ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Department of Public Safety might merge its two largest agencies.
Commissioner Bill Tandeske said putting the Division of Fish and Wildlife Protection under the same command as the Alaska State Troopers would eliminate some costs and improve communication between the agencies.
"Sometimes you get mission creep; over time you take on this duty, that responsibility," Tandeske said. "Every once in a while you need to reassess what you're doing and why you're doing it and the proper support structure for that work."
Tandeske is a 26-year state trooper who came out of retirement to head the $109 million-a-year department.
Blending the divisions doesn't mean fish and wildlife protection officers will be chasing taillights rather than poachers, the commissioner said. But they could be pressed into blue-shirt service during their off-season, which occasionally occurs now, he said. Troopers wear blue shirts, while wildlife officers wear brown shirts.
Losing any natural resource officers for any length of time is a worrisome prospect to some advocates of fish and wildlife protection. Board of Game Chairman Ben Grussendorf said the state has fewer Fish and Wildlife Protection officers now than it did 20 years ago.
"Now we hear that brown shirts are being turned into blue shirts," he said. "Does that mean wildlife protection becomes a secondary function?"
Along with Gov. Frank Murkowski's decision to move the Division of Habitat out of the Department of Fish and Game, Grussendorf said, "We're worried about these trends."
Rod Arno, a Wasilla-based hunting guide, also cautioned against any cutbacks in fish and wildlife officers. Hunting and fishing regulations have become more complicated over time and brown-shirt officers are essential for enforcing them.
"So much nonresident and nonlocal hunting opportunity depends on the perception they're law-abiding and not causing wanton waste," Arno told the Anchorage Daily News. "We need that enforcement."
Tandeske said the idea of putting state troopers and wildlife protection under a single commander has been discussed for years. But having fish and game wardens do more trooper work in their offseason is new, he said.
The two groups of officers are trained the same and have the same authority, he said. "With limited resources in a state this size, we need to make sure we get the absolute most out of resources we have."
Fish and Wildlife Protection officers wouldn't work on homicides or sexual assault cases, Tandeske said, but may be asked to help out village public safety officers in rural Alaska or conduct community police work.