As part of Operation Strong Safety, the state’s latest effort to bolster the U.S. Border Patrol, hundreds of well-armed Texas game wardens, from as far away as the upper reaches of the Panhandle, have rotated through the Rio Grande Valley, many of them patrolling the restive waterway in gunboats.
The deployments are just the most recent way the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been drawn into border operations over the last decade.
But an American-Statesman investigation shows that the state’s efforts to boost border security, coupled with an evolving role for Texas game wardens, might have weakened natural resource protection efforts in other parts of the state.
Data obtained through the Texas Public Information Act show that the number of citations for traditional hunting, fishing and water safety violations — the bread-and-butter of Texas game wardens — has fallen steeply, from 52,165 citations during the first nine months of 2009 to 42,237 citations during the first nine months of 2014.
That 19 percent decline occurred even as the number of game wardens in the state held more or less steady and as the number of fishing and hunting licenses issued in Texas steadily increased.
One area of the state that hasn’t experienced the drop-off in such enforcement actions in recent years is the portion of the border extending from Brownsville to Laredo. Citations in that five-county area increased significantly in recent years.
In a sign of the intensity of border operations this year, between June 1 and Oct. 20, every one of Texas’ 503 game wardens was called to the border, some more than once, for a total of 663 border deployments.
Those deployments cost taxpayers about $1.75 million beyond regular salaries.
Overall, the Statesman found that since 2005 there have been 4,504 special deployments of wardens to the border.
The most recent border effort also coincided with a sharp rise in instances when game wardens had to use physical force in their duties. Three years ago, game wardens reported just two use-of-force instances statewide. In the first 10 months of 2014, wardens filed 31 use-of-force reports. Nearly half occurred in the waters of the Rio Grande during the first three months of Operation Strong Safety.
While offering other explanations for the dip in citations, Chief Grahame Jones, who heads special operations for the game wardens, acknowledged the border assignment has shifted the agency’s focus away from its more traditional responsibilities.
“We’re not going to say it doesn’t have an effect on our operations,” he said.
Border operations are just one aspect of the evolving role of game wardens, who over the last decade have morphed into a highly trained and highly armed force that Gov. Rick Perry has hailed as a “new generation of tech-savvy law enforcement personnel.”
That evolution of game warden responsibilities might accelerate: Last week, state leaders agreed to fund an additional $86 million to continue elements of the surge through at least August 2015.
Gov.-elect Gregg Abbott said in February that he wants to nearly double state spending on the border, suggesting a “continuous surge” with 1,000 new officers on the ground.
The shift to the border has raised concerns for some ranchers in other parts of Texas.
“I could see why a governor would want them involved in other dangerous jobs, but this seems beyond what a game warden would be called to do,” said Kendall County rancher David Langford, who is vice president emeritus of the Texas Wildlife Association, a property rights, wildlife management and conservation organization. “I’d be mad as hell if … I call the game warden for help, and he’s down there in the Valley.”
Off the pavement
The game wardens trace their roots to the late 19th century as the conservation-minded, pioneering counterparts of the more storied Texas Rangers. Their mission was to prevent the overhunting of Texas wild game. “Law Enforcement Off the Pavement” remains their motto, but they’ve long expanded beyond their original duties.
Game wardens make up a small part of current border operations, their role often left unmentioned in media accounts of Department of Public Safety and Texas National Guard deployments. But in many ways, the wardens represent the literal front line of the state’s border defense as they patrol what has become the most contested river on the continent.
The focus on border operations signals an important change in their usage.
At a graduation ceremony for newly minted game wardens in 2009, Perry told them their service “won’t be limited to checking for expired licenses, slot limits or out-of-season game.” Instead, game wardens were to be “fully integrated into our border security operations” as they fight drug and human smuggling.
Assignments of new wardens illustrate the shift: In one graduating class roughly two decades ago, only 4 out of 39 newly minted wardens were assigned to border areas. Last year, of the 28 graduates, all but six were sent to the border.
“The governor is confident in their ability to fulfill the full range of law enforcement duties under their responsibility,” Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said.
Trying to reconcile the border patrol work with natural resource protection, Jones said the deployments are in keeping with the game warden mission because they leverage maritime know-how to disrupt drug cartels and provide a presence in an area known for illegal fishing. He also called the border work a humanitarian effort that reduces the “chance of water-crossing fatalities.”
“We’re very proud of our game wardens,” he said. “There’s no question we’re asking a lot of them. I’ve heard zero complaints from our guys, and they’ve missed vacations, birthdays, anniversaries — you name it. They’re out there (on the border) on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, 24/7. And the way we’re looking at it is we have a job to do. We’re not going to argue with Operation Strong Safety.”
He also offers competing explanations for the drop in citations. The drought, he said, has dampened hunting and fishing opportunities, making violations less likely.
But the Statesman found that hunting and fishing licenses have gone up every year over the last decade, despite the parched landscape: In 2011, when the drought took hold, the state sold 2,888,532 hunting and fishing licenses. This year, it has sold 3,074,629, a 6.4 percent increase.
