GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — Galveston County game wardens are routinely deployed 380 miles south to towns such as McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley. Their mission: patrol the border.
Wardens across the state have been tasked with these weeklong border rotations as part of Operation Strong Safety — a joint effort among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to increase border security introduced by then-Gov. Rick Perry a year ago this month.
The operation has sent every one of Texas’ 500 or so game wardens to the border from hometowns such as Galveston and as far north as the Panhandle to help police the border.
Galveston County’s eight wardens and one captain were deployed to the border 19 times from June 2014 to May 2015, parks and wildlife records show.
Although game wardens still make up just a fraction of state border security, the operation has transformed their duties. At the border, they often apprehend drug smugglers and those attempting to enter the country illegally — a role seemingly far from the wardens’ traditional task as conservation officers tasked with enforcing hunting and fishing regulations.
Now, the job includes being at the front lines of Texas’ battles at the border.
Every game warden in the Galveston County has spent at least one tour on the border, and many have been sent several times over the past 12 months. The rotations are seven days long, including two days to travel and local wardens are most often sent to the McAllen area, said Capt. Ed Tanuz, who heads the local warden division and has been regularly sent to the border.
Wardens work one of two shifts in pair — midnight to noon and noon to midnight, Tanuz said, meaning they often have to work 14-hour days.
They patrol the border in both well-armed boats and land units using skills they would rely on in wilderness and waterborne operations, Tanuz said.
But the border has challenges of its own.
“It is unique the first time you run across the individuals from another country,” Tanuz said. “Seeing young children coming across by themselves in the middle of the night or these families wading through the water is a true eye-opener.”
Tanuz said that last fall his unit encountered hundreds of people trying to cross illegally in one week. But those numbers slowed to 40 or 50 the last time he was deployed two months ago.
On patrol, wardens respond to people who are spotted by helicopters or are detected by sensors they trigger as they wade through the Rio Grande or cross by foot in wooded areas, he said.
Wardens don’t have the authority to arrest people crossing the border illegally — that rests with federal government. But game wardens referred more than 16,809 people to U.S. Customs and Border Protection from June 2014 to May 2015, parks and wildlife numbers show.
Wardens have also seized more than 300 vessels — mostly rafts — and noted 655 vessels containing occupants turning around before to entering the United States after seeing warden units.
Wardens have made arrests for human trafficking, drug smuggling, assaults and evading arrests.
The majority of incidents with people fall into two categories — those attempting to cross the border illegally and drug smugglers, Tanuz said.
“It doesn’t take long to tell which one is which,” he said. “If they have narcotics, they’ll run. If they are a mother and children, we never have that chase.”
Game wardens have detained people from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Nepal, Mexico and China. Since June 2014, there also have been 121 recorded instances of wardens providing humanitarian support, including rescuing people who were drowning and providing emergency medical care, according to parks and wildlife officials.
“The deployments can be operationally challenging,” Texas Game Wardens Chief of Special Operations Grahame Jones said. “But we are extremely proud of how our game wardens have been able to actually save lives at the border.”
Time away from home
Border operations will inevitably take some toll on warden’s duties at home, Jones said.
“It can certainly put a strain on local counties, if their game wardens are gone,” Jones said. “But we will never not answer a call.”
The border rotation has not made Galveston County as short-handed as counties with fewer wardens, Tanuz said.
The county is part of a 12-warden district because there is so much work patrolling local commercial and recreational fishing and wildlife along the coast.
Tanuz said he plans for deployments by coordinating with surrounding districts to help fill shifts just as he does for busy times such as the beginning of the shrimping season.
Counties with only one warden have a much harder time helping cover the border, Jones said. At times a single warden may be required to cover two counties during deployments, he said.
Sending wardens to the border is unlikely to end any time soon. The state legislature in May approved $800 million for border security operations though the next biennium with at least 49 full-time employees added to Texas Parks and Wildlife for enhanced border security.
But many wardens see the change as fitting with a history of wardens deployed to emergency situations such as hurricanes, explosions and flooding.
New game warden teams — such as K-9 units to detect narcotics, dive teams for rescues, a tactical response team, a search-and-rescue squad and forensics operations team — have been formed.
The role of the game warden is changing, but Jones argues that the mission is the same.
“Game wardens have always been known as ‘law enforcement off the pavement.'” Jones said. “That is what we do at the border and that is what we will continue to do wherever we’re needed.”