Badges, Bears, and Eagles: The True-Life Adventures of a California Fish and Game Warden

Badges, Bears, and Eagles: The True-Life Adventures of a California Fish and Game Warden

by Steven T. Callan
Badges, Bears, and Eagles: The True-Life Adventures of a California Fish and Game Warden

Badges, Bears, and Eagles: The True-Life Adventures of a California Fish and Game Warden

by Steven T. Callan


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Over his thirty-year career as a wildlife protection officer for the California Department of Fish and Game, Steve Callan and his longtime working partner, Dave Szody, conducted some of the most fascinating, complex and highly successful wildlife investigations in California history. They also collected a wealth of true stories—action-packed, suspenseful and often humorous. In Badges, Bears and Eagles, Steve provides a vivid first-person account of his adventures. The author and his colleagues outsmart game hogs, thwart fish thieves, and foil outlaws with names like “Squeaky.” Steve is even stalked by African lions and mauled by a five-hundred pound Bengal tiger. One of the most important cases of his career begins with a slain bald eagle dropped on the doorstep of the Fish and Game office, along with a note threatening the life of a fellow warden. A decade later, Steve and Dave conduct the investigation of their lives, uncovering a statewide criminal conspiracy to kill California black bears for their valuable gall bladders. It’s not all about catching bad guys—in “Saving Lake Mathews,” Steve chronicles how he helped save a beloved wildlife sanctuary from developers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603811583
Publisher: Epicenter Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/01/2013
Pages: 242
Sales rank: 319,192
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.51(d)
Age Range: 15 Years

About the Author

Steven T. Callan was born in San Diego, California. With an insatiable interest in wildlife, particularly waterfowl, he never missed an opportunity to ride along on patrol with his father, a California Fish and Game warden. Steve graduated from California State University, Chico, in 1970 and continued with graduate work at California State University, Sacramento. Hired by the California Department of Fish and Game in 1974, he spent thirty years as a warden/patrol lieutenant, starting his career near the Colorado River, moving on to Riverside/San Bernardino, and finally ending up in Shasta County (Redding). Steve and his wife, Kathleen, support many environmental causes. You can find Steven online at

Read an Excerpt


The Eagle Case


"Hey, we caught a fox!" shouted Jake Stillwell, looking down over the steep embankment at his slower and much larger partner. It was early December, 1984, and recent rains had turned the exposed red clay hillsides of Cottonwood Wilds Subdivision into slop. With each stride, Mitch Davis added another pound of sticky mud to the soles of his size-thirteen boots. His pant legs were soaked through from repeated falls. Both forearms were caked with mud in an effort to keep the muzzle of his .22 caliber rifle from auguring into the wet ground. "Hurry up with that rifle," ordered Stillwell, the thirty-four-year-old self-appointed leader of this duo of destruction.

Stillwell was a devious little creep with shifty eyes, a pear-shaped body and an uncanny ability to make people believe things that weren't true. Davis, a stout, twenty-seven-year-old "tow head," had an annoying habit of clearing his throat every ten seconds. He might have had a good side to him, but it didn't have much of a chance when he was with Stillwell; he followed the man around and did his bidding like a well-trained puppy.

Davis looked up at Stillwell just in time to see him disappear over the rise. Stillwell walked back toward the third trap in their line of seventeen. As he approached, a small salt-and-pepper-colored animal watched him through the branches of a manzanita bush. Weakened and panting heavily, the little gray fox had been unable to free its right front paw from the trap's metal jaws. The bone was broken, just above the paw, and the fur around it had been chewed away. Given another hour, the desperate little canine might have chewed its leg off and escaped. Now it was staring into the eyes of its captor.

As Stillwell came closer, the fox began thrashing from side to side, but only succeeded in wrapping its body in the anchor chain. Stillwell looked over his shoulder and told Davis, "Bring that rifle over here before this thing gets away."

Davis handed the rifle to his impatient partner and cautioned him to make sure there was no mud in the barrel. Stillwell raised the rifle to his shoulder and sighted the scope on a spot near the fox's left ear. A curious look came over his face as he squeezed off the trigger. Snap! The sharp trill of a .22 caliber high-velocity bullet echoed through the canyon. The fox's head dropped to the ground and its body fell limp. One of its back legs continued to quiver for a few seconds and a small stream of blood flowed from behind its left ear.

Mitch Davis walked over and stepped on the trap's release mechanism. He pulled the fox free and threw it aside. Davis then reset the trap and covered it with debris. Taking a small chunk of jackrabbit flesh out of his backpack, he hooked it to a wire that hung over the trap. This practice is illegal, but effective for attracting curious foxes and bobcats.

By noon, Stillwell and Davis had checked all seventeen of their traps and walked back to Stillwell's Jeep. Finding a low spot in the barbed wire fence, they each straddled the top wire and carefully stepped over. A few feet away was a white, ten-by-twelve-inch sign, reading:


Neither man gave the sign a second look.

Cottonwood Wilds Subdivision was a section of private land near the isolated foothill community of Platina. The absentee land owner had graded a lengthy road over the hills and across several canyons in hopes of eventually selling off forty acre parcels. At the time it remained undeveloped fenced-and-posted property, which Stillwell and Davis saw as their own private trapping grounds.

On December 28, 1984, California Fish and Game Warden Merton Hatcher received an anonymous tip regarding illegal trapping activity in the Cottonwood Wilds Subdivision. Hatcher, a middle-aged throwback to the fifties, proudly displayed his greased-down, graying hair in a "ducktail" — combed back on the sides and flat on top. Tall and thin, he had feet that were so large, he had to order his boots out of a catalog.

The informant had seen the trespassers driving two different vehicles, depending on the day — a red Ford pickup and a blue Jeep.

Although trapping has become unpopular and pretty much unprofitable over the last twenty-five years, it was still common and borderline profitable back in the 1980s. Those who did trap in California were required to have a license and follow a strict set of regulations. One of those regulations prohibited the use of "sight bait"— exposed fur or meat within thirty feet of a trap. The purpose of sight bait was to entice an unsuspecting bobcat, fox or other furbearing mammal. Unfortunately, the exposed animal flesh also attracted raptors — hawks, owls and eagles. It was not uncommon to find these state and federally protected birds caught in steeljawed leg-hold traps with their legs broken or severely injured.

Having taken time off for the holidays, Warden Hatcher had not responded to the first report. He received a second tip on January 7, 1985 from a different informant, providing license plate information for the two suspect vehicles. Hatcher ran the plates through Shasta County Sheriff's dispatch and learned that the blue Jeep belonged to a wellknown violator named Jake William Stillwell. The Ford pickup was registered to an unfamiliar name — Mitchell Wayne Davis. Hatcher had once pinched Stillwell for a minor fishing violation but the longtime outlaw always seemed to be just out of reach when it came to the more serious crimes. Now that he suspected Stillwell was involved, the veteran warden set out to investigate the following day.

Heavy rains had fallen the night before, making the steep dirt roads inside Cottonwood Wilds Subdivision muddy and too slippery to drive on. Warden Hatcher parked his patrol vehicle near the entrance and hiked two miles into the area where the violations were occurring. He was an experienced trapping investigator so it didn't take him long to find the illegal trap line. There were seventeen traps, all illegally baited with exposed rabbit parts.

By the time Hatcher located the last trap, it was almost dark, so he decided to return early the following morning. Although California trapping regulations required that traps be checked once a day, Stillwell or Davis would probably not return any time soon. After all, they were already committing at least three violations — trespass, sight bait and unnumbered traps. That night, Warden Hatcher lost sleep thinking about the illegal trap line. Could this be my chance, Hatcher wondered, to finally bust Stillwell for something more serious than taking a couple extra trout?

Up the next morning before daylight, the sleepy warden reached Platina sometime around 6:00 a.m. He hid his patrol vehicle and again hiked to the violation site. Accustomed to stakeouts, Hatcher found a dry log to sit on and waited for the trappers to return. For the first two hours he occupied his time by watching a hungry scrub jay. This intelligent, close relative of the common crow had discovered a chunk of rabbit meat hanging above one of the illegal traps. Gliding in from a nearby perch, the large, bluish-gray bird would land on the ground, hop in the air and attempt to rip bits of flesh from the dangling piece of tissue. With every attempt, it landed closer to the deadly trigger plate and ultimate doom. Hatcher tried to discourage the determined corvid by tossing debris in its direction. Undeterred, the bird would fly back to its perch, turn around and immediately return.

