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Steve Merlo

I always wanted to become a game warden, but the heavens and earth would have probably parted ways had I done so. Most game wardens are men and women of high moral and ethical fiber, dedicated to preserving, policing and managing our state's bountiful natural resources. But with my somewhat lurid past, that might not have been the best path for me to follow. Luckily, I eventually got "outdoor religion," but by that time I was well past the optimum age for recruitment into the prestigious organization that is the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

We've all seen illegal activities while hunting and fishing and wished we could do something about it. Wardens are spread so thin these days that finding one close enough to react to a phone call is often asking just too much of their beleaguered jobs.

Nowadays, my love of the outdoors and the overall pleasure of writing about legal hunting and fishing drive my thirst and passion of that heritage to my readers. Without a doubt, most feel the same kindred spirit that I do, and would be more than willing, had they the chance, to volunteer their services to improve their outdoor opportunities and actually assist our men and women in green uniforms. I know I would.

Back in 2002, the California Department of Fish and Game initiated a program in the San Diego area called the Natural Resource Volunteer Program. Created to assist wardens in non-law-enforcement duties, the enhanced public service became an immediate success.

Unfortunately, the San Joaquin Valley Enforcement District, of which Kern County resides in, only recently received the okay to begin training volunteers. Largely through the efforts of retired local game warden Tom Stenson, the program finally has opened the doors for volunteers to get on board.

According to Stenson, the mission of NRVP is to "provide conservation and enforcement education in public service, through community outreach, state lands monitoring, habitat and pollution awareness, and animal welfare along with DFW administrative assistance." Also, the purpose of NRVP is to "provide efficiency and productivity statewide by using the skills of talented volunteers, supporting DFW's operations and mission."

Along with the mission and purpose of the NRVP, the objectives are "to assist the DFW in providing enhanced public service to the community and to provide opportunities for citizens to make a definitive contribution toward protecting California's fish and wildlife and their habitats." In other words, lend a helping hand to keep our hunting and fishing heritages on track.

The job is not a gimme. Volunteers will be subjected to completing up to 80 hours of special, non-law enforcement training over a six-month period, including some classroom and some on-the-job. However, when the training is complete, each non-salaried "Natural Resource Volunteer" (the official title), will be able to legally perform a host of hands-on duties directly related to warden and biologist assistance.

Some of the jobs will entail menial work such as answering phones or handing out sport fishing regulations, but a lot of the work will be centered on far more important duties. NRV personnel might be tasked with observing or reporting field incidents involving pollution or habitat destruction, or assist in DFW law enforcement training exercises. They might co-instruct Hunter Education Programs, administer equivalence exams or test and interview instructors.

Volunteers will be trained to observe and report, increasing field times for wardens patrols and investigations. This automatically frees up more time for biologists to their scientific management and research.

NRV people will also be able to validate big game tags, ride along with wardens to assist in non-law-enforcement activities or assist biologists in wildlife preservation and enhancement. They'll also be in radio contact with patrolling wardens should one of the volunteers witness a violation and then be able to report directly to them. The NRV will also respond to complaints regarding problem wildlife that might include depredation, nuisance and public safety.

Once the training is completed, each volunteer will have their own photo I.D. card and shirts with NRVP monogrammed on their clothing.

For more information on the program or the various duties a volunteer may perform, call Tom Stenson at (661) 368-2737 and see if you can make a difference as a volunteer.

Applicants must have no felony convictions and be available to volunteer during office hours and occasional weekend assignments.

They must be willing to work with minimal supervision and be at least 18 years of age. Prospective volunteers must also possess a valid California driver's license with an acceptable driving record and medical approval. Volunteers should be available for 24 hours a month, which is about 6 hours per week.