It’s all in the name.
And the Pennsylvania Game Commission recently took a step to make the title used by the agency’s law enforcement officers a bit easier to remember.
The agency recently changed the name of its wildlife conservation officers to “state game wardens” in a move they hope better identifies the officers to the public. As a result, the Game Commission is in the process of replacing cloth uniform patches, and all new vehicles will have “game warden” markings and a new logo. Thirty six new vehicles will join the fleet this year, while the remainder will continue to bear the old “conservation officer” decals until they are replaced over the next three years.
Mark Rutkowski, law enforcement supervisor for the PGC’s Northeast Region, said that even though game wardens do have police authority, the new name reflects the specialized duties of the job, mainly from enforcing the Game Code.
“Yes, we have police authority but our specialty is wildlife law enforcement,” he said. “The title of ‘game warden’ has more of an identity and it better defines what we do.”
Rutkowski added the popularity of television programs such as North Woods Law — which follows game wardens in Maine — have also made the title more identifiable with the public. That clarity between the agency’s officers and the public could improve safety and cause less confusion, Rutkowski said.
“It better identifies our officers and who they are. It’s no different than a Pennsylvania State Police officer identifying as a trooper,” he said.
The name change is the third title used by the PGC’s law enforcement personnel in the agency’s 122-year history. Until 1987 PGC officers were known as district game protectors and then wildlife conservation officers.
Despite being called wildlife conservation officers for the last 30 years, Rutkowski said “game warden” has always been the title associated with the agency’s law enforcement.
The old wildlife conservation officer title also created plenty of confusion while it was in use and never resonated with the public.
“We found the WCO term was confusing to the public and a lot of times they couldn’t grasp what agency we belonged to,” Rutkowski said. “It was a mouthful to say and people confused us with park rangers and the Fish and Boat Commission. Sometimes we were even called conversation officers.”
The confusion with the WCO title also led to headaches for officers when cases were brought to the courtroom.
Rutkowski mentioned an occurrence in Lackawanna County where an attorney contended that a wildlife conservation officer has no authority off of game lands. In another instance, Rutkowski said, a judge once refused to prosecute a case involving false statements to a law enforcement officer, believing that a wildlife conservation officer didn’t have the authority to file such a charge.
PGC spokesman Travis Lau said in an unofficial survey, the agency’s officers were asked about the name change and 85 percent were in favor of the move.
In addition to enforcing the Game Code along with police authority, the duties of a Pennsylvania game warden extends into education, research and conservation programs.
For example, Pennsylvania game wardens coordinate and supervise Hunter-Trapper Education programs. They also represent the agency at conservation and sportsmen’s club meetings, respond to nuisance wildlife complaints, and deal with injured wildlife and suspected rabid-animal calls. Warden work also includes wildlife surveys, wildlife trap-and-transfer, field research and providing programs to civic groups and public schools.
“It was the variety of work, which has accompanied the position since game protectors were defined by law in 1895, that inspired the former titles our officers have had,” said PGC executive director Brian Burhans.
While wildlife law-enforcement is a core responsibility, fulfillment of an officer’s full range of duties requires significant training and responsibility.
That’s why Rutkowski said rebranding the identity of the agency’s officers was long overdue.
“We felt it would get some pride back in the ranks and reflect the history of the Game Commission,” he said. “It was time to change it up and we were always referred to as game wardens by the public, so felt it was best to go with it.”
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky