MOSES LAKE — There aren’t many jobs in the state of Washington — or anywhere else, either, for that matter — that could have you stomping around in a ship’s cargo hold, waist-deep in fish one day, and trudging through state forests the next looking for illegal marijuana grows.
Or get shot at for trying to protect sturgeon.
But as a law enforcement officer for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, Chris Anderson has done that job.
“It’s a really diverse job,” Anderson said. “Just the ability to travel all over the state, and work all these different seasons.”
At 63, Anderson is six months into retirement after a 41-year-long career in law enforcement. Thirty of those he spent with the enforcement arms of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, two of them as the director of its enforcement operation.
It wasn’t a typical law enforcement job, Anderson said. For part of his nine years as a deputy with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, Anderson said he was doing forest patrols to investigate and prevent timber thefts, and that sparked his interest.
“I was working a lot with game wardens, and I thought, wow, that really intrigued me,” he said. “I have a two-year forestry degree from Centralia College, and wow, that was right up my alley.”
Despite nearly a decade of law enforcement experience, however, Anderson said he failed the Fish and Wildlife test the first time around.
“I expected the test to be based on law enforcement questions. But it was a biology test,” he said. “They give it every two years, so I said, I’m going to prepare.”
So with the help of a friend who was a game warden, Anderson said he spent the next two years teaching himself biology. When the next exam came, out of the nearly 1,000 applicants for nine positions, Anderson said he came in first.
“My little self-taught thing worked well,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Department has a police force of 114 sworn officers who have jurisdiction statewide to enforce state wildlife laws and regulations, and they really do everything — oversee the fish catch offshore, patrol state parks, make sure hunters and anglers have licenses and stay within the catch limits, and trap and move — or kill, if necessary — dangerous animals that get too close or too used to human beings.
“We are the primary responders to come and tranquilize (dangerous wildlife like bears, cougars and moose), so we get a lot of training to use drugs and dart rifles,” he said.
But unlike many sworn officers, the fish and wildlife police have a little greater leeway to search and seize when it comes to the state’s “highly regulated” wildlife.
“Unlike regular law enforcement that needs probable cause to search a vehicle or a place, we do have more authority to search if it’s related to fish and wildlife,” he said. “We can go in ice chests and vehicles just based on suspicion of being involved in fish and wildlife-related activities.”
The biology knowledge is essential in a job that requires being able to distinguish fish species that are open to catch from close relatives that are endangered.
“Commercial fisheries are highly regulated,” he said. “There are 15 different species of rock fish and a couple are highly regulated because they are on the verge of being endangered. So fishermen are allowed to take certain special rock fish, but they are supposed to go through and selectively keep what they are allowed to keep and throw the other ones back.”
One of the events Anderson said he remembers most vividly was a July 2010 high speed chase from just south of Beverly — where Lower Crab Creek empties into the Columbia River — to north of George, when the driver shot at Anderson several times in the course of the chase.
Anderson, who was a captain at the time, said he and a younger officer were headed down to the river to ensure sturgeon fishermen were complying with state law on the size of their catch.
“We’d go down there at night and we’d find 6- to 8-foot sturgeon tied off on ropes through their gill plates, which essentially kills them,” he said. “And you know, these fish are like 100 years old, it was a high priority to protect these fish.”
While trying to check the fishing licenses of a father and his son, Anderson said his younger partner got separated from him and was disarmed by the son, who then fled in a the scene in a Honda Civic. Anderson jumped in his truck and followed.
Eventually, Anderson said “he slams on the brakes, jumps out with a .45 auto and waves it around,” gets back in his car, did a U-turn, and fired at Anderson’s truck.
“He goes by, I see the gun come out the window, and I heard several shots,” he said.
This happened a few more times before the driver surrendered after his car blew up on the road between George and Ephrata.
“He coasted to the side of the road and surrendered. That was the end of it,” Anderson said.
Anderson also said “it was very interesting” running the fish and wildlife enforcement operation from 2016 to 2017, especially during a “major legislative cycle.”
“It was a pretty eye-opening experience, testifying before the legislature, dealing with a lot of money issues and social issues, and working with the tribes as co-managers of the state’s natural resources,” he said.
Anderson retired to Moses Lake because, over the years, he’s become an avid hunter and fisherman himself, and has come to appreciate how central the Columbia Basin is to so much.
He also said he has projects around the house to work on as well. All the same, however, he said he’s keeping his eye out for part-time work.
“If something interesting comes along,” he said.
“Forty-one years went by pretty quickly. It was a great career,” he added. “I really enjoyed my 30 years with the state, and having the opportunity to live with and protect our natural resources.”
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.