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Game wardens armed, prepared

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Former Los Angeles cop Chris Dorner's killing spree and fiery death were the news business' Flavors of the Week for two full weeks.

Reporters feeding the 24-hour news cycle's insatiable appetite for fresh angles explored every nuance of the story they thought might surprise or titillate readers. Like many jaded news folks, I watched and read them with a morbid but mostly detached interest.

But then two of the accounts caused me to raise an eyebrow.

First, a Los Angeles Times reporter seemed genuinely surprised that California Department of Fish and Wildlife wardens had played a significant role in helping hunt Dorner down.

Then another reporter, this one a network-news commentator, seemed puzzled as to why game wardens would even be armed, much less carrying (gasp!) high-powered semi-automatic assault-style rifles.

C'mon, give me a break.

Game wardens are full-fledged, well-trained law enforcement officers.

Some states call them wardens. Others call them conservation officers. Still others - West Virginia included - call them Natural Resources Police officers. Regardless of the name, they undergo the same sort of rigorous law enforcement training as county and city police.

Lt. Col. Jerry Jenkins, a spokesman the state Division of Natural Resources' law enforcement section, described the training.

"Our officers go through the same basic training as sheriff's deputies and city police, and then receive specialty training afterward," Jenkins said. "We routinely get called in on drug busts and domestic disturbance cases, especially when they occur in rural areas and we're the closest units. I don't think folks realize that."

Jenkins said it didn't surprise him at all that California wardens were called in on the Dorner manhunt, which unfolded deep in the San Bernadino Mountains.

"Wildlife officers tend to be more familiar with rural areas than officers from other agencies," he said.

It also didn't surprise him that the California wardens were well armed.

"We work remote areas, often by ourselves, and during hunting season we're usually dealing with people who have guns," he said.

"A study by the FBI said that wildlife officers are seven times more likely to be assaulted in the line of duty than other police officers. With that in mind, it makes sense for us to be armed, don't you think?"

West Virginia's officers carry .45-caliber Glock semiautomatic handguns, 12-gauge Remington 870 pump shotguns, and .223-caliber Smith & Wesson MP-15 semiautomatic rifles.

Four times a year, they undergo firearms training. Agency rules require them to qualify twice a year with their side arms, once a year with their shotguns and once a year with their rifles.

Jenkins said it isn't unusual for wildlife officers to participate alongside state and local police during manhunts, hostage situations and drug raids, but added that they usually maintain a low profile.

"We get called in the whole gamut [of crimes,]" he said. "We're not often the guys you see on the news, but we're usually there."


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