More than ever, wildlife conservation officers are being called upon to handle general crimes.
This is a special team with special talents.
But the task before them was, in some ways, becoming increasingly common.
Last November, when police began a manhunt for Ray Shetler – the man accused of fatally shooting St. Clair police officer Lloyd Reed Jr. in New Florence – the members of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s woodland tracking team were called in to assist.
The team is made up of officers with special training in tracking and finding people and evidence, said Tom Grohol, director of the commission’s bureau of wildlife protection.
In this case, he said, within six hours, they found the rifle allegedly used by Shetler in the killing, as well as some shell casings and clothes covered in blood spatter.
“They possess a skill set found in very few law enforcement agencies across the state,” said Grohol.
This case marked the second time in two years the team had been called into action. In 2014, they assisted in the hunt for Eric Frein, the man accused of shooting two state troopers, one of them fatally, in northeast Pennsylvania.
Such cases are unusual, to be sure.
But Rich Palmer, deputy director of field operations for the commission, said wildlife conservation officers are “becoming increasingly entwined” in general law enforcement operations.
That’s prompting a change. Game Commissioners are next week expected to tweak some of the wording in their regulations referring to how conservation officers are to handle crimes not associated with wildlife.
Officers commonly come across what might be termed general criminal violations, relating to things like drugs on state game lands, for example, said Grohol. Commission guidelines said they were to collect evidence, but turn those cases over to local police for prosecution.
“The majority of the time, these other police agencies are not interested in prosecuting cases we encounter,” Grohol said.
The new guidelines don’t provide officers with any additional power, but allow them to handle such cases on their own, he said.