California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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California Department of Fish and Wildlife
California Dept Fish Game logo.png
Patch of the California Department of Fish and Game
Agency overview
Formed 1909
Preceding agency
  • Board of Fish Commissioners
Headquarters 1416 Ninth Street, Sacramento, California
Annual budget $539 million (2007)
Agency executive
  • Charlton H. Bonham, Director
Parent agency California Resources Agency

Formerly the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is a department within the government of California, falling under its parent California Natural Resources Agency. The Department of Fish and Wildlife manages and protects the state's diverse fish, wildlife, plant resources, and native habitats. The department is responsible for related recreational, commercial, scientific and educational uses. The department uses its law enforcement division to prevent and stop illegal poaching.


The first California fish and game act was passed in 1852 by the California State Legislature and signed into law by Governor John Bigler. The Game Act placed closed seasons on 12 counties for quails, partridges, mallard and wood ducks, elk, deer, and antelope. A second legislative action in 1852 protected salmon runs. In 1854, the Legislature extended the act to include all counties of California. In 1860, protection controls were extended for trout. Lake Merritt (Oakland, California) was made the first game refuge of California in 1869, believed to be the first in the United States.

In 1870, the Legislature, with the support of Governor Henry Huntly Haight, created the Board of Fish Commissioners. The Board stipulated that fish ladders were now required at state dams, explosives or other deleterious substances outlawed, and violations fixed for $500. In 1870 the first fish ladder in the state was built on a tributary of the Truckee River, and a state hatching house was established at the University of California in Berkeley.

In 1871 the state appointed the first Game Wardens to handle wildlife law enforcement, making the Enforcement Division of the Department of Fish and Game the first state law enforcement agency enacted in California. Over the next 30 years, the Board of Fish Commissioners were given authority over game in the state as well as establishing hunting and fishing licenses.[1]

In 1909, the Board of Fish Commissioners changed its name to the Fish and Game Commission. The Division of Fish and Game was established in 1927, set up within the Department of Natural Resources. In 1951, the Reorganization Act elevated the Division of Fish and Game to the Department of Fish and Game (DFG).[1]

By 2012, California was one of only 13 states still using "Game" in the title of their wildlife agency. The state legislature changed the department's name to Fish and Wildlife, effective January 1, 2013. The legislation followed recommendations of a 51-member stakeholder advisory group. 18 other states use "wildlife," while the others generally use "natural resources" or "conservation", reflecting trends towards expansion of the agencies' missions from sport fishing and hunting alone, to protection of non-game wildlife and whole ecosystems.[2]

In June 2015, the CDFW phased out lead ammunition for hunting on state land in order to keep lead out of backcountry ecosystems.[3]

Regional divisions[edit]

The Department of Fish and Wildlife divides the State of California into seven management regions whose boundaries mostly correspond to county borders (with the exception of Sacramento, Yolo and San Joaquin counties).


The department employs wardens to protect California's wildlife and natural resources. CDFW wardens are armed law enforcement officers with statewide arrest authority. They enforce California state laws related to hunting, fishing, pollution, endangered species, and wildlife habitat destruction. Vehicles used range from the patrol pickup to boats, catamarans, four-wheelers, snow-mobiles, horses, helicopters, and planes. The wardens investigate, collect evidence, serve search warrants, arrest criminals, and ensure public safety. Wardens patrol the state of California and 200 miles (320 km) off the coast.[4]

As of 2008 about 330 wardens patrolled the state.[5]

Merger with California Highway Patrol[edit]

In 2008 it was discussed to merge the Law Enforcement Division into the California Highway Patrol.[6][7] The underfunded DFG Law Enforcement Division[8][9][10] has faced low numbers of Game Wardens also known as Conservation Police Officers for the last ten years. In Oregon and Alaska the Oregon State Police[11] and Alaska State Troopers respectively [12] serve as game wardens under a separate fish and wildlife division within the two departments.