Jones also pointed to compliance numbers to suggest, essentially, that Texans are behaving better as the Parks and Wildlife Department has stepped up public education campaigns: Water fatalities were down 38 percent from 2010 to 2014, and vessel accidents were down 32 percent since 2011. Nationally and throughout Texas, crime rates have fallen overall in recent years.
He also said that use-of-force incidents have spiked because the department has become more aggressive about recording them, hoping to reverse years of underreporting.
Still, nearly half of the use-of-force incidents in 2014 occurred on the waters of the Rio Grande between June 6 and Aug. 24, when game wardens filed 13 reports on nine separate incidents.
The incidents, which began just after Operation Strong Safety started June 1, reveal the often chaotic and dangerous nature of the agency’s border work and show how game wardens, in some ways, have been used as immigration police, marrying environmental protection with border patrols.
Most of the incidents involved game wardens using pepper spray on people trying to cross the Rio Grande in rafts. In some cases, game wardens attempted to subdue human smugglers near rafts filled with women and children without life jackets. In two incidents, game wardens used less-than-lethal ammunition in response to people on the Mexican shore who were throwing rocks or sticks.
While they stop short of arresting suspects for crossing illegally — that power is reserved to the federal government — they can detain suspects before turning them over to federal agents.
They have detained crossers from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Nepal, Mexico and China.
On July 22, wardens came across a raft “loaded with women and children” and tried to grab a guide who had slipped into the water.
“He kept holding (the) raft in one hand (and) poked at me with his paddle in the other hand,” wrote Game Warden David Pellizzari, who is normally stationed in Palo Pinto County, 500 miles due north. “I tried to grab the subject but could not safely grab him.” The warden decided to spray the man, but “the can sprayed a fog instead of a stream.” The man went under water and came up holding the patrol boat. Pellizzari sprayed him again, but when he tried to grab him, the man wriggled free and swam to the U.S. shore, where he was apprehended by other wardens.
A month earlier, Game Warden Daniel Cantu, stationed in Cameron County, shot a suspected smuggler twice with less-than-lethal rounds during a tumultuous encounter just moments after a group of immigrants crossed the river.
According to Cantu’s use-of-force report, wardens attempted to arrest the suspected smuggler as he swam back to Mexico from the U.S. side, when a man on the Mexican shore lobbed a 4-foot-long stick at the patrol boat. The stick landed in the water, but Cantu feared for his safety because a group of men on the Mexican side was in an “elevated position.” The warden shot the stick-thrower in the hip with a 40 mm less-than-lethal round. But instead of backing down, the man ran up the river bank, picked up some rocks and began throwing them at Cantu, according to the report. The warden shot the man again, in the leg, causing him to take cover behind a tree.
“At this time, several other aggressive individuals began throwing rocks, wood sticks and water bottles at both patrol vessels,” Cantu wrote. “They were yelling at both vessels. However, we could not articulate what they were saying due to the outboard engine noise.” As the rock attack unfolded, a group of women and children stood between the wardens and the rock-throwers, according to the report. “Both vessels cleared the area to defuse the situation.”
Once upon a time, game wardens patrolled their corners of Texas on horseback, with long rifles and revolvers.
Now they’re armed with an M-4s and Glocks.
“We work hard to find good people and train them,” Jones said. “We have to do everything to protect them as they take risks.”
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has won more than $1.2 million in former U.S. military equipment, including more than 100 pieces of night-vision equipment, a small airplane typically used for police surveillance and automatic rifles.
The figures illustrate ways the Texas’ game wardens, like conservation police in states from California to Maine, have moved beyond their traditional resource protection mission.
“We do normal police work on top of parks and wildlife stuff,” said Capt. James Dunks, who oversees operations in the Brownsville game warden office.
Before June 2013, the statewide marine theft team consisted of a single sergeant. Between June 2013 and June 2014, an expanded marine theft investigative unit undertook 250 fraud investigations and seized 117 boats with a total value of about $775,000.
Between January and June, game wardens seized 7,670 pounds of marijuana. They seized three times as much — 23,764 pounds — between June and September, during the height of Operation Strong Safety.
The game wardens now have 10 K-9 teams trained in narcotics detection, manhunts and cadaver location. They also have a SWAT-like tactical response team, a search-and-rescue squad, and a forensics reconstruction and mapping team, among others.
Former head of Parks and Wildlife law enforcement Pete Flores calls the multiple roles “a balancing act, like being an electrician and cutting the grass in your yard.”
“The key is not to divert from the primary mission, but we’re out on the water anyways, and we’re part of the law enforcement fabric anyways,” Flores said.
The breadth of the work helps when seeking pay raises from the Legislature.
In December 2012, with a legislative session approaching, Shea Guinn, president of the Texas Game Warden Association, encouraged members to “educate legislators and tell them what Game Wardens do for the people of the state.”
Game wardens are “also involved in Border Security and Homeland Security, drug interdiction, natural disaster response, search and rescue operations and assisting local law enforcement with anything that they may need,” he wrote. “As you can see, a Game Warden has a wide variety of ‘jobs.’”