SACRAMENTO, Calif. – When the Animal Planet TV network set out to film an episode on bear poaching, producers assumed their most horrifying images would come from remote and unregulated corners of Southeast Asia.

They never imagined some of the worst cases would be found in California.

But after spending a day and a half in October with California Department of Fish and Game wardens, the crew had film of three black bears illegally killed in the mountains of Plumas and Nevada counties. The crimes included a 3-month-old bear cub shot through the head while trying to escape poachers who had just killed its mother.

It was further evidence of a drastic game warden shortage in the Golden State that has become the subject of growing concern among the public and in the state Legislature. With only about 190 field wardens on the job for the entire state of California, vast areas of the state remain unprotected from poachers.

Amanda Feldon, the London-based producer and director of the Animal Planet program, was so alarmed that she sent a blistering letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in January.

“I am particularly shocked to know that this is tolerated in the State of California,” Feldon wrote, “and I am sure it will cause great consternation when the programme is eventually watched by a world-wide audience.”

The program is expected to air in September as part of a series called “Crime Scene Wild.”

Contacted last week, Feldon emphasized the letter expressed only her personal opinion. She had not yet received a response from the Governor’s Office.

“All this happened in such a short period of time, and I cannot imagine the carnage that occurs during a longer period,” Feldon said via e-mail. “If the wardens who patrol and protect the wildlife here are prevented from doing their job by low pay or manpower … there will be no wildlife in California.”

Sandy Cooney, spokesman for the state Resources Agency, which oversees Fish and Game, said the Governor’s Office is working on a response to Feldon’s letter.

“Clearly this is an issue that we are very concerned about, and we are doing everything we can in working with the Legislature to create better (pay) parity for game wardens,” Cooney said.

Feldon’s excursion had the full blessing and cooperation of Fish and Game administrators. The wardens involved said two of the illegal bear kills led to arrests and convictions. A third, involving the bear cub, remains under investigation – partly because wardens lack the right DNA matching technology.

“California leads the world on a lot of things, so it’s amazing this is even happening to us,” said Jerry Karnow, a game warden in Nevada County.

The shortage of game wardens began in 2000, when the dot-com bust led to a state budget crisis that included slashing about 100 game warden jobs.

Attrition has led to many more vacancies, largely because wardens are underpaid compared with other law-enforcement agencies, said Capt. Dennis Deanda, a 20-year veteran of the department and president of the California Fish & Game Warden Managers and Supervisors Association.

Starting wardens earn about $3,570 per month, compared with $6,000 for a California Highway Patrol officer, though they have similar training and police powers – and both face dangers in the field.

The department has about 75 vacancies because it can’t attract enough qualified candidates.

The state’s new budget gave wardens a 15 percent pay raise effective Jan. 1. But CHP officers got a 10 percent raise, so the disparity remains.

“We’ve had a little success, but nowhere near what we need in order to start to address this very serious problem,” said state Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto. “And it’s one that’s becoming more serious by the day.”

Cogdill is a co-sponsor, along with Sen. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, of a bill requiring pay parity for wardens. The measure, SB 695, aims to bring wardens’ salaries within 5 percent of CHP pay.

“There really isn’t any justification for us to be paid any less,” Deanda said. “This bill is extremely important to wardens and the future of wardens in the state of California.”

A trio of wealthy investors thinks protecting California’s wildlife is so critical that they have pledged $300,000 to launch the California Game Wardens Foundation. Modeled after a similar CHP charity, it aims to raise $2million this year to provide financial assistance to wardens, from rent payments to equipment purchases to college tuition aid for their children.

The foundation can be contacted at www.thegwf.org.

“I think the warden work force is generally underappreciated,” said co-founder Ned Spieker, a Bay Area real estate investor. “We have a lot of laws on the books that protect California’s natural resources. But unless we have skilled and highly motivated people to enforce those laws, the laws will do no good.”


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