Marine Wardens[edit]

A fleet of vessels including five 54-foot (16 m) catamarans, two 65-foot (20 m) monohulls and a variety of smaller rigid hull inflatables (RHIs) patrol offshore. All the large boats are equipped with twin engines capable of pushing the vessels to over 25 knots. They are equipped with sophisticated electronics for detecting vessels and communications. Each large vessel is normally staffed by four personnel. These vessels patrol approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of coastline. State waters extend to three miles (5 km) offshore, but CDFW's patrol area extends to 200 miles (320 km) because of Federal fisheries regulations that must also be enforced. This equates to a patrol responsibility of approximately 220,000 square miles (570,000 km2); over 31,000 miles (50,000 km) per boat.

While the primary duty of each vessel is fisheries enforcement, they have also been used for search and rescue, homeland defense, and support for public safety operations. After the September 11 Attacks, the vessels were deployed in California's major ports to monitor activity and support the War on Terror. These patrols were conducted with the United States Coast Guard and other local agencies to monitor vessel traffic and conduct vessel boardings to detect possible terrorist activity. CDFW personnel worked around the clock for several weeks after the initial attack in New York.

Working with Federal, State and local agencies, CDFW participated in the first terrorism drill on the West coast involving a large cruise ship. Working with agents from the FBI, USCG, and local SWAT teams, CDFW boat crews reacted to a terrorist event aboard a cruise ship targeting the West coast. The drill was successful in establishing protocols and identifying resources available for such a crisis. Since this first drill, CDFW vessels and crews have participated in the escort of cruise ships in various ports throughout California. CDFW vessels and crew have also worked closely with USCG vessels to assist in other projects dealing with homeland security issues. In September 2002, CDFW was recognized by the USCG and the US Department of Transportation for its efforts in assisting during the aftermath of 9/11. Frank Spear, the Chief of Enforcement for the vessel program accepted a newly minted "Transportation 9-11 Medal" from Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta. The medal was meant to honor CDFW's contribution to the protection of two of California's busiest ports, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Working with the USCG, various CDFW vessels patrolled San Francisco Bay protecting both the San Francisco and Oakland airports, bridge abutments and conducting vessel boardings. Other crews worked in Los Angeles assisting the USCG in securing munitions ships, cargo ships, oil tankers, cruise ships, and conducted background checks on crews and passengers.

While remaining vigilant for terrorist activity remains a priority, CDFW vessels have returned to their primary mission of fisheries enforcement. New legislation, such as the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and Federal fisheries legislation has overtasked the vessel program. Coupled with the shortage in the warden force, this has created problems for effective enforcement in the offshore environment. Vessels have been forced to remain tied to the dock because of personnel shortages. Most vessels are forced to "borrow" personnel from other districts. This, in turn, creates additional shortages.[citation needed]

Special Operations Unit[edit]

The Special Operations Unit (SOU) of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is a team of wardens formed for the purpose of investigating, infiltrating and apprehending those who poach California's wildlife for profit.[13]

SOU focuses their efforts on priorities set by the Department. Investigating illegal commercialization of fish and wildlife is high priority. Many investigations focus on fragile species highly targeted by the black market.

The duties of an SOU warden are in contrast to a uniformed warden. Much of an SOU warden's time is spent traveling extensively to different areas of the state wherever commercial cases occur. The duties include long-term investigations required to successfully apprehend and prosecute abusers of California resources The current SOU has taken many steps to enhance their investigative abilities with training in a wide variety of topics. Technology has moved to the forefront of many investigations with equipment such as GPS tracking units, infrared scopes, pen register phone taps, and much more. In some cases, the use of technological equipment save many personnel hours in an investigation, however, circumstances in other cases still require time-intensive moving and stationary surveillance techniques, coupled with short and long-term undercover infiltration of suspects.[13]

SOU wardens are also members of the Western States Wildlife Investigators (WSWI). WSWI members are made up of wildlife investigators from California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Idaho. California SOU has always been looked upon by these other states as being on the cutting edge in investigations and a unit to try to emulate. Supervisors of SOU are current members of a steering committee from WSWI responsible for the creation of an eighty-hour Covert Wildlife Investigators Academy. This course was created to alleviate liability concern for the above-mentioned states Fish and Game Departments regarding putting covert officers in the field without proper training.

