Game Wardens: Behind The Badge

Pride, honor and dedication to duty are just a few of the traits that back-up this badge.

On the surface, the warden's job may seem glamorous and easy, but they are some of the hardest working, most dedicated officers around. They routinely put their personal safety on the line protecting the state's wildlife resources and its citizens, as do other law enforcement members in our fair state. In fact, they often put in long hours, working outdoors in all types of weather, constantly staying focused on their mission: Helping outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the great resources afforded by our state, while ensuring those resources are protected from those few individuals who would steal our fish and wildlife future.

So what does the job entail? Well, for starters, it’s a job based on flexibility since game wardens often start their day with a change in plans. It might be a tip from a concerned citizen about a suspected illegal fish and game activity, an assist call from another local law enforcement officer or a questionable scene around our state's woods or waters. The day sometimes, no, often, holds many surprises and instantly changing schedules. In almost every case, though, you can count on one thing…The warden’s day will involve interacting with hunters, anglers and other recreationists.

The reasons most wardens studied and worked hard to get one of these coveted jobs vary from officer to officer, but most do it out of a love for the outdoors and our rich hunting and fishing heritage. They know that their rewards will be in forms that may seem strange to the general public but once again, the themes of pride, honor and dedication to duty greatly come into play.

A Day in the Life
The following scenario demonstrates what a day in the life of an Oklahoma game warden can be like. It’s a tale based in large part on a combination of events I have witnessed in more than 20 years of working alongside these dedicated officers. I'll call this warden Tom, although he represents each man and woman on the force.

Monday, 7:30 a.m.
Even though it’s his day off, Tom is planning to work today. Since most sportsmen and women are out enjoying Oklahoma's great outdoors on the weekends, all wardens work Saturday and Sunday. Normally, Tom’s days off are rotated during the “regular work week,” but today a local school asked him to give a program on wildlife conservation, and he gladly accepted.

For him, it’s important to represent the agency in a professional manner, and he firmly believes that teaching youngsters and adults about wildlife conservation and the reasons we have wildlife laws will make his job easier in the future. Tom wants them to see their local game warden as someone they can trust and come to for help…and someone from which they can learn about fish and wildlife laws, and how these laws are designed to allow for the sustainable enjoyment of our renewable resources. This is the part of the job he enjoys most – working to plant the seeds of conservation, one student at a time.

Luckily, most of his teaching materials are still in his vehicle because he taught a hunter education class the Saturday before at the community center. Fish and game laws, wildlife management, hunter ethics and responsibility – all are topics covered in hunter education courses. Hunter ethics is Tom’s favorite subject, not because he has to tell people how to act, but because he gets to help people realize that they are the ones who tell themselves how to act responsibly.

10:45 a.m.
After enjoying the give and take in three different classrooms, Tom goes home to catch up on some paperwork and grab a quick bite to eat. Report writing is often lampooned in cop-and-robber movies, but among other things, they’re critical in accurately recording facts, descriptions and otherwise documenting the progress of various investigations.

12:30 p.m.
Tom has agreed to meet with one of his counterparts in the Department, a wildlife biologist, at one of the Department’s wildlife management areas to discuss the upcoming turkey season and decide what past problems can be avoided this year during the scheduled controlled hunt. Last year saw a 25 percent harvest rate on the hunt — despite bad weather. This year, he and the biologist want to make the hunt as enjoyable, and safe, as possible.

2:00 p.m.
The next stop on his agenda is at the lake to visit with a fisheries crew during their spring sampling of the lake. He knows he will be asked by anglers numerous times about the lake’s fish population, and he wants some first-hand data to answer their inquiries.

As he waits at the boat ramp for the electrofishing boat to pull in, he encounters a family fishing on the pier. He walks over and strikes up a conversation. It seems they haven't had a lot of luck so far today. After checking their fishing licenses, he suggests that they might have a bit more luck about 200 yards up the shoreline casting out to some of the submerged cedar trees the Department's Fish Division has put in a nearby cove. He helped the family search their tackle box for likely baits, then wished them good luck.

Tom can see the fisheries crew working a shoreline across the lake, and figures he has a few minutes to catch up on some of the literature he received at a CLEET (Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training) class he attended earlier last week. The class was a refresher on CPR techniques and first aid training. As with all officers, he hoped he would never have to use the training, but was comfortable knowing he had the skills and would be ready to render life-saving aid if needed.

2:30 p.m.
The fisheries biologist and technician pull in to the dock, and Tom learns that the fish sampled looked very healthy and the initial numbers are very promising. There seems to be good recruitment (or survival of younger fishing into larger sizes) and most of the fish were well-fed, indicating a good forage base was present throughout the winter.
4:00 p.m.

Tom's next scheduled stop was to meet with me to shoot some turkey hunting photographs. The area I selected as a campsite was an old homestead we had used in years past and while we were unloading gear from my truck, three young teenaged boys ambled down the road into our camp. They were turkey hunting, but you could tell they didn't know too much about the sport. Each had successfully completed a hunter education course but were completely lost on how to even start looking for turkeys. Two of the three had both their hunting licenses and turkey permits, while one only had a turkey permit – no license.

We delayed our photo outing for over an hour as Tom gave the boys a lesson in calling turkeys, scouting and safety. And after they left, I asked Tom why he didn't write the boy a ticket for hunting without a license.
After a brief pause, he said “I think I probably did more for the hunting community and the resource by not coming down hard on that youngster.”

And after spending years working with people, he’s developed a pretty keen sense of knowing when folks are telling the truth, and the young hunter seemed genuinely naive about his need for the permit. The lecture he gave him on why everyone needed the permit should solve the problem. From experience, he knew that by showing a little leniency, he had just made a friend for life – a friend that would probably never break a wildlife law again. Besides, he told me with a wink, the boy was a regular member at Tom and his family's church and he knew that the boy's dad would hear the story and that would be far worse than any ticket he could write.

7:00 p.m.
Just after sitting down to help his daughter with her homework, the warden from a neighboring county called and said he had just received a report of some guys with illegal nets set in the river just north of the lake. An invitation to stake the nets out wasn’t really offered or accepted; when one is dedicated to their duty, you know what needs to be done without asking.

With a kiss for his wife and encouragement for his kids, Tom left to meet his fellow warden and investigate the report. Travelling slowly upstream from the boat landing they drag a light anchor behind them in hopes of snagging any nets hidden by the lake’s dark waters.

As they neared an inlet along a cove, the anchor rope tightened up and jolted the small boat with a quick tug. Taking the motor out of gear, they pulled the anchor up, revealing an illegal net with several dead fish entangled in its mesh.
After hiding in some nearby trees for about three hours, they heard a small outboard motor slowly coming down the shoreline toward the net. The concealed wardens waited and watched. And after the occupants of the other boat looked around to see if anyone was watching, they proceeded to pull up the net. That’s when Tom and his partner sprang into action. The netters were caught red-handed, something that Tom and his fellow warden knew would ensure the law-breakers would pay hefty fines at the local courthouse.

2:30 a.m.
After looking in on his kids, Tom crawls into bed. No sense staying up any later than he had to, since there’s no telling what sunrise would bring. One thing is certain, though, whatever it is will be more than meets the eye.

Oklahoma Game Wardens have been serving our state for more than 100 years. With more and more people putting pressure on our state's wild places and wild resources, they are more important now than ever. Nearly a third of Oklahomans enjoy hunting and fishing, and our state's 116 wardens are doing their best to ensure everyone has the same opportunities to enjoy those resources. Pride, honor, dedication to duty... all reasons why the folks behind these badges serve state sportsmen.