perhaps Chief Warden, Barney Divine came closest to answering that question in 1938 when he said:
The answer is hard to put into words. It’s a matter of deep-seated feelings, a combination of circumstances that makes men forget monetary gain and do a job that they can put their heart and soul into. Maybe it has something to do with love of the outdoors, the woods, the lakes and streams, the creatures of the wilderness. Maybe it takes men who have some sort of feeling for nature’s infinite plan and who derive from the natural things that so often surround them a greater inspiration then they might gain from closer contacts with the works of man. Possibly, there is something of a love of adventure in these men who are wardens, the thrill of contest with the forces of nature and the wits of men who by their acts have become opponents of conservation, enemies of the laws wardens are sworn to enforce.
Early Regulatory Game Management
As citizens across the United States reacted to the uncontrolled game harvest and habitat deterioration of the early 19th century, the first laws were passed protecting game and wildlife. By 1850, 19 states had established game laws. In the decades that followed, other states passed regulations, and by 1880, all states had some form of game laws. However, laws provided only limited protection of certain species, and enforcement was practically nonexistent.
Unrestricted harvest in Wisconsin combined with increasing settlement eventually produced considerable complaint by citizens concerned with rapidly declining resources. As a result, Wisconsin’s first “game management” laws were enacted in 1851 closing deer hunting from February through June, and closing the seasons on prairie chickens, quail, woodcock, and pheasant from February 1 through August 1.
A barrage of regulations poured into the Legislature over the next 50 years as concerned people attempted to control the harvest of declining fish and wildlife populations.
Wisconsin Warden Evolution
The first Wisconsin warden, appointed in 1879, was Rolla Baker of Bayfield. Three more “fish wardens” were appointed to enforce fishing laws on the Great Lakes in 1885. The first four Wisconsin “game wardens” were authorized in 1887, but initially only two were hired: John White and W. Y. Wentworth. The pay was $600 per year with a $250 maximum authorized for expenses. However, most enforcement still fell on local sheriffs, marshals, or constables who didn’t give much attention to fish and game violations.
On May 5, 1891, the Office of the State Fish and Game Warden was established in Madison, combining the two functions into one position. This individual was to be appointed by the governor for a two-year term at an annual salary of $1,200 and required to submit quarterly reports to the Secretary of State. A published report for 1891 documented 20 local game laws, regular open season laws, and 135 laws pertaining to individual rivers and lakes. The position received office space at the state capitol in 1895.
The hiring of the first wardens was important but had little impact statewide for almost 30 years. The number of fish and game deputies appointed by local law enforcement authorities fluctuated annually, and most that were recruited tended to be selected because of favors owed or political favoritism, so enforcement from them was nonexistent or, at best, very weak. Wardens and any helpers they had faced a huge, road-less territory with little equipment but a gun and a badge.
Wisconsin’s Governor James O. Davidson took part in a 1908 conference of governors conducted by President Teddy Roosevelt and returned enthusiastic about the leadership role his state could provide. He appointed Wisconsin’s first Conservation Commission on July 24, 1908. The seven-man, unsalaried commission was chaired by Charles Van Hise and focused its attention on waterpower, forests, and soils. Its first report featured many new fire protection methods and laws. Fish and wildlife were not part of this early effort.
The seven-man commission format was reauthorized by the Legislature in 1911. The sale of hunting licenses increased from 125,000 that year, and by 1913, the full-time warden force had grown to 74, with pay at $2.50 per day. License sales reached 155,000 in 1914 and continued to increase annually on a regular basis.
Another significant change in conservation administration took place in 1915 when a three-man, paid commission took over the duties of the former seven-man commission. The new bureaucracy absorbed the duties of the park board, forestry board, commission of fisheries, and the State Fish and Game Warden Office. For the first time, fisheries and wildlife received special attention. One commissioner was in charge of the “Protection of Fish and Game Division,” and game wardens received the new title “conservation wardens.” The total Conservation Commission budget in fiscal year 1915–16 was $209,000.