California SOU was selected to conduct the first academy in 2002, held at the Presidio in San Francisco. SOU accomplished Peace Officers Standard and Training (POST) certification prior to the first academy held in 2002. This academy was deemed such a success the WSWI steering committee asked California SOU members to again sponsor the academy in 2003. This academy was also a success and SOU has been requested to help instruct and facilitate the 2004 WSWI Covert Wildlife Investigators Academy in Colorado. All of these accomplishments were met without the use of department funds.

The SOU has a 100% case acceptance rate by the various District Attorney's Offices utilized throughout the state as well as a 100% conviction rate. In a very conservative estimation of court dispositions and resource savings from the SOU cases in the past five years, the following is true:

  • Over $1,000,000.00 in fines and penalties
  • Accumulatively over 100 years in state prison and county jail terms
  • The forfeiture of over 20 vehicles and boats
  • Over 25 lifetime revocations of fishing licenses, and numerous one to five year fishing license revocations
  • A noted drop in illegal commercialization of wildlife crimes


Warden pilots fly aircraft for an Air Services Unit. Up to eight pilots fly and maintain seven single and multi-engine, turbine-powered airplanes from four bases statewide. A warden pilot's duties varies from law enforcement patrols over land and water, day and night, [[fish stocking]] in High Sierra lakes; transporting personnel, and performing scientific research.They police ocean fisheries for pollution, night poaching, illegal stream diversions, marijuana plantations, and oil spills

Pilots are required to hold a commercial pilots license, in visual and instrument (IFR) conditions. Many of the pilots hold an FAA airline transport pilot license, are experienced FAA airframe and power plant mechanics. Some pilots possess an inspection authorization on their mechanics license. Pilots are all experienced in low altitude flying, where most of the work is done. They must pass check flights annually from the FAA and an internal check ride by their own check pilots. Pilots are experts at vertical and oblique aerial photography as well as airborne radio telemetry.[14]

Pilots are also game wardens and graduates of post-certified academies. Pilots have been full peace officers since 1950. They are responsible for keeping up all the required training to maintain their status as peace officers.

Office of Spill Prevention and Response OSPR[edit]

The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska identified the need for a comprehensive oil spill prevention and response program. Public concern grew in February 1990, when the tanker vessel American Trader discharged 10,000 barrels of oil into Southern California waters, oiling an estimated 3,400 birds and forcing the closure of 25 kilometers of prime beach for five weeks. As a direct result of the public's demand for action, the California legislature passed the Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act of 1990 that established the Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR). OSPR, as a division of the CDFW, is the lead state agency charged with the mission, "... to provide the best achievable protection to California's natural resources by preventing, preparing for, and responding to spills of oil and other deleterious materials, and through restoring and enhancing affected resources."[citation needed]

OSPR is the only state agency in the United States with combined regulatory, law enforcement, pollution response and public trust authority along the coast or within tidally influenced waters. OSPR's dual regulatory and trustee authority assures that oil spill prevention and response to spills will safeguard wildlife and the ecosystems in which they live and restore these resources when injured by pollution incidents.[clarification needed]

The Enforcement Program within OSPR enforces laws that prevent oil spills, dispatches personnel, and investigates spills. Fish and Game Wardens are sworn peace officers with the authority to enforce both criminal and civil statutes. Wardens conduct spill investigations and gather and prepare evidence that is essential to any court case.

During a spill response, the State On-Scene Coordinator (or Incident Commander) is usually an OSPR Warden. The OSPR Enforcement Program includes the Department's 24-hour Communications Center, which received more than 3300 spill reports in 2004. There are approximately 30 officers (Captains, Lt's, Wardens) assigned to the Enforcement Program in California.

