By Deborah Sullivan Brennan
On a December afternoon, a frigid wind hisses through the buckwheat and tumbleweed of Portrero Canyon State Wildlife Area. This is Southern California, but the bitter chill feels more like the Dakotas. The desolate hillsides seem a world apart from Palm Springs, just 20 miles away.
California Department of Fish and Game Warden Kyle Chang has patrolled hundreds of square miles today, on a shift that has already lasted over eight hours. Portrero Canyon, a former rocket-testing site, is his final stop on the way home. It's closed to the public but accessible to determined trespassers. Graffiti and spent shotgun shells litter abandoned bunkers, and the grasslands -- part of a preserve for the endangered Stephens' kangaroo rat -- are deeply rutted by ATVs.
As Chang scans for fresh signs of vandalism, a gunshot explodes through the hills. Chang floors his pickup, racing toward the source. It could be a poacher, picking off deer in the closed area, or a drug deal gone bad. He calls for help and is pleased to hear that another warden will be there in 15 minutes. These days, such backup is a rarity.
Western game wardens have always faced unknown dangers in inaccessible territory. Now, those hazards are compounded by staffing shortages and mandatory furloughs, even as new duties and stricter environmental laws increase the daily workload.
Today's game wardens do more than keep an eye on hunting and fishing. Wardens battle marijuana groves, meth labs, environmental abuses, commercial poaching and street crime. More....