Criminals, wild animals, and the great outdoors: California’s Fish and Wildlife officers do it all

Patrick Foy has been in a lot of precarious situations. He’s helped save a drowning woman and been in car chases with criminals. Working for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife isn’t all about trapping and tracking animals.

Foy is the captain of the department’s Law Enforcement Division, which is charged with protecting about 360 endangered species and overseeing 3 million hunters in the state. And just as police departments are struggling to hire new officers, Foy says he’s struggling to find new game wardens.

Foy said part of that may be simply because many people either don’t realize the Fish and Wildlife Department has a law enforcement branch, or they have misconceptions about what the officers do.

“None of us are getting rich, but we love what we do and we love the mission of this department, and we are passionate about our careers to the point where it’s almost like an identity,” said Foy.

Foy learned about the job when a game warden came to his middle school to talk about his work.

“I had been fishing for most of my life, hunting for two years,” Foy said. “It all came into focus at careers day — they said, this is a career.”

Fish and Wildlife officer Timothy Bolla, who picked his current job over working at the California Highway Patrol, said a large part of his decision was based on the fact that working as a Fish and Wildlife officer meant he got to be outside.

While he was being interviewed for this story, he was patrolling the Sacramento River on a boat marked with the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s logo. He, along with officer Byron Trunnell and Luna, a dog trained in criminal apprehension and detection, cruised the river, stopping periodically along the shore to check fishermen for licenses and check the fish they had caught.

The jobs the Fish and Wildlife officers do run a wide gambit. Sometimes they search small businesses suspected of illegally selling elephant ivory, sometimes they bust people illegally harvesting salmon on the shores of the Sacramento River at night, and sometimes they hang from helicopters to look for plots of marijuana growing illegally.

“Everyday is something new,” Bolla said.

Some Fish and Wildlife officers stationed in rural areas are even involved in fire response, Foy said.

“I’ve heard stories of people evacuating people out of their houses just before their house burns down,” Foy said, “driving with 60-foot flames on either side.”

According to Foy, people don’t realize his officers have many of the same authorities as police officers. There have been times where on his way back to the office after a shift, he has pulled over a motorist for reckless driving. When he asks them why they didn’t slow down when they saw his car, they say they didn’t even know he could write them a ticket.

Because of those authorities, it takes work for applicants to become a Fish and Wildlife officer. Applicants have go through the police academy, in addition to 7 weeks’ worth of coursework learning fishing and hunting laws and protocols. And the qualifications to apply are slightly higher than at police departments — Fish and Wildlife officers must complete at least two years of college and take at least 18 credits in science-related subjects. According to Foy, the extra requirements ensure officers have some understanding of why fish and game regulations exist.

The application process also includes a lengthy background investigation into any previous criminal history and financial records, a physical exam, and three months of field training.

“It’s a big commitment,” Bolla said. “It’s not quick.”

But officers say the dedication pays off.

“Mix criminals and wild animals, and you’re going to have an interesting career,” he said.