The 1915 commission identified itself as “the department of the Wisconsin Conservation Commission,” and the warden organization was entitled “Division of Wild Life Conservation.” Most importantly for fish and wildlife, the priority for the new agency shifted from forestry and fires to broader resource issues. More substantial equipment was acquired to support the field force of wardens, rangers, and park superintendents. The deer herd was recognized as a prized state resource and began to dominate wildlife discussions.
The new enforcement division had meager beginnings in 1915. A warden equipment inventory listed 25 motorcycles, one automobile, three Ford trucks, 14 rowboats, 12 detachable motors, and six launches named Beda, Anna S., Kingfisher, Wisconsin, S ubmarine, and Galatea. Eight wardens owned automobiles, and two wardens with horses were paid accordingly.
By 1916, the average warden was paid a monthly salary of $60 and a special allowance of $0.30 per meal. In the 1915–16 biennial report of the Conservation Commission, the warden force was listed at 76, of which 63 were engaged in full-time “wild life” patrol duties. The 1918 record listed 58 regular wardens and 105 non-salaried “specials.”
Commission expenditures for July 1, 1916, to June 30, 1917, were reflective of the commission’s priorities right down to the penny: administration – $27,990.21; forestry – $19,580.98; parks – $9,914.20; wardens – $110,813.28; and fisheries – $43,375.10. The total budget for operations was $211,673.77.
World War I undoubtedly had financial impact and also took experienced field personnel for the war effort. Several wardens were enlisted “when the call went out for men to join the colors.” The quote from the biennial report for 1917–1918 documented the loss with a rather grandiose statement: “The vicissitudes of war and the dark scepter of death have greatly reduced the ranks of this division.”
The 1917 Legislature gave the commission the power to close or curtail seasons to protect one or more species of wild animals. Recognizing they did not have the ability to inventory wildlife to see if protection was warranted, the commission introduced a bill to require hunters to report on the game killed using a coupon attached to the hunting license. That bill failed, but the commission was able to get a similar bill passed in 1917 requiring trappers to report their annual harvest.
The commission created a bimonthly magazine entitled The Wisconsin Conservationist in March of 1919. The purpose of the magazine was to inform citizens about what the commission did for the public’s benefit. Selling for $0.15 an issue or $0.50 per year’s subscription, the magazine featured warden arrests, warden activities, fish and wildlife stories, and related news events by various authorities. The magazine went out of circulation in November 1922 just before the commission was reorganized.
Game feeding, forest fire assistance, and more regulations were added to the list of warden duties in the 1920s. License sale passed 200,000 in 1924. Six warden districts were formed that year, each under the leadership of a district warden supervisor. The warden force included 52 full-time wardens, 21 of which had state-owned cars for transportation instead of their own vehicles.
The administrative structure underwent yet another significant change in 1923 when a single, paid commissioner was placed in charge. Elmer Hall, said to be an unemployed friend of the governor, was appointed conservation commissioner at a salary of $5,000 per year. The conservation organization was composed of three divisions: (1) Forest and Parks, (2) Fisheries, and (3) Game (wardens). A superintendent was in charge of each division. However, limited funds and political patronage prevented the new organization from being effective.
Operational expenditures demonstrated increased funding, but agency priorities remained unchanged: administration – $37,688.77; forestry – $31,496.33; parks – $28,986.40; wardens – $130,645.97; and fisheries – $89,294.47. The total operational budget for fiscal year 1922–23 was $318,111.94.
Funding shortages in 1926 forced the layoff of 26 wardens, half of the existing full-time force. The layoffs extended for over 30 days and were very demoralizing for those affected. No funds were provided to hire any specials during this time period, with obvious impact on statewide enforcement abilities.
