A passion for protection: Jerry Karnow defended California’s endangered species for nearly three decades
November 30, 2016
Jerry Karnow may be retiring from a nearly 30-year career with the state as a game warden, but he hardly plans on taking it easy.
For one thing, he intends to continue his work with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to place wild horses with law enforcement agencies as diverse as the U.S. Marines and the Border Patrol.
And he plans to parlay his years of advocacy — after serving as the face of the state's game wardens both in front of the Legislature and on National Geographic's "Wild Justice" — into consulting work on law enforcement and conservation efforts.
In his last week on the job in Nevada County, Karnow was still working intently on identifying a suspected serial deer poacher who had left evidence behind that included a headless body and crossbow bolts in Lake Wildwood, Alta Sierra and Penn Valley.
“We got complaints from fishermen or hunters stumbling on grows in remote areas. We’re seeing lots of cases even now, of water pollution and diversion, which are two top priorities of the department.”Jerry Karnow
"I would love to solve that crime (before) I retire," he said, noting deer poaching has been a major component of his work here.
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In 28 years with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Karnow has worked to protect not just the deer and bear of Nevada County, but fish populations as diverse as salmon in the Feather River and lobster and abalone along the Southern California coast — not to mention lizards and snakes being poached from the San Jacinto Mountains.
Protecting the ocean — and the desert
Karnow has been with the Department of Fish and Wildlife for 28 years, but also spent six seasons as a firefighter for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (now Cal Fire).
"I actually fought the 49er Fire in 1988," he recalls.
Karnow initially worked as an ocean warden regulating commercial fishermen in Long Beach, where he inspected fish and checked for licensing and food safety.
"It was an overwhelming job," he said, "But it was fun, it was different."
Karnow spent part of his time in Southern California investigating the black market trade in lobster, abalone, and fish, and worked for a while as part of an Asian Crimes Task Force put together by the Los Angeles Police Department.
He subsequently shifted from the ocean to the desert when he was stationed in western Riverside County, working an area that stretched from the Nevada state line to Orange County.
The black-market operations Karnow worked on during this posting involved the sale of live reptiles.
"Lizards, boas and king snakes — they're very valuable," he said. "I got trained in covert work — I was with a special operations unit working against illegal trafficking. I had a fake ID … I was undercover for maybe a year."
Karnow then headed north, transferring to Yuba County for a seven-year stint along the Sacramento, Feather and Yuba rivers, protecting salmon, steelhead, bass and sturgeon.
"There was a huge salmon poaching problem, I worked that a lot," he said. "Also, bear hunting."
Karnow became an expert on the illegal taking of bears, training wardens in Nevada and California on regulating bear hunting.
"Clients pay guides to hunt bear, and there were a lot of illegal guides without the proper licensing," he explained. "Hunters would pay $400 to $1,000 to kill a bear … The guide wants them to be successful. What I found is they would plant bait piles – mostly rotting meat or dead fish. I used a dog — Bear — a companion dog I used on patrol. He would help me find the bait piles, and I would stake them out and the guides would show up with dogs to tree the bears."
A growing problem
Karnow's transfer to Nevada County changed his focus again, to deer poaching and "problem bears," bears that become too habituated to interacting with humans.
"I worked with the public to prevent bears from being attracted to your house – so bears stay bears," he said.
Karnow says he has spent a substantial portion of his time also dealing with illegal marijuana grows, particularly those on public lands.
Illegal grows, he said, can be very destructive to waterways and fisheries.
"We got complaints from fishermen or hunters stumbling on grows in remote areas," Karnow said. "We're seeing lots of cases even now, of water pollution and diversion, which are two top priorities of the department."
Karnow said it is not the crop itself that is the problem, it's the environmental damage caused by unscrupulous growers who dam waterways, diverting streams and leaching dangerous chemicals into local water sources.
"Unfortunately, that took a lot of my time," he said. "They are complicated, dangerous cases … It takes a lot of time and energy and effort to investigate environmental crimes. It's not like poaching, it requires detective work. And that takes away from the traditional game warden work."
'A 12-year crusade'
Karnow's transfer to Nevada County 12 years ago also marked the start of his political activism.
"I discovered there was one warden per 200,000 residents in the state," he said. "California is the third largest state in the nation and it ranked dead last in per capita number of wardens. There were 200 wardens in the state — isn't that ridiculous?
When there's so much pressure on natural resources, Karnow said, the beleaguered protectors of those resources could not possibly respond to the volume of calls.
And, the lack of personnel made the work especially dangerous.
"We are out on patrol by ourselves, hunting criminals with firearms, in the middle of nowhere," he said. "We lobbied through the union and the warden association. We wanted the Legislature to decide if that was important, for us to risk our lives to protect natural resources. We got their attention."
Karnow said he lobbied in Sacramento on his own time, since he was representing the warden association, not the department. He served as the association's legislative liaison for five years and as its president for another five years, testifying multiple times and meeting frequently with the governor's staff.
"It was a 12-year crusade," he said.
Those lobbying efforts led to national exposure for Karnow and California's game wardens.
"National Geographic got interested in doing reality shows," Karnow said.
Original Productions (the team responsible for "The Deadliest Catch," among others) sent interns out for a ride-along and ended up creating a very successful three-season show, "Wild Justice," which is still in reruns.
"It was very raw, completely unscripted," Karnow said. "The producers came with us while we were making cases."
To this day Karnow gets recognized in the oddest places, he says with a laugh — even at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.
"We used that show to recruit new wardens, and increased interest from the public has helped capture criminals," he said on a more serious note. "Now people know who to call.
"The other positive thing is, we now have more than 300 wardens … We have been able to generate 100 positions back, fully budgeted," Karnow added. "That's pretty cool — just through exposure."
'A great story'
Retiring from game warden work is bittersweet, Karnow acknowledges, saying, "I still have passion for my job."
But he doesn't seem ready to take much of a break.
One of the projects he plans to continue is his work helping BLM adopt out its wild mustangs.
"I had started doing backcountry patrols with (now-retired) Nevada County Sheriff's Deputy John Parkhouse," Karnow said. "That evolved into working as a wild horse broker for game wardens … It's been a blast. I set up Idaho with two horses this year."
The BLM adoption program is controversial, Karnow said, but he says the horses are a non-native, invasive species. The program takes surplus horses, many of which go to prisons for training by inmates. Modoc, Karnow's adopted mustang, was trained by a reformed armed robber, he says.
"They're just mixed-breed, feral mutts," Karnow said. "But they're very solid, very durable. They really are tailored for game warden work — they've been a great fit."
As Karnow details how the mustangs — which are culled in order to protect the environment — get trained to work with game wardens to protect wildlife, his eyes light up.
"It's a great circle," he exclaims. "It's a great story!"
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.
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