Since the days more than a century ago when first refuge manager/game warden Paul Kroegel was patrolling the waters surrounding what is now Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, law enforcement has been fundamental to conservation in the United States.


Over the decades, refuge law enforcement officers have had different titles, have moved away from dual–function roles, have endured staffing shortages and have reported to different agencies within what is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But their mission has remained essentially the same: to keep national wildlife refuges safe for wildlife that inhabit them and the people who visit them.


The current title, since a 2012 overhaul, is federal wildlife officer. And it’s “the coolest job you can have,” says Jim Hall, chief of the Division of Refuge Law Enforcement since 2010. “From tagging grizzly bears on the Alaska tundra to checking deer hunters in Mississippi to checking duck hunters in Louisiana; up in the early morning with the beautiful sunrises and marvelous sunsets that you see by being out there every day. It is absolutely the coolest job anyone can ever hold.”


In recent years, the division can point to many accomplishments. It has spearheaded the establishment of the Service Honor Guard, updated the Refuge System law enforcement badge, reclassified the federal wildlife officer title and position description; clarified numerous policies, including one on taser use; and revised federal wildlife officer vehicle standards and design.


That vehicle redesign, being phased in over five years, changes the color scheme from white with reflective stripes to gray with a badge image on the door—in part to give the vehicles a distinctive game warden look. “We don’t want the public to mistake that one of our biologists is a law enforcement officer,” says Hall. “We don’t want the drug–trafficking organizations to mistake that, either.” Still, inadequate staffing remains a prime concern.


“We need to add full–time officers,” Hall says. “We’re at the lowest staffing level for law enforcement that we’ve been at in decades. We’ve lost a considerable amount of our dual–function officers to retirement and relinquishment of their credentials, and we critically need to add full–time positions to replace those.”


Photo of Bruce Butler
Federal wildlife zone officer Bruce Butler assists visitors at Vieques National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico. Butler holds one of the National Wildlife Refuge System’s 281 full–time officer positions. (Raul Sanchez/USFWS)

In the mid–1990s, Hall says, the Refuge System had 685 dual–function officers—officers who served simultaneously as a refuge manager or biologist. In 2002, a Department of the Interior secretarial directive mandated reduced dependency on dual–function officers. So today there are 111 dual–function officers and 281 full–time officer positions (34 of which are vacant or have an officer in rigorous training, which takes almost a year). That’s a total of 392 federal wildlife officers.


By way of comparison, Hall says, the state of Florida alone has about 600 conservation officers. Wisconsin has the lowest conservation officer–to–hunter/angler ratio among the 50 states: 1 to about 12,000. The Refuge System responsibility is double that: 1 officer for about 24,000 hunters/anglers.


“That depicts the fact that our folks are working as hard as or harder than any other conservation law enforcement officer in the country,” Hall says.


In 2004, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) figured the Refuge System should have 845 full–time officers based on visitation, miles of road and trails, known crime on refuges, endangered species enforcement, and more. The IACP is using updated statistics to develop a new risk–based deployment model for every unit of the Refuge System. It is expected to be completed soon.