It’s been almost 100 years since the creation of Georgia’s Department of Game and Fish, an act that set in motion one of the most enduring and significant legacies in the history of our state. A statement was made, one that at the time was bold, clear and innovative. It said we cared about preserving our wildlife and natural resources and were willing to do whatever was necessary to ensure their survival and healthy propagation. One of the first acts was to appoint game wardens for each of Georgia’s then 146 counties, and those men were the beginnings of what is known today as the Wildlife Resources Division (WRD).
Lt. Judd Smith has worked in the law enforcement arm of WRD since 1998. The veteran conservation ranger, as they are known today, is presently serving at division headquarters in Social Circle as a member of their special projects team. Judd has become the unofficial historian for the old Game and Fish (now WRD) with a special emphasis on the influence game wardens have had on the history of the branch.
In a recent interview Judd gave us some insights on what he considers the most important aspects of the duties game wardens have been charged with throughout the history of the organization. Judd also provided a wealth of research and pictures on some of the history of the organization.
The “founding father” of what is today WRD was Jesse Mercer, who was from Fitzgerald. On Sept. 1, 1911, Mercer was appointed as the first commissioner of the Georgia Department of Game and Fish by then Gov. Joseph M. Brown. Mercer owned several newspapers, and this background was a key factor in the infancy of the department because it enabled Game and Fish to spread the word about the objectives, goals and procedures that were soon to become common practice in enforcing the hunting and fishing laws of Georgia.
Judd’s research gives us some insights on the early game wardens. The men and women who served in that capacity were supplied with little or nothing to help them perform their duties. They were paid about $3 a day and a percentage of the fines from prosecutions from their cases. There was a game warden assigned to all 146 counties in the state (there were only 146 at the time), and there were about 2,000 deputy game wardens, as well.
When asked about the typical problems game wardens faced in the early years, Judd said, “They dealt with many of the same problems we have today, but they were dealing with a public who had been used to doing whatever they pleased, so there was a different attitude toward the game wardens. People were poisoning creeks with saw dust in the northern part of the state and hunting doves over bait in the southern areas. Those seemed to be two of the most common offenses.”
According to Judd, “There was a lot of apathy toward the earliest regulations. People were used to doing as they pleased.”
In the early days many of those employed as game wardens and as deputy game wardens treated the job as a sideline. The low pay, long hours and dangerous aspects of the job discouraged many from taking their duties seriously. The dangers were certainly real, as there have been at least three documented cases of wardens, or conservation rangers, killed in the line of duty. Those individuals were:
• Robert Sizemore, a deputy game warden who was shot and killed in 1928 while attempting to arrest a violator.
• William Earl Hobbs, who was shot and killed in 1967 while assisting an Early County Sheriff’s deputy.
• Rocky Wainwright, who was killed in an ATV accident in 1999 while searching for a missing girl in Bibb County.
In the early days of Game and Fish, one of the most acute problems was that the whitetail deer herd had been decimated. The department made it a top priority to re-establish the population through protection and propagation strategies. In 1928, a Forest Service ranger in the north Georgia mountains named Arthur Woody purchased six deer with his personal money, and that was the humble beginning of what later became a deer re-stocking effort for Game and Fish. The Blue Ridge Game Management Area, Georgia’s first state wildlife management area, was established in 1928.
Back then, over-hunting was the biggest cause of plummeting wildlife numbers, and thus enforcement goals were directed toward bringing that trend to a halt. Performing the duties expected of game wardens has never been easy, and in the early years it was in many ways a thankless job. Most game wardens served in the county they lived in, and handing out tickets and lectures to family, friends and acquaintances and treating everyone fairly was a daunting task. Until only recently these rangers or wardens were basically enforcers of the game and fish laws, but as is the case with most careers they have always had to deal with a myriad of other problems and situations. A warden might spend part of his day dealing with trespassers or poachers and later on be called to help search for someone lost in the woods. Before the day was done he might then be called to aid a biologist in evaluating a pond.
A good game warden knew the law and was not afraid to enforce it, but he or she also had to have sound judgment. Justice could be served with a ticket, an arrest or by a stern lecture, and only the best ones instinctively knew which method fit a particular situation.
By 1967 the pay for a wildlife ranger was still only $395 per month, and the lowly salary was beginning to hamper efforts to hire people who were trained, dedicated and conscientious. As a result the endeavor to preserve and improve Georgia’s hunting and fishing was floundering. The rangers were on call 24 hours a day, six days a week. The physical requirements and job description of these wildlife rangers was practically identical to those of the Georgia State Patrol, Atlanta Police Department and State Revenue Agents, yet those positions paid nearly $100 more per month. Bringing the pay for these men and women more into line began under then Game and Fish Commissioner George Bagby during the administration of Gov. Lester Maddox.
Today’s Wildlife/Conservation Rangers have broader powers and responsibilities. They still enforce game and fish laws, but they also enforce environmental laws and all state laws if the situation demands it. There are rangers on the Counter Terrorism Task Force and the governor’s Drug Task Force. There is also a Critical Incident Reconstruction Team that investigates hunting and boating accidents. Rangers are also deployed in emergency situations such as Hurricane Katrina. They help provide security at major events such as the 1996 Olympics and the G-8 Summit on Sea Island.
The Wildlife Resources Division of today deals with a different set of concerns over the populations of wildlife species. One hundred years ago it was over-hunting, but today habitat loss due to urbanization and changing farm practices are the biggest threats to wildlife. As time has gone by, enforcement remains the No. 1 priority of conservation officers, but helping to educate the public on conserving the natural resources of Georgia also became an integral part of the job.
Perhaps the irony of this story is that as the Wildlife Resources Division celebrates its 100th anniversary, they also endure significant budget cuts and a crippling reduction in force. From a high of 252 rangers working to enforce game and fish laws, there are now only 188. Forty of Georgia’s 159 counties don’t even have a ranger living there anymore.
These cutbacks cannot help the men and women who work so hard to enforce laws and keep vibrant populations of game species intact. These critical shortages in manpower and money will continue to reduce their effectiveness until our state leaders hear in a clear voice that we are endangering one of our precious resources.
The 100-year anniversay of the creation of what is now known as the Wildlife Resources Division is a great time to look back at how we began — and it’s a time for sportsmen to look forward and keep an eye on where we are headed.