In the meantime, the Wisconsin Conservation Commission was struggling. Limited budgets, a declining resource, and increasing politics created a morass prohibiting any kind of significant progress. At the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Division of the Izaak Walton League in 1925, speakers discussed a resource in trouble, covering vanishing marshes, pollution control, and saving Horicon Marsh. Aldo Leopold (who had moved to the state in 1924) addressed the conference on forestry in Wisconsin but used the forum to highlight shortcomings of the Wisconsin Conservation Commission:
We say to our conservation officers that we want them to run our conservation business. We tell them that whether they make good or not, they probably will be fired at the next change in administration. For a man who has initiative and skill we pay the same salary as a man who has not, and it is an excessively small salary at that. Any corporation would laugh at the methods we use in organizing our conservation business.
At that same meeting, the Ike’s Resolution Committee and its Legislative Committee lambasted the current Conservation Commission for not providing an adequate number of wardens for the job. By resolution, they encouraged county boards to hire deputy sheriffs to aid in enforcing fish and game laws “for the sole purpose of supplementing the inadequate force of game warden.” Concern was also expressed about the Conservation Fund being diverted to other agencies.
Leopold became a member of the IWL Board of Directors and began working with several of them to draft legislation creating a new conservation structure in Wisconsin. Many drafts of a conservation system resulted before a solid one emerged. Key to the document was the establishment of a department director independent from the governor. The Ikes planned on Leopold to be that person, but political favoritism put others in charge.
New Conservation Era
Senate Bill 404, known as the Conservation Act, was introduced in the Senate by Senator R. Bruce Johnson (sole author) on March 22, 1927 establishing the Wisconsin Conservation Department (WCD) and its commission. The new commission’s authority was primarily to establish policy for the department and supervise the director. The director, in turn, was in complete charge of the administration of the department. In other words, the commission was to avoid getting involved in the operational phase of the new state agency.
The commission met once a month to consider conservation problems and create regulatory policies. The Wisconsin Conservation Department (WCD) had its headquarters at the state capital in Madison. The total budget was $245,675 in 1927. Five major “departments” within the WCD were administration, forestry, parks, wardens, and fisheries. An estimated 200 permanent personnel were employed by the WCD in that initial year, with over half the force in wardens or rangers. (It should be noted that the Legislature still was responsible for conservation law and acted on 236 conservation bills in 1927.)
The conservation warden field organization provided most of the labor and expertise for getting fish and game programs implemented. Monthly warden salaries included $225 for the chief, $188 for six district wardens, $155 for regular wardens, and $120 for temporary wardens (“specials”). Chief warden Harley MacKenzie assumed the new title of “superintendent of law enforcement” in 1929. The warden portion of the WCD budget was $238,000, over one-third of the total allocated to the entire department.
By 1929, the warden ranks had increased to 70 permanent wardens and 18 temporary wardens that were added during the deer season. State-owned automobiles were still provided to some wardens, but most used their own vehicles, with the state paying them for the mileage driven. New and better equipment was provided including boats, trailers, and field gear.
The innovative MacKenzie facilitated the production of the first warden’s manual in 1929. This 61-page, pocket-sized guide soon became the bible of WCD law enforcement. It included a complete listing of commissioners, administrators, and field personnel (70 wardens, 19 foresters, 15 fisheries personnel, and four park superintendents), court decisions, attorney general opinions, policies and procedures, sample forms of legal papers and reports, location of refuges. By 1930, through his office, Chief MacKenzie began an undercover enforcement unit to investigative commercial sales of fish and wildlife, one of the first such unit in the nation
More responsibilities were added to the warden force throughout the decade. The winter-feeding program increased in size. Warden work in deer yards was becoming commonplace. Bow hunting for deer started in 1934, which required special warden training to become familiar with unique hunting equipment and hunter behavior. Beaver control, deer damage, and bounty claims were added to the warden’s responsibilities in 1935.
Harley MacKenzie became the WCD director on July 16, 1934, and Barney Devine became the new chief warden. That same year, a warden pension fund was established that gave retirees $50 per month for life.
Another reorganization in 1938 divided the state into three law enforcement administrative areas: Northwest Area directed by an area supervisor in Ladysmith, Northeast Area directed by an area supervisor in Wausau, and Southern Area directed by an area supervisor in Princeton.