By noon, Warden Hatcher's own hunger began to affect his decision-making process. He wanted to wait another hour or two, but his stomach convinced him that the two outlaws were probably not going to show up.

One by one, Hatcher collected the seventeen illegally-set traps. Each time he removed a trap he replaced it with one of his business cards, writing the same message on the back: Contact me if you want your traps back. Knowing what a cagey adversary Jake Stillwell was, Warden Hatcher did not expect to hear from the illegal trappers.

On February 12, 1985, Jake Stillwell and Mitch Davis pulled into a private trout hatchery on Lanes Valley Road, near the foothill community of Manton. Stillwell was at the wheel of his blue jeep. He had worked at the hatchery a few years earlier and befriended the manager, Al Hollis. Stillwell and Davis were apparently out plinking that particular day and dropped by to talk with Hollis. Al Hollis was adjusting the boards on one of his fish ponds when Stillwell and Davis walked up beside him.

"What are you guys up to?" asked Hollis, as he came to an upright position.

"That game warden, Merton Hatcher, took seventeen of our traps," Stillwell groused.

"How did that happen?"

"We were trapping up by the Ditch Grade. He must have heard that we were in there because he walked all the way in, took our traps and left his business cards. His cards said if we wanted our traps back, we had to contact him. Can he do that?"

Having once worked trappers as a Fish and Game warden, Hollis could think of several possible violations. "Were your traps numbered?"

Stillwell and Davis looked at each other for a second. Most of the traps belonged to Davis's dad. Davis answered, "No, not really."

Appearing embarrassed by Hollis's response to their question, Stillwell changed the subject. "What if we kill a mountain lion?"

Knowing that mountain lions were protected in California, Hollis was taken aback by the question. "Why, did you get one?"

"Yeah, we killed one off Ponderosa Way. It's all skinned out if ya know anybody who wants to buy it. Ya know, everyone is pissed off at Hatcher. Whaddaya think would happen if we put a bullet through his windshield?"

Hollis was not eager to continue this discussion, which involved the killing of a protected mountain lion and a threat of violence against a peace officer. He pretended to lose interest and walked toward the next pond.

"What's the big deal about sight bait?" shouted Davis.

"Sight bait could attract a soaring bird, like a hawk or an eagle." said Hollis.

Stillwell and Davis thought that was hilarious. "Maybe we ought to kill a couple eagles!" said Stillwell, with his typical bravado. Stillwell and Davis looked at each other, snickering. They mentioned doing something with an eagle, but by then Hollis had reached the next pond and couldn't quite hear what was said.

Before the men left, Hollis clearly overheard Stillwell say, "We should kill a deer for every one of the traps Hatcher took and dump them at the Fish and Game office."

On February 15, 1985, at 7:55 a.m., Inspector Dave Nelson, enforcement chief for the California Department of Fish and Game's Redding Regional Office, was arriving for work. Nelson was a lean, six-foot-three-inch, former World War II army officer, rapidly approaching retirement. A nice enough guy, he always seemed distant and impersonal when dealing with subordinates. I figured that had something to do with his military background. Although Inspector Nelson never let on that he knew me any better than the fifty other people he supervised, he had actually been my father's boss back in the sixties. Young and spry then, Nelson sometimes played catch with my brother and me when he came by the house to see my dad. Now his hair was almost gone and his hands were so shaky he couldn't write anything without using the old Underwood typewriter that sat on his desk, but the veteran inspector still showed up every morning, bright and early.

As he pulled into the office parking lot, Nelson noticed a black garbage bag lying at the base of the locked west entrance gate. Thinking that someone had thoughtlessly discarded his garbage, Inspector Nelson walked over and picked up the bag. His first inclination was to drop it into a dumpster at the back of the office, but something told him to look inside. The bag contained a magnificent raptor, which the veteran wildlife protection officer immediately identified as a bald eagle.

Fresh blood dripped from the bird's nostrils and breast area, indicating that it had recently been shot. "I'll be damned!" mumbled Nelson. "Somebody shot an eagle." As he was about to close the bag, Inspector Nelson noticed something attached to the eagle's leg. It was a message. "What the hell?" exclaimed the surprised inspector.

