After 37 years of putting the screws to poachers, Washington Fish and Wildlife police regional supervisor Mike Whorton, 59, was humble to the end.
“As captain, my greatest risk in the last 26 years has been paper cuts,” he said in Spokane last week, the day he retired as the longest-acting captain in the history of the Fish and Wildlife Department’s enforcement branch.
Of course, he had a decade to rumble before he took the promotion to coordinate wildlife officers in the state’s 10 far-eastern counties.
“I wince when I recall some of the middle-of-the night chases after illegal gillnetters, running a boat full throttle between the sand dunes off the mouth of the Columbia River,” he said. “I was 26; it was exciting, and I’m probably lucky nobody got killed.”
He recalled a few footraces, too, and the rush of putting the spotlight on someone breaking a wildlife law or the satisfaction of flipping on the flashing lights and siren when he’d caught a poacher, literally, red-handed.
“Most of our work is less glamorous, getting tips, collecting evidence, working through the cases and contacting people,” he said.
But when additional staff is needed in special cases, the captain was on call for field duty.
“One of the most unusual calls in my career was just a few years ago when we had to go tranquilize and remove a calf moose that had fallen through a window and was trapped in the basement bedroom of a North Spokane house,” he said.
“It took five of us to haul that moose out of the house so it could be reunited with its mother. By the way, the moose left the basement bedroom in pretty bad shape.”
Technology has given officers tools Whorton could barely dream about at the start of his career.
“ DNA evidence and other science have been a big advancement to the blood typing, fingerprinting and other tools we’ve traditionally used,” he said.
Indeed, a poacher isn’t home-free when the illegally killed moose is processed, wrapped and stored in the home freezer. “We can use DNA to match packages of meat on a suspect’s home with the carcass remains found in the field,” he said.
Mobile data terminals in enforcement vehicles allow officers to quickly use license plate information to check on who they’re about to deal with, if he’s a felon or has a warrant for his arrest.
“It’s all at our fingertips, which is a big advancement for officer safety as well as for advancing investigations.”
Mobile phones may be the most effective technological advance, he said.
“We often get tips on violations in real time, from people who are seeing the activity in the field rather than a day later when they return home,” he said.
“It’s amazing to think that when I was field officer, I’d often get a radio notice about a poaching incident and I’d have drive hours to find a pay phone. After I get all the details, I might learn I was initially just a half a mile from the problem in the first place.”
While protecting wildlife and enforcing hunting and fishing rules remain at the core of their work, Fish and Wildlife police are seeing more of society’s ills seeping in to rural settings.
“Our officers are running into meth labs, marijuana groves, stolen property caches and asked to help with drug issues and all sorts of crimes,” he said.
“Probably our biggest issue is the onslaught of humanity that keeps pressure on wildlife by putting more demands on wildlife lands, rivers, lakes and other habitats and wildlife. Helping enforce the Growth Management Act and Shoreline Management Act may be one of the most important things we do for wildlife. ”
Fewer officers in the field has been one of Whorton’s main concerns for years.
“We’ve seen a constant erosion of officers even before the latest state budget cuts,” he said. “It’s not a good trend especially when society is increasing the demand for our services.”
When he took on the regional enforcement supervisor position, Whorton said he had 26 officers. His departure last week left the number at 17.
“It’s been incremental, but it’s making us less effective at responding to problems as well as limiting our ability to do preventative work.”
A special investigative unit was created two decades ago after enforcement officers succeeded in making cases on poachers who were killing bears to sell their gall bladders for medicinal purposes on the black market.
“The greed factor in the commercialization of wildlife parts can have big consequences on wildlife,” he said. “That unit continues to make cases in areas from illegal guiding outfits to commercial seafood markets.”
Whorton said he’s privileged and humbled by the caliber of men and women he’s supervised.
“Our officers have college degrees and take great pride in what they do,” he said. “They could be making more money in other law enforcing, but they’re a group of people very committed to protecting fish and wildlife.”
Whorton and many other officers went into fish and wildlife enforcement as a spinoff from their love for hunting and fishing.
“It’s ironic that being in this line of work means we have to be working when the major hunting and fishing seasons open and most sportsmen want to be in the field,” he said.
“We rotate among the guys on who’s going to get time off during a hunting season year by year,” he said. “It’s a planned privilege to get time off during a season.
“Now that I’m retiring, I plan to make up for it.”