Wardens initiated some emergency feeding of wildlife as early as the winter of 1922 when freezing conditions threatened sharp-tailed grouse populations. Other efforts to feed game birds in winter occurred, but the program wasn’t formalized until 1931. At this time, the concern was that game birds needed special artificial feeding help to get through most winters. The number of game bird feeding stations peaked at 60,000 during the decade.
Winter feeding wasn’t confined to game birds. Wardens began to report deer yarding and overbrowsing conditions in northern Wisconsin as early as 1930. Wardens hauled hay, grain, and concentrate (pellets) to various feeding stations annually from 1934 into the next decade.
Expanding Warden Force
Chief warden Barney Devine had a life-ending heart attack while inspecting deer in a storage locker December 9, 1940. A. J. Robinson took his place but resigned in 1947. George Hadland was his replacement.
Warden duties became much broader in the 1940s and included supervision of the distribution of fish and game; inspection of deer, beaver, bear, and other animal damage claims; supervision of winter feeding of game birds and deer; surveying deer yards; investigation of bounty claims; and public education in schools and at conservation club meetings. Five portable car radios were provided to northern wardens on an experimental basis in 1945. Despite the war and budget restrictions, the force averaged 85 in 1945 and increased to 100 by 1950.
Uniforms became state-issued in 1952. Two-way radios including portable units became standard equipment in all vehicles and were thought to double a warden’s effectiveness. Airplane use was now routine and was particularly effective in enforcing illegal deer shining activities. Mandatory deer registration went into affect in 1953 and was administered by law enforcement.
Increased department training, FBI cooperation, and Wisconsin Crime Laboratory use greatly expanded the warden’s information base as well as responsibilities. While the game violator was still the focus of warden attention, duties now encompassed a wider variety of skills and responsibilities. In 1959, the warden service began boating law enforcement program that has expanded continually today. Wardens were trained to take blood samples and searching for missing persons to assisting other law enforcement agencies. The first training officer, Harold Hettrick, was promoted from the field to bring greater professional to the warden service
The Law Enforcement Division was composed of about 130 wardens in the 1960s. A new “motorized toboggan” (first name used for the snowmobile) was proposed as a useful new tool for the field warden in 1963. Pollution laws were added to warden duties for enforcement in 1965. Drug abuse training was implemented at the end of the decade in response to increasing illegal drug use on state property. The hunter education (gun safety) program began in 1967 with a statewide warden coordinator (Dale Erlandson) overseeing the program. This program drastically reduced the incidence of hunting accidents and fatalities.
The Kellett Commission
Governor Warren Knowles initiated a major reorganization of state agencies in 1965. The Kellett Commission took two years to complete the task. One of its recommendations was to combine the WCD with the Department of Resource Development, which had water pollution, drinking water, and air pollution controls. The new agency would be called the Department of Natural Resources and would also receive Public Service Commission Chapter 30 permit jurisdiction (protecting public rights on waterways and wetlands). This proposal drew immediate opposition from state hunters and anglers concerned that their traditional programs would be de-emphasized.
Conservation wardens statewide were quite upset with the DNR reorganization under the 1967 Kellett Commission Reorganization Act. Their key objection was the lack of line control of the field force by the chief warden and the absence of law enforcement experience by administrators (district directors and area supervisors) now supervising field wardens.
A legislative conference committee finally was convened to address the major points of disagreement and produce a more favorable bill. Despite the controversy and huge opposition, Governor Warren P. Knowles signed the Reorganization Act into law on July 12, 1967. The law was enacted August 1, 1967, consolidating or eliminating many state agencies.
During the 1970s, many additional duties and responsibilities were added by legislation to the warden service that included boating safety education, water regulation and zoning enforcement, expanded environmental enforcement, snowmobile enforcement and snowmobile safety education.