Like most fifty-eight-year-olds, Dave Nelson couldn't read much of anything without his glasses. He fetched them from his car and quickly returned. The note — hand-printed on a piece of white, six-by-eight-inch paper — was littered with expletives, a mixture of upper and lower case letters and a lot of misspelled words. More importantly, it threatened the life of Fish and Game Warden Merton Hatcher.

Inspector Nelson brought the bag inside the regional office. A few minutes later, Jack Weaver, the Redding area patrol captain, arrived for work. Weaver, a two-hundred-sixty-pound chain-smoker, always wore a zipped-up uniform jacket to hide his enormous belly. Seldom was the captain seen without a cigarette in one hand and a thirty-two ounce fountain drink in the other.

Captain Jack, as he was often called, supervised the warden force in four Northern California counties — including Shasta, where the office was located. His relatively small army of wildlife protection officers consisted of three field lieutenants and sixteen wardens. Inspector Nelson intended to turn the matter over to Weaver and his crew as soon as possible.

With long, slow strides, the soon-to-be retired inspector carried the bag up the hallway toward Captain Weaver's office. Nelson supervised Weaver, but I always had the impression that he preferred to deal with him as little as possible. Weaver had pretty much run the enforcement branch of the office for several years before Nelson arrived and there seemed to be an underlying tension between them. Their antipathy had reached a boiling point during the previous summer, when all the enforcement personnel attended an annual training campout in the nearby mountains and Nelson and Weaver got into a heated argument over how to cook corn. That was the first time I had ever seen Dave Nelson drop his guard and become one of the guys. We all found it hilarious, but since that time, the two strong-willed supervisors seemed to keep their distance from each other whenever possible.

"Jack, you'll want to look into this," said Nelson, as he entered Weaver's office. "It involves Warden Hatcher." As was his custom before the state smoking ban went into effect, Weaver was sitting behind his desk, leaning back in his chair, smoking an unfiltered Camel cigarette. The captain regularly polluted the north wing of the building and pretty much dared anyone to complain about it.

"What has Hatcher gotten into now?" grumbled Weaver, as he took a long drag on his cigarette.

"See for yourself," replied Nelson. "I found this lying in front of the gate this morning."

Nelson placed the bag on Weaver's desk and stepped away. Weaver opened the bag and looked inside. After reading the note attached to the eagle's leg, the perplexed captain said, "I'll take care of it," and Nelson walked back down the hallway toward his own office.

That's where I came in. I had just gone 10-8 (on duty and subject to radio call) when I received a radio report that Captain Weaver wanted to see me. I worked out of my residence and tried to avoid the regional office as much as possible. I was a former athlete and admitted health nut, so the thought of being trapped in the captain's office with the door closed made me want to head for the hills; I could count on the usual nicotine headache and the overwhelming urge to go back home and change my uniform. As I entered the front door of the building, the receptionist advised me that Jack was waiting to see me in the office adjacent to hers.

"Come in and close the door," instructed Weaver. "I need to talk to you about Warden Hatcher and something that's happened." Captain Weaver snuffed out his cigarette in an ash tray already brimming with cigarette butts and lit up a fresh one. After we had stayed in the captain's office long enough for me to get a splitting headache, he led me down the hallway to the evidence freezer. Inside the freezer was the black garbage bag Inspector Nelson had found, along with the dead bald eagle and the threatening note. "I don't know what you're going to be able to do with this," said Weaver, "but do what you can."


Excerpted from "Badges, Bears, and Eagles"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Steven T. Callan.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword xiii
Introduction 1
The Eagle Case 5
Desert Rats 27
Squeaky 33
Dove Opener 41
Swans for Thanksgiving 49
Crowley Trout Opener 55
Metro Wardens 65
Sidewinders 77
Saving Lake Mathews 83
Redding 87
Assault with a Deadly Salmon 91
Big Night at Bull Creek 99
Night Patrol on Lake Shasta 103
Gill Netters 109
Outnumbered 117
Patrol to Fenders Ferry 123
The Unfortunate Tale of Lester Vail 129
Working the Tribs 135
The Fall River Elk Killings 141
Sentinel of the North Coast 155
Banko's Bait Pile 165
Not in My Stream 173
Bears and Bad Guys 179
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