Game Warden

A game warden, also known as a wildlife enforcement agent, conservation officer, peace officer, fish and game warden, or ranger, is a law enforcement professional charged with protecting our nation’s wildlife, their habitat, and our natural resources. A career as a game warden provides the opportunity to combine law enforcement with wildlife conservation. Game wardens are commissioned law enforcement officers who monitor and manage wildlife while tracking and bringing poachers to justice. You may remember the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham, perhaps the most famous game warden in literature, who thwarted Robin Hood at every turn.

Game wardens are usually employed by a state’s fish and wildlife department or by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the exception of Oregon and Alaska, where they’re employed by their local state trooper’s office. To become a conservation peace officer, you need to complete specialized training. Many state and federal law enforcement agencies require a minimum of an associate’s degree before application. Requirements also include a love of wildlife and the outdoors, a willingness to protect nature from those who would harm it, and the training and mindset of a law enforcement officer.

Duties and Responsibilities of a Game Warden

A job that requires you to work outdoors may sound like a dream career. However, a game warden job is a lot more than simply walking around a forest, wetland, beach, coastline, backcountry, or desert. A game warden’s duties include managing wildlife populations, participating in research, and educating the public in conserving natural resources.

Law Enforcement

A fish and game warden is a type of conservation police officer. Depending on location, their responsibilities vary with the terrain and season. Fish and game wardens have full authority with statewide jurisdiction to enforce conservation and poaching laws applicable to their state, but their primary assignment is to enforce the wildlife, fishing, and boating laws of their jurisdiction. Game wardens who observe a violation of the law are required to arrest, ticket, or apprehend violators. Like police officers, game wardens conduct investigations, prepare cases for trial, and present evidence. They also complete written records and reports just like any officer assigned to the police force.

In California and other states, game wardens not only conduct searches and rescues, but they also complete their own crime scene investigations. In California, they also serve as U.S. marshals, which means they work cases along with peace officers from other states. Although each state has different laws, in most states, game wardens also can conduct extended searches — with or without a warrant.

Game wardens are tasked with enforcing the Public Trust Doctrine, which means they can come onto private property without permission or a warrant. Wildlife, migratory birds, and wild fish are public property, and they’re managed by state governments. Game wardens enforce laws for the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service.

Managing Wildlife Populations

The primary responsibility of fish and game wardens is the maintenance of wildlife and its habitat. Their duties include overseeing the repairs of significant damage, investigating reports of damage to property by any species of wildlife, and maintaining public safety from wildlife that could cause harm. These areas of responsibility may require the removal of animals that are encroaching on human habitats, filing reports of damage caused by wildlife, and educating the public to coexist with plants, game, and fish without harming them.

Today’s game wardens have a wealth of technology at their disposal to help them apprehend offenders. If stationed in areas that poachers frequent, thermal-imaging cameras with zoom lenses detect their presence and allow wardens to apprehend them, even at night. Game wardens can use ballistic shockwave sensors to detect the exact geographic location of a gunshot, while drones record evidence of illegal hunting and fishing. And DNA analysis is not just for the police department; game wardens can, for example, use it to trace the origins of game in someone’s possession. If the animal can be traced to an area that prohibits hunting, wardens have hard evidence to prove an illegal hunt.

Research & Environmental Protection

Working in conjunction with state and federal conservation agencies, fish and game wardens are often asked to collect data on experiments conducted on animals, plants, fish, or other game. Daily tasks may include conducting population studies of endangered, vulnerable, or threatened species. Alternately, they might study the feeding, breeding, and migratory patterns of game and fish. Game wardens are also responsible for enforcing state and federal hunting, fishing, and licensing practices.

Benefits of Becoming a Game Warden

Just like their police officer colleagues, game wardens can enjoy a long, satisfying career in law enforcement. Game wardens report a high degree of job satisfaction and often cite the “field work and camaraderie” with their fellow peace officers as one of the key benefits of the job. One game warden calls his job the “most enviable job there is.” A veteran game warden in Maine lists the variety in his duties as the best part of the job:

“You never know for sure what you will be doing that day. You could be educating the public regarding laws, investigating crimes, finding a lost or missing child, arresting a wanted person, or any one of a thousand other things.”

He concludes: “There is certainly no monotony in this job, and every day you are making a difference.”