Because of the safety education programs, the demand of many more student certification classes in three programs and the need to train numerous volunteer instructors, six recreational safety specialists were hired through promotion within the warden service, and were stationed at district offices
Mandatory annual training requirements increased to 240 hours in 1972. A general hunting, trapping, and fishing license increase obtained by the department in 1973 was the first the DNR received since 1962 and finally allowed hiring additional wardens. In 1976, the first Native American coordinator was hired, marking the start of better tribal relationships. Warden cars began to be replaced by pickup trucks in 1977.
The first full-time female warden, Eileen Wolf, was hired in 1977. Others soon followed including Victoria Ligenza (1979), Katie Short (1980), Barbara Wolf (1980), and LuAnn Kuzma (1982).
A fish and game violations hotline was established in 1979 allowing citizens to report conservation violations at any time. Field wardens credited a new deer shining law and larger fines in 1980 to reduce illegal shining activity by 80%. Hunting safety concerns led to 1980 legislation that required blaze orange as the only clothing color authorized for deer hunting. The conservation warden force expanded from about 130 in the early 1970s to 167 by 1981.
In 1981, the Legislature expanded warden authority to investigate and take action for any crime committed in their presense or any civil or criminal violation at the request of another law enforcemnt agency.
Indian treaty enforcement started in 1984 and added a substantial work burden to conservation wardens. Northern wardens were forced to defer or drop normal work activities to accommodate increased patrolling in the ceded territory (northern Wisconsin) and to be present at various boat landings to maintain order during public protests as the Chippewa bands exercised their spear fishing rights. Other conservation wardens throughout the state received special assignments in the ceded territory, leaving gaps statewide enforcement coverage and depleting strained budgets.
All–terrain vehicle (ATV) enforcement and ATV safety education programs was added to the list of warden responsibilities in 1985. Because of the criminalization of new environmental laws, the environmental warden specially trained to investigate environmental crime was first hired in 1984 by reallocating two positions within the warden service. Toxic and hazardous spills (regardless of where they occurred) investigations and enforcement were added to the list of all warden’s responsibilities in 1984 (although spills in surface waters had been a part of the warden job since 1917).
Mandatory hunter education was established January 1, 1985, for those born on or after January 1, 1983, generating still more work for conservation wardens as well as volunteer hunter education instructors. Expanded conservation warden authority in the area of environmental enforcement saw a dramatic increase in penalties applied by the courts. Annual fines and forfeitures totaled from $500,000 to $1.2 million in the early 1980s but exceeded $2 million by 1989. The number of conservation wardens grew to 181 by 1992.
During the 1980s and 1990s, refinements in recreational safety and environmental laws impacted the warden service greatly. They included intoxicated operation of boats, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles through implied consent laws, laws concerning unlawful releases of freon, recycling enforcement, storm water discharge enforcement, felony hazardous waste laws, lab certification enforcement, criminal air pollution and others.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the warden service increasingly used the new computer technology made available to them. On-line systems for safety education, recreational vehicle registrations and arrest data were developed on the state’s computer network. New queries were made available on the state’s LE information sharing (TIME) system through the Department of Justice relating to natural resources enforcement. In 1999 and early 2000, the first mobile data laptop computer was issued to all wardens with mounting in vehicles and connectivity to the State Patrol’s mobile data network. The laptop and the expanded communications and information sharing it has provided has enabled new productivity and efficiency in warden operations
Law enforcement experienced historical increases to their staff as the number of conservation wardens rose from 173 in 1982 to 181 by 1992. Mandatory warden training was increased to 810 hours in 1998 due to changes in federal and state requirements for LE. Because of the numerous additional responsibilities added to the warden service in the previous twenty years and at through the request of many conservation and environmental groups, the warden service was expanded to 212 credentially wardens in 1998 through the budget bill, initially paid for by GPR revenue. Because of budget cutbacks in 2004 and 2006, the service was reduced to the current level of 206 wardens; there are twenty one vacancies. A twelve-person recruit class (to be) hired in March, 2010, will help ease the vacancy problem.