By MICHAEL PEARCE | The Wichita Eagle

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Southwest Kansas has long been seen as a hunters' paradise, with some of America's biggest whitetail and mule deer bucks and some of the state's best pheasant populations.

Now, it could be a paradise for poachers, The Wichita Eagle reported.

This fall just three game wardens, half of the number there used to be, will live and work in a 16,800-square-mile portion of western Kansas larger in size than Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The rest of Kansas isn't much better protected.

At full staff, Kansas has 71 game wardens afield. This fall, 62 game wardens will try to protect the game animals that support Kansas' $400 million hunting industry, as well as bald eagles, whooping cranes and other protected species. That makes Kansas wildlife some of the least protected in America.

In comparison, Oklahoma has 120 game wardens. Missouri regularly fields about 160 full-time game wardens.

Within the past year Kansas has lost several game wardens to retirement and to other states. More are expected to leave within a few weeks, blaming lack of staff and a stagnant pay system that hasn't provided a significant salary increase in more than 10 years.

A lack of qualified applicants adds to the problem.

“As a game warden I was more than happy to do my job,” said Tyson Neilson, who left his job in 2012 after six years. “When you put your heart and soul into something, and your paycheck doesn't reflect it, it gets very disheartening.”

The low number of game wardens puts the lives of the remaining wardens, other law enforcement people and the general public, and their property, at risk, according to Neilson and several current game wardens.

B.J. Thurman, a Wildlife and Parks law enforcement supervisor, said game wardens are often backup for county sheriffs and the first to arrive at remote auto accidents. Sometimes they encounter things like meth labs.

Wardens and their dogs recently helped with a possible child abduction case and have tracked and found dangerous felons. After the Greensburg tornado, they helped with recovery and security efforts. They're also in charge of patrolling the state's lakes and reservoirs.

In some counties, the Sheriff's Office will offer backup to game wardens when needed. Within the last few years wildlife public land managers and state park rangers also have been given law enforcement training, but their regular duties take precedence, and most spend little time on wildlife patrol.

Kevin Jones, the Wildlife and Parks law enforcement chief, said a lack of qualified job candidates is the first challenge. Application rates are half, or lower than, what they were a few years ago.

“We're becoming a more urbanized society and people aren't as in touch with the outdoors as they were once,” Jones said. Many who apply, he said, aren't qualified.

Unlike many law enforcement agencies, Kansas game wardens need a bachelor's degree in a wildlife resource-related field, or at least 24 credit hours of such courses if their degree is in another area.

Qualified Kansas applicants may be tested on their knowledge of wildlife information and hunting, fishing and boating regulations. They also undergo fitness tests and firearms training. A surprising number of qualified candidates still don't make the cut.

Dan Melson, a Wildlife and Parks game warden supervisor, said lying during the application process, recent marijuana use and serious game law violations are the most common problems. Qualified applicants eventually go through in-depth background and voice stress testing.

Those offered a job then undergo about six months of training, including weeks in the state's law enforcement academy and long stretches of riding with veteran game wardens.

The department has four trainees, but none will be fully trained by the Dec. 3 opening of firearms deer season.

Robin Jennison, Wildlife and Parks secretary, said being stationed in rural locations deters some would-be game wardens.

“It can be hard to get someone to move to some place like Scott City, especially if they have a spouse with a good career that might not find employment there,” Jennison said. “It's difficult to hire people to go a lot of rural places. It's not just in Kansas.”

Working in remote areas also can add to the stress of the job. Neilson's jurisdiction included all of Butler County, which is small compared to areas covered by many game wardens.

“If you're the only one assigned to a county, or several counties, you're expected to respond to all calls,” Neilson said. “It's like you never have a day off. It wears you down, and it wears your family down.”

When he worked in Kansas, Bob Watson was the lone game warden for four large counties. At his new job in Michigan, all counties in his region have two wardens so backups are always available, as are days off.

Adding to the problem is the change in duties currently performed by Kansas game wardens.

Mike Hayden, a former governor and former Wildlife and Parks secretary from 2002-2011, said that 30 years ago a game warden's main job was to patrol, checking pheasant or duck hunters. Now, so much more time is spent working deer poaching cases, which involve stake-outs, investigations and gathering and logging evidence. It all leads to less time afield than game wardens had years ago.

Salaries for Kansas game wardens start at about $40,000 a year, which is higher than in some states. The problem is, pay rates go no higher.

“I've got officers who've been here 12 or 15 years who are basically still at entry-level pay grade,” Jones said. “Some of the officers that are doing our training are getting paid about the same amount as the new officers they're training.”

Hayden said the agency has sometimes been financially handcuffed by the Kansas Legislature.

The department's fish and wildlife divisions are funded by user fees and get no state tax money. But even during years when there's excess money coming in to the agency, largely from the increased sale of $300 non-resident deer permits, the department has to follow the same budget restrictions as other state departments.

“Unfortunately the Legislature, often times, does not have the budget sophistication to understand the nuances between (wildlife) fee funds and state general funds,” Hayden said. “They continue to paint everyone with a broad brush when they aren't providing any state funds to the department.”

The Legislature has operated under the concept that standard pay raises aren't allowed unless all state agencies can give raises, Hayden said.

Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita and the House Appropriations chairman, agreed with Hayden, saying “it would reflect badly on all of the other state employees _ highway patrol, department of corrections, department of agriculture _ to not get a raise when they are out there every day doing their jobs, too,” if Wildlife and Parks employees were given raises while other state employees were not.

Suellentrop predicted the Legislature would soon try to increase pay for state employees. Declining tax revenue from the recent recession and a need to pump a lot of money into the state's retirement program have made it nearly impossible to consider pay raises for state employees.

“Things are trending up now, and (pay raises) is something we'll certainly have to address in the future if we want to maintain the quality of our employees,” he said. “I think we certainly realize that.”

Jones, Kansas' top game warden and the longest-tenured game warden chief in the nation, earns $60,382 annually. A U.S. Bureau of Labor report from 2012 shows the average salary for a field-level game warden in four other states is higher than Kansas' chief game warden.

Thurman said Kansas regularly loses young game wardens, after devoting time and money to their training, to other states.

Watson worked in Kansas two years before taking the job in Michigan. He got regular pay increases as he went through Michigan's training process. By the time he was in the field, he was making “considerably more” than he did in Kansas.

Mike Zimmerman worked in Kansas two years before taking his present job as an Oklahoma game warden. There, he said, he expects pay raises about every year.

Kansas also loses game wardens to other government jobs. Neilson now works as a resource officer in the El Dorado school system, which has better pay and regimented pay increases.

Game warden jobs at the federal level may pay twice as much eventually as those in Kansas. Natural resource work for private companies, like energy corporations, also pays more.

Jennison said he would like to find a way to increase pay in Wildlife and Parks.

“While this has been hard on law enforcement, this has impacted our entire agency,” Jennison said. “We would have to figure out a way to have some (pay raise) equity between all 400 employees, not just law enforcement.”

In the meantime, supervisors like Melson work hard to find and train good applicants and hope they stick around. Jones figures it takes about five years of field time before a warden has learned enough to do his, or her, job with total competency.

“It takes that kind of time, and a lot of dedication, to really understand the job,” Jones said. “We have to rely a lot on that kind of dedication to the resources. We know this is not an occupation to be in for any other reason.”

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Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com