domingo, 19 de dezembro de 2010

In the Wild, a Big Threat to Rangers: Humans

 Dana Romanoff for The New York Times

 Todd Schmidt, a game warden in Colorado, finds a bulletproof vest a
vital tool where “everybody I confront has a gun.”


    Published: December 6, 2010

    GOLDEN, Colo. — As a game warden for the state of Colorado, Todd
    Schmidt has a workplace that office drudges the world over might
fantasize about: the staggering beauty of the Rocky Mountains.
But underneath his shirt, day in and day out, he also wears a reminder
of the dangers: a bulletproof vest.
“Keeps you warm, too,” Mr. Schmidt said, patting his chest on a recent
cold morning at Golden Gate Canyon State Park, about an hour west of
Denver, as the snowcapped peaks of the Continental Divide shimmered in
the distance.
Two recent shootings of wildlife officers — one killed in Pennsylvania
while confronting an illegal hunter, the other seriously wounded after
a traffic stop in southern Utah — have highlighted what rangers and
wildlife managers say is an increasingly unavoidable fact. As more and
more people live in proximity to forests, parks and other wild-land
playgrounds, the human animal, not the wild variety, is the one to
watch out for.
“We’re seeing a little bit more of the urban spill into the wild
spaces — city violence in the country,” said John Evans, an assistant
branch chief of law enforcement operations at the National Park
At this time of year, when hikers give way to hunters, there is a
corollary to Mr. Evans’s point that would make even the most hardened
urban police officer blanch: weapons are everywhere in these woods.
“I know that everybody I confront has a gun,” said Mr. Schmidt, 36,
who has five years on the job with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Guns also became legal in many National Parks this year under a law
enacted by Congress in 2009. And many parks and recreation areas
around the nation have also suffered staff cuts in recent years,
reducing the presence of badge-wearing authority figures on patrol.
But rangers and wildlife workers say the key variable defining the job
has not changed: because of the vast distances to be covered,
especially in the West, every ranger is a solo act.
In the lonely, beautiful places where they work, knowing when to walk
away, or run, rangers say is Lesson 1. Fifteen wildlife or park
employees have been killed on duty, most of them by gunshot, since
1980, according to the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers
“A huge portion of it is gut instinct,” said Jacob Dewhirst, 26, a
state park ranger who works in western Colorado, where checks on
hunters’ or fishermen’s licenses often take place in the lonely back
Many wildlife agencies have responded to the heightened dangers with
new equipment and training. Since 2007, National Park rangers in many
parks have been equipped with Tasers that can immobilize a would-be
Mr. Schmidt has an AR-15 semiautomatic assault-style rifle in his
truck, and a computer on the dash that can — in ways old-time rangers
never knew — check a vehicle license plate before a ranger’s first
But rangers and wardens also inhabit a mixture of roles that they say
can sometimes make them more vulnerable. They are ambassadors and
stewards of a public resource, and most have backgrounds in some
aspect of the natural sciences. But they also have full police
authority, up to and including using lethal force if necessary.
Mr. Evans described it as a duality: “A nice guy, prepared for an
idiot who is ready to do me harm.”
For Mr. Schmidt, who has a degree in wildlife biology, that balancing
act — welcoming and wary — comes down to always having a clear line of
retreat. Whenever he stops to check a vehicle or speak to a hunter,
his truck door is always left open, the engine running.
What has made the recent shootings even more chilling to many rangers
is that events unfolded from encounters of the sort officers do all
the time. In the Utah case, the gunman, who has still not been caught,
apparently opened fire when a Utah State Parks ranger, Brody Young,
34, approached after a traffic stop. In the Pennsylvania case, David
Grove, 31, was killed after he confronted a man hunting illegally with
a spotlight, which makes deer and other animals disoriented and easier
to shoot.
“It’s very easy to comprehend exactly what David was dealing with at
the time of the shooting,” said Richard A. Johnston, a regional law
enforcement zone officer with the Fish and Wildlife Service, who
traveled from his home in Kansas to attend Mr. Grove’s funeral.
For some officers, like Ty Petersburg, who manages a heavily used
district west of Denver for the Division of Wildlife, the line between
urban crime and wildlife crime gets blurred all the time.
A couple of years ago, Mr. Petersburg began following a suspicious-
looking vehicle on Interstate 70 — a pursuit that led all the way into
the suburbs of Denver, where the driver leaped from his car to attack.
Minutes later, perhaps 30 local and county police officers arrived in
a siren-screaming swirl of backup that Mr. Petersburg, 31, had
summoned by radio. It was a familiar scene: the police helping out
their own.
More often, he said, it is the opposite case, where help is willing in
spirit, but impossible in practice. Earlier this fall, for example,
Mr. Petersburg was in a mountain region in the middle of nowhere and
came upon a vehicle driven by a man with outstanding arrest warrants
on his name and lots of cocaine in his car. He again called for
“ ‘We’d like to come help you,’ ” he quoted the nearest big urban
county sheriff’s office as saying, “ ‘But we don’t have a clue where
you’re at.’ ”

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