I’VE ALWAYS BEEN SOMEWHAT INTRIGUED by the job Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens do. My respect for the men and women who drive the green trucks is immense, but not just because they are the ones out there watching over our stuff.
There are no set hours and very few boundaries when the duty bell rings for game wardens. They are out there day and night—amid fair weather and foul, on big water and small, in tall woods, in wide open prairies, and in extensive bay systems that gobble up more real estate than some states.
They are often times alone in remote areas while in pursuit of brazen criminals with no concept of the law, let alone any respect for it.
Donning the silver and blue badge is an inherently dangerous gig. However, advancements in technology have helped make the job safer than it used to be. This provides wardens with some nifty tools to catch bad guys, nip dangerous situations in the bud, and save lives.
“Back when I became warden in the 1980s, we didn’t have anything compared to what our game wardens have today in the way of technology,” says Donnie Puckett, a retired Captain game warden from Lufkin.
“Thirty-five years ago the only red light we had on our trucks was a spotlight with a red lens on it,” he said, “and the light didn’t even blink. We were issued a pistol, shotgun and a pair of binoculars and told to get ‘em.
“Things have changed a lot since then,” Puckett added. “We’re in a high-tech age, and it’s great that so many useful tools are available to our wardens today. You’ve got to use everything you can get. It can save lives on both sides of the aisle. That’s a good thing.”
Game wardens throughout Texas make use of a wide variety of high-tech tools and instruments in the field. At no other place in the state does modern technology play a more vital role in routine operations than it does with those who patrol the Texas coast.
Actually, Texas coast isn’t a place. It is a sprawling complex of sandy, soggy land mass studded with a host of brackish estuaries and massive bay systems that collide with the fish-rich saltwater giant that is the Gulf of Mexico.
Spanning more than 360 miles, the Texas coastline is the sixth longest in the nation. The vast waters that join it pump
hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the state’s
economy through commercial fishing, sport fishing, hunting and other recreational activities. Roughly half of the seafood consumed in the United States comes from the Gulf with more than $400 million in shellfish and finfish passing through Lone Star ports every year.
Texas game wardens stationed along 16 coastal counties have a huge responsibility policing all of that. That’s not to mention performing search and rescue, natural disaster relief and working tirelessly to corral the Mexican longliners who frequently poach our waters.
Additionally, they are also called upon to assist partners such as the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and others in heading off drug smugglers. They assist as well in countering the threat of radiological or nuclear material smuggling into the U.S. waters.
Luis Sosa knows all about the trials of being a game warden along the Texas coast. Sosa began his career in Willacy County before transferring Cameron County. There, he became a sergeant and for two years ran the Capt. Williams, a 65-foot crew boat the department uses for patrolling offshore.
Today, he heads up the department’s Maritime Tactical Operations Group (MTOG) This is a specialized unit of highly trained officers who respond during critical waterborne incidents or special maritime details.
Not surprisingly, MTOG makes use of all sorts high-tech gear during the course of duty. To find out more, I asked the department’s law enforcement division for a rundown on some of the equipment and how it is used.
Sosa, Cody Jones, TPWD Assistant Commander for Marine Enforcement and Brandi Reeder, TPWD Assistant Commander and Fisheries Law Administrator, offered up the following list and descriptions:
• Night Vision Goggles: NVGs are optoelectronic devices that allow images to be produced in levels of light approaching total darkness. Game Wardens along the coast use NVGs to help them move around their rural environments undetected while identifying or watching potential violators in the act.
• Thermographic Cameras (Handheld/Vessel Mounted): Unlike NVGs, which use some sort of levels of light to produce images, thermographic cameras use infrared radiation to form an image known as thermography. The higher an object’s temperature, the more infrared radiation it emits. Game Wardens along the coast are equipped with handheld thermographic cameras.
In addition, Game Warden vessels classified as mid-range patrol vessels are all equipped with vessel-mounted thermographic cameras. Unlike NVGs, these cameras can detect any heat source, human or animal, that may conceal a person and/or evidence that could be missed with NVGs.
• Radar: Radar uses radio waves to identify an object and determine its distance. Game Wardens along the coast rely on radar to identify possible fishing vessels offshore and for navigation when visibility is poor.
