ANCHORAGE - State officials on Tuesday continued the process of separating wildlife officers from the Alaska State Troopers.
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The merger of the "brown shirts" with the "blue shirts," which came about under former Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration, resulted in a 25 percent decrease in officers' contact with the public, Gov. Sarah Palin said at a news conference introducing seven new or reassigned members of the Department of Public Safety.
"This group will actually help restore the balance needed between protecting the public and the public's wildlife resources," Palin said. "There is much to do. We need to change the direction of the statistics in this state."
Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan said part of the problem with the merged departments was that officers who were supposed to be focused on wildlife were not able to devote enough attention to that aspect of their jobs because of their law-enforcement obligations. The separation should help resolve that, he said.
"They'll still be doing some blue-shirt work, but their primary focus is now back to wildlife enforcement, which is what they need to be (doing)," he said.
Among those introduced Tuesday was Col. Gary Folger, the new director of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers. He's a 26-year department veteran, and has served as a trooper in Fairbanks, King Salmon, Juneau and Anchorage.
Monegan said since the 2003 merger there has been a sense in the public that there was little resource enforcement and that the Department of Fish and Game lacked the ability to enforce its regulations.
The return of the wildlife trooper will increase contact between the public and wildlife officials, which Palin said has been lacking.
"We need to change the way the state thinks and ensure appropriate and adequate protection for our fish and wildlife," Palin said.
Murkowski's decision to merge the two enforcement entities drew widespread public criticism and resulted in the state's top fish and wildlife officer, Col. Joel Hard, retiring in 2003 because he thought the policy would focus on law enforcement at the expense of the state's wildlife.
Palin said one of the challenges now facing the law enforcement side will be to "think outside the box" in battling issues that continue to plague Alaska, including gang-related violence, methamphetamine labs, domestic violence and alcohol-related problems.
Several things have happened during the last six months to increase public safety in Alaska, Monegan said. The re-creation of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, legislation to enhance fire safety and expansion of crime lab DNA capabilities are all steps in the right direction. But he said there are still major challenges facing the department, including finding the needed enforcement officials.
Wildlife officials will add five more members to their ranks since a measure passed during the last legislative session authorizing them, though officials said they didn't anticipate a major increase in manpower usage. The department now has about 380 trooper positions, 85 of which are wildlife officers, troopers officials said.
"The challenge is finding the adequate, qualified people," Monegan said.