If you want to kill more deer than the law allows or use a spotlight to catch them, Marion County is the place to go in South Carolina.
No state game officer regularly patrols the wildlife-rich county between Florence and Myrtle Beach.
The lack of officers in Marion County shows how budget cuts are affecting the state’s ability to enforce game and fish laws.
In the past two years, funding cuts have shrunk the state Department of Natural Resources’ state allocations to $14.6 million from $18.01 million. Not since the mid-1980s has DNR seen its state funding at such a low level, department director John Frampton said in a Sept. 3 budget memo to Gov. Mark Sanford.
Today, the agency is slower to respond to reports of night hunting or other game-related violations because it doesn’t have enough officers, said Col. Alvin Taylor, who heads the agency’s law enforcement division.
DNR has just over 200 wildlife officers, but needs at least 100 more, he said. At its peak, it had just over 300 wildlife officers. Few are administrators, he said.
“We are still out there, and our officers are working hard, but there are going to be times when we are not going to have an officer close by,” Taylor said.
During the last budget year, about 20 wildlife officers left the agency and their jobs were not filled, he said. Two of them left last week. The Legislature gave DNR about $1.7 million extra at the end of the last legislative session for equipment and operations, but the money was not for personnel, Taylor said.
DNR, which also receives federal funds and funds from fees, enforces game and fish laws. It makes sure hunters and fishermen don’t exceed state bag limits; it patrols lakes; and it looks for people who smuggle wildlife into South Carolina, which can spread disease. The agency also includes a marine division.
The agency’s effort to enforce game regulations has to be juggled with general law enforcement efforts, such as patrolling Lake Murray for unruly boaters on big holiday weekends.
This past Labor Day weekend, the agency had to decide whether to send officers to the expansive lake or to check on hunters during the opening of dove season. Taylor said the agency had some officers look for dove-hunting violations at midday, then patrol the lake late in the day.
Budget cuts have also created situations such as those in Marion County. In urging eligible officers to retire, the agency has had little control over where retirements occurred. More officers have retired in parts of eastern South Carolina, Taylor said.
“During bad budget times, we have more people violating our game and fish laws,” Taylor said. “Marion is a good example, but it happens everywhere.
“People will catch more fish than they’re supposed to catch, and they’ll do things like hunt without a license.”
– Sammy Fretwell and Noelle Phillips