Radar equipment provides a real time display of what lies around whether it is a vessel, a navigational aid, or land mass. This, in combination with a chartplotter/GPS system, can avoid vessel accidents during nighttime, thick fog, or any other condition causing poor visibility.
Game Wardens are able to use radar to scan open bodies of water, such as the Gulf of Mexico, for several miles, seeking possible targets of interest that may be engaged in recreational or commercial fishing.
• Chartplotter/GPS: Chartplotters/GPS devices are used for navigation. These devices provide Game Wardens with global positioning, heading, speed, and charts or “maps” of the area they are patrolling. As mentioned earlier, this device compares the chart “picture” of the layout of the land with real time images provided by radar to navigate safely.
Chartplotters/GPS units provide an exact global position to: navigate from origin to destination, report a Game Warden’s whereabouts should he need assistance. It can also capture the location of violations for evidence documentation and court proceedings.
• Side-Scan Sonar: Used on most TPWD vessels, this sonar system is used to create images of the seafloor. Side-Scan emits acoustic pulses toward the seafloor, receives the reflections of the seafloor, and forms an image of the sea bottom. It is used to gauge water depth, detection of hazards, and/or detection of objects of interest.
• Radiation and Nuclear (Rad/Nuc) Detection Devices: Game Wardens are the first layer of security with the capability to detect and assess unauthorized attempts to import, possess, and/or transport nuclear and radiological material. They rely on several devices to do it, including personal radiation detectors, Rad/Nuc detection backpacks and Radiation Isotope Identification Devices (RIID).
Personal radiation detectors are pagers worn on the duty belt. Rad/Nuc detection backpacks are capable of scanning large open areas, and the RIIDs are capable of isolating the direction of a radiating source. In addition to these devices, the long-range patrol vessels along the coast are equipped with vessel-mounted Rad/Nuc Detection Devices.
Every Rad/Nuc detector deployed by Texas Parks and Wildlife is capable of detecting Rad/Nuc activity, identifying the source, and generating a spectrum sample. This can be submitted to the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office for further examination and enforcement action.
• Vessel Entanglement System: This is a non-lethal, air-compressed weapon assigned to the Marine Tactical Operations Group (MTOG). This system deploys a net capable of stopping small vessels by entangling the vessel’s propeller with the net. MTOG members train with this equipment to be proficient with it should it be needed during Harbor Security details and/or vessel pursuits and interdiction.
• Aerial Drone: Used in search and rescue missions. The department’s drone is equipped with a camera that transmits a live video feed to the operator. This drone can assist officers in gathering Intel in certain large-scale search and rescue areas.
• Body Worn Cameras: Records audio and video of the interaction between our Game Wardens and the public to gather video evidence at crime scenes and provide officer and/or public accountability.
• Laptops/IPad/IPhone: Every warden is issued a laptop, IPad, and IPhone with connectivity to the department’s intranet and various mobile applications. They use a variety of software and mobile applications to access, send, and/or store information crucial to the enforcement of the state’s laws and the prosecution of those who violate them.
• Pocket Cop: Used for access to the Criminal Justice Information System data sources to include local, state, and the National Crime Information Center. This data gives Game Wardens a quick snapshot of whom or what they are encountering, whether they are wanted, and whether there is any criminal history.
• Interact: Allows access to a Records Management System used to create offense reports, document field contacts, share law enforcement data with other officers, or search for data by other Texas Game Wardens.
• Hunter/Boater Education Mobile Apps: Used for verification of hunter or boater education course completion.
• Fisheries Enforcement Mobile App: Used for capturing the patrols, inspections and enforcement actions taken during the course of the day on federal waters. The data allows the department to generate a report documenting the state’s enforcement as per our Joint Enforcement Authority agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
• Daily Activity Report: Used for recording patrols, enforcement actions, and expenses during the course of the day while working federally funded operations.
“Any natural disaster and we will go.” Since 1895 Texas Game Wardens have played a critical role in protecting Texas. They are here to help the citizens of Texas with an integrated team of professionals.
From well-trained helicopter pilots to K-9 teams to sonar-equipped dive teams, they risk their lives to protect others. From swift water rescue boats to helicopter hoists, there is no value that can be placed upon losing a human life.
Texas Game Wardens strive to maintain funding levels to have an appropriate response to persons in need in Texas.
—story by MATT WILLIAMS