Wildlife Forensics Laboratory[edit]

To protect wildlife from abuse by poaching, CDFW wardens must be able to determine as much as possible about the sex, species, age, and origin of bloodstains, tissues and other animal parts they confiscate or find. For example, in the course of an investigation, tissue samples may be collected at the site of an illegal kill, bloodstains may be found in a vehicle, and frozen meat seized at a residence. Such samples can provide investigative information and later be used as evidence in criminal trials. A critical link in the impact of this physical evidence is the amount of information that can be obtained through analyses at a forensic crime lab.

CDFW has maintained a state crime lab, the Wildlife Forensic Laboratory (WFL), since the early 1950s. The WFL uses forensic science procedures to examine, analyze, report and testify at criminal trials on physical evidence seized by wardens in criminal poaching cases. Since its formation, thousands of poachers have been convicted of crimes perpetrated on wildlife partially because of results provided by the WFL on evidence submitted by wardens. The existence of the WFL is believed to deter poaching.

Until 1992, the WFL was under the Wildlife Management Division rather than the Wildlife Protection Division, whose needs it served. During that time, the WFL was under-budgeted, given low priority for supplies, manpower, and equipment, discouraged from scientific modernization, and was consistently the first section scheduled for elimination during the Department's constant cyclic budgetary problems. Virtually all public crime labs in California are assigned directly under a law enforcement agency to minimize this type of problem. They are either under their City or County Sheriff or Police Department, the County District Attorney's Office, or in the case of the California state government human crime labs, the California Department of Justice. Accordingly, the WFL appropriately became assigned under the Wildlife Protection Division in 1993 where the unique needs of criminal forensics could be monitored and directed by CDFW's law enforcement entity.

Wild Justice television show[edit]

"Wild Justice" is a National Geographic reality series created by Original Productions, the same team that produces "Deadliest Catch," "Axe Men," "Ice Road Truckers," and other popular reality series. It follows CDFW game wardens throughout the state, but especially in Northern California’s Central Sierra section. The episodes follow poachers, marijuana grows on public lands, hunting season and illegal game trade, as well as wardens performing a number of other law enforcement and educational tasks. When "Wild Justice" premiered in November 2010, it set the record for a documentary non-scripted reality series premier on the National Geographic Channel, with 3.2 million viewers. An inspiration for the series is the 2009 documentary Endangered Species: California Fish and Game Wardens, narrated by Jameson Parker and produced by Snow Goose Productions.[15]

California Fish and Game Commission[edit]

The California Fish and Game Commission is an organ of the California state government, and is separate from the CDFW.[16] Although the Department's name was recently modified by changing the word "Game" to "Wildlife", no such name change has occurred for the Commission.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Jim Zobel (November–December 1999). "Department of Fish and Game celebrates 130 years of serving California". California Outdoors. Retrieved 2012-12-29. 
  2. ^ a b Don Thompson (2012-10-04). "Hunting, fishing groups leery of California department's name change". San Jose Mercury News. Associated Press. Retrieved 2014-02-04. 
  3. ^ Erik Anderson (June 29, 2015). "California To Start Banning Lead Ammunition". KPBS Radio News (San Diego, CA). Retrieved 4 July 2015. 
  4. ^ "DFG Warden Career". Retrieved 2015-07-15. 
  5. ^ 2008 Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, by Brian A Reaves, US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 2011
  6. ^ California Fish and Game Commission Meeting March 6, 2008
  7. ^ A how-to guide in revamping woeful DFG Tom Stienstra, San Francisco Chronicle, December 8, 2002
  8. ^ A world without game wardens? ESPN, March 6, 2008
  9. ^ Game-warden shortage is about to get worse San Francisco Chronicle, September 23, 2007
  10. ^ Lots of ocean, but few game wardens! Sacramento Bee, August 23, 2007
  11. ^ Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division
  12. ^ Division of Alaska Wildlife Troopers
  13. ^ a b "California Fish and Game Wardens Association - CFGWA SOU - Special Operations Unit". Retrieved 2015-07-15. 
  14. ^ "DFG Law Enforcement Division". Retrieved 2015-07-15. 
  15. ^ Sipe, Charles. "Editor". 
  16. ^ About the Fish and Game Commission

External links[edit]