Wildlife conservation officers have dangerous jobs that put them alone, on dark roads and around people who are armed and might be breaking the law,
Wildlife conservation officers have dangerous jobs that put them alone, on dark roads and around people who are armed and might be breaking the law, officials said. They also, however, educate the public. Here, the late David L. Grove teaches a nature class in McSherrystown in May 2010. (File photo)

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Crowds are expected at weekend services for Officer David Grove.

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Wildlife conservation officers spend a lot of night, weekend and holiday hours patrolling the game lands of Pennsylvania, said Jerry Feaser, state Game Commission spokesman. It's during those times WCOs work their hardest.

"Game lands can be beautiful places used to enjoy nature," Feaser said. "But after dark we find drinking parties, drug sales and people that are knowingly breaking the law."

While state game lands are preserved for hunting, bird watching and nature education, he said, the land is also abused.

"When we run into a lot of problems are when people are not hunting, they're poaching," Feaser said.

Catching poachers ended in tragedy when WCO David L. Grove was shot and killed Thursday night near Gettysburg, state police said, as he was trying to arrest Christopher Lynn Johnson.

The work of a wildlife conservation officer is the most dangerous law enforcement job in Pennsylvania, said Darren David, a WCO in Adams County who worked with Grove.

"The most important part of our job is public protection," David told The (Chambersburg) Public Opinion on Friday. "Dealing with people with firearms, who shouldn't have them, isn't safe."

But WCOs do more than enforce hunting laws.


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They are the stewards of wild birds and wild animals, said Chad Eyler, a WCO in York County, and their jurisdiction goes beyond the 1.5 million acres -- nearly the size of Delaware -- that are managed by the state game commission.

"Our officers do exactly what the title says," Feaser said. "They are a unique officer among the landscape of law enforcement."

Not everyone understands the authority of a WCO, he said.

When Johnson was asked if he knew he shot a police officer, he said no, he thought it was a game warden, charging documents state.

"Just because someone doesn't understand it's an officer, doesn't mean it absolves them of their crime," Feaser said.

Some law officials have restricted authority outside of their jurisdiction, Feaser said, but a WCO has state-wide authority.

"If I see a WCO from Adams County in Elk County, he still has authority up there," he said.

The nearly year-long training required of a WCO includes a thorough knowledge of tree, shrub, animal and bird identification, land management practices, and wildlife management and natural history, Eyler said.

It also includes legal procedures, public relations, self-defense and physical training, and law enforcement methods and procedures.

After completion of the training, each officer is assigned about 350 square miles, given the needed office tools, a uniform and sidearm, and work from their homes within the patrol district, according to the job description found on the Conservation Officers of Pennsylvania website.

As part of their uniform, Feaser said, WCOs are provided bulletproof vests they are required to wear.

But beyond their patrolling duties, WCOs work to inform the community on the wildlife around them.

"We work with an agency that is very information and education oriented," Eyler said.

From school groups to scouts and service clubs, game wardens are working to educate the community on the benefits of nature and how to protect it. Between 400 and 900 people complete their hunting and trapping classes each year.

It's outside of hunting season is when a WCO has to practice law enforcement the most, Feaser said.

Col. Frank Pawlowski, state police commissioner, said Friday at a news conference that WCOs do "particularly dangerous work."

"He's by himself in a car, which is the nature of the work, and he's out on lonely, dark roads, and more often than not, in just about every incident, he's dealing with individuals that are armed," Pawlowski said.

Robert Criswell, Central Regional Director of the state Game Commission, said WCOs sometimes work alone, in pairs or in concentrated operations.

"We all know when we take the oath and join the commission that this is possible," he said about Grove's death.

Grove was the first WCO shot and killed since 1915, and the third since the commission was founded in 1895, Criswell said.

rlefever@ydr.com; 771-2088

Grove's words on working as a WCO

Wildlife Conservation Officer David L. Grove wrote "A Shot in the Dark" for the November issue of Pennsylvania Game News, in which he talked about a night he spent training deputy applicant Joe Webb.

Sitting on patrol, Grove wrote, he explained to Webb how he had been involved in the pursuit of game law violators every year since he was a deputy in 2001.

"At the time that statement seemed so innocent, and little could I have imagined what the evening held in store for us," he wrote.

In the article, Grove and Webb had to chase an 18-year-old teen, Justin, who had been drinking and poaching deer with his friend.

After an unsuccessful interview of trying to get Justin to confess to poaching, Grove said, the teen would be arrested on charges of underage drinking and a DUI.

"Later, when he got to the State Police barracks to talk to me he knew he had to lie, but he realized when he was going to jail that it was time to tell the truth," Grove wrote. "I told him it was his best decision of the evening."

Both men had their hunting privileges suspended and had to pay several thousand dollars in fines, Grove said. Not long after, he found both men poaching on state game land.

"I hope Justin will learn from his encounters with me and realize that breaking game laws and poaching will never do anything good for him in his life."

· Read Grove's article

Read more on the homicide case

· Police: Man accused in officer's death didn't want to go back to prison

· Slain game officer remembered for dedication, personality

· Family members in disbelief at allegations that Christopher Johnson killed a game commission officer.

· View the arrest affidavit and Johnson's criminal history here.

Past stories on work by Game Commission and its officers

· September 2010: Laws are a '1-2 punch' against poaching

· July 2010: DNA helps prove poaching of York County's 'Buckzilla'

· June 2010: Game officer thinks severed bear paw might be part of illegal trade

· May 2010: Game Commission Deputy WCO gets county officer of the year award

· June 2009: Bear's organs will be used to help fight illegal trade

Funeral services

A viewing for David L. Grove will be 1 to 8 p.m. Friday at Grove-Bowersox Funeral Home in Waynesboro.

The funeral service will be 2 p.m. Nov. 21 at Waynesboro Area High School in Waynesboro.