Originally created 11/30/03

Cuts hinder hunting agencies



AIKEN - For Andy Watford, 43, who goes deer hunting in Aiken and McCormick counties, it wasn't any more difficult to obtain his hunting license this year than last.

"But I have noticed there haven't been as many wardens out in the woods. You used to see them more frequently," the Aiken resident said.

Slashed state budgets are making enforcement of hunting laws in Georgia and South Carolina even more of a challenge as the cold-weather hunting season gets into full swing.

"These are the hardest times I've seen in the 20 years I've been here," said Lt. Rob McCullough, of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. "There's only so much you can cut back. The budget has been cut 30 percent over the past three years."

During that time, more than 200 jobs have been eliminated in the South Carolina agency - 75 from the division that polices woods and waterways for violations of hunting, fishing and boating regulations.

Although Aiken County still has four enforcement officers, Edgefield and McCormick counties have lost two each.

"We're being called upon to do more in every aspect of what we do," said Mike Willis, the communications director of the South Carolina agency. "Where we used to be proactive on patrols, we're now doing more responding to calls, being reactive."

Pfc. Gregory Pinckney, one of the enforcement officers for Aiken County, said that even though no positions were cut in his department, officers are patrolling larger swaths of territory despite limits of between 1,500 miles and 2,000 miles a month on their vehicles.

Mr. Willis said the number of tickets issued for hunting violations in South Carolina is down slightly from this time last year, partly because the 215 enforcement agents are more sparsely scattered across the state.

"These are by far the most drastic cuts in the history of our agency. We are being asked to reinvent ourselves, as most state agencies are, and develop new methods to approach a solution," he said.

In the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the problem isn't with personnel cutbacks but with constricted budgets, said Sgt. John Kilgore, the assistant supervisor of Region III, which includes Richmond, Columbia and McDuffie counties.

"We're operating on a budget a third less than what we had in 1990," Sgt. Kilgore said. "What's impairing us is that we have dramatically high-mileage vehicles. We're having to continue to maintain them and put them back on the road."

Still, Sgt. Kilgore said, he's encouraged by some of the budget numbers for next year.

"The state revenue is up 6 percent, so the DNR may not have to experience the total number of proposed cutbacks next year," he said.

Across South Carolina, 17 DNR offices have closed and are being consolidated into four regional hubs in Greenville, Charleston, Florence and Columbia.

"One of the biggest challenges has been trying to do more with less and getting people what they need with boat registrations and calls. At the regional hubs, we'll have several different departments together," Lt. McCullough said.

Reach Karen Ethridge at (803) 648-1395.