Work Environment

Fish and game wardens perform almost all their duties outdoors. On any given day, game wardens accomplish their duties on boat, car, plane, all-terrain vehicle, horse, or on foot, enforcing boating, fishing, and game laws. Or, they may manage wildlife programs on land or in lakes, depending on their area and assignment. As one female game warden in Oklahoma reported, “My office is my truck.” O*NET OnLine, a database maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, states that a game warden’s additional primary tasks include:

  • Serving warrants; making arrests
  • Assisting other local law enforcement agencies
  • Compiling evidence and presenting evidence to be used in court
  • Investigating hunting accidents; reporting game and fish law violations
  • Providing hunting and trapping safety information
  • Participating in search and rescue
  • Disposing of illegal taken fish or game
  • Seizing equipment used unlawfully
  • Addressing the media, schools, and civic organizations to educate the public
  • Inspecting commercial operations related to fish or wildlife, such as fish farms and hatcheries
  • Collecting and reporting information about fish and wildlife populations
  • Designing and implementing controls to help prevent damage caused by humans or wildlife
  • Issuing licenses, permits, and other legal documents
  • And many more

Game wardens play an important role in the criminal justice system by enforcing laws related to fish and wildlife and by protecting our natural resources as well as the people who enjoy outdoor activities. In many states, fish and game wardens operate hunting outposts, verifying records and licenses. Because of the nature of game warden jobs, they must be self-reliant and resilient. They are often alone in remote areas, with no communication and slow backup. Since almost everyone they encounter is armed with a gun, rifle, or knife, wardens also carry both a handgun and a rifle.

Texas game wardens report that since Texas is so diverse in topography – mountains, prairies, coastlines, beaches, brush country, and deserts – and includes a border with Mexico, game warden jobs in that state are especially challenging. But game wardens here, as in every state, must adapt to the terrain and natural resources of their region.

Intrinsic Rewards

Careers in law enforcement, and game warden careers, in particular, are satisfying on a personal level. Whether you’re helping a stray animal return to its natural habitat, preventing poachers from violating hunting and fishing laws, or teaching classes on conservation and safety, you know you’re making a difference in the world by ensuring wildlife and their habitats are protected. Those who choose game warden careers report, “It’s not just a job; it’s a way of life.”

Competitive Salary & Benefits

A game warden career leads to competitive pay and benefits. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2018, game wardens made an average of $59,260 per year. Wardens working for agencies specializing in natural resources earned an average salary of $50,120, while those who work for state or federal law enforcement agencies earn an average salary of $60,620. According to labor statistics, the top 10 percent earned an average salary of $80,140. Like many police departments, these agencies also offer competitive health insurance and retirement benefits. Jobs are projected to increase 4.3 percent to reach 7,300 in 2026.

Career Path for a Game Warden

The path to becoming a game warden is competitive one, requiring years of education and training. While the process is tough, for most applicants, the opportunity to work in some of the most beautiful places in the country is a major motivating factor.

Eligibility Requirements

  • In most states, applicants must be at least 21 years old and have a minimum of a high school diploma or its equivalent, although a college degree is preferred. Those interested in applying for federal jobs through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must be between 21 and 36 years old at the time of their appointment.
  • Have a valid driver’s license.
  • Be able to pass a physical examination, psychological examination, and a physical fitness test.
  • Meet specific hearing and vision requirements.
  • In many cases, applicants must be able to meet a minimum standard in fitness tests that include sit-ups, push-ups, running, swimming, and stability.

Skills & Competencies

Game wardens must be willing to work outside in all types of weather. Additionally, they must be comfortable working in remote areas, confronting, questioning, or arresting armed sportsmen and women. They cannot lose their cool when faced with verbal abuse or rude comments. Like every law enforcement officer, game wardens may be required to take the life of another person in self-defense or in defense of another human being. Skills required include:

Active Listening — The ability to pay complete attention to other people, understanding their point of view and asking questions.

Complex Problem-Solving — Identifying complex problems.

Decision-Making — Using good judgment to arrive at the best solution to a problem.

Critical Thinking — Possession of logic and reasoning skills to identify solutions to problems.

Communication Skills — Conveying information effectively and completing written reports.

Monitoring —Assessing the performance of yourself and other individuals to take corrective action.

Persuasion — Persuading others to change their behaviors.

Service Orientation — Desire to be of service to the community and to others.

Instructing — Education the public about the conversation of our natural resources.

Education Requirements

Jobs in natural resources are highly competitive. Few jobs and too many applicants mean an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree often makes the difference in acceptance into a training program. A degree in natural resources conservation, ecology, biology, environmental science, criminal justice, or fish and wildlife management prepare you for the job. In fact, labor statistics report some 79 percent of present-day fish and game wardens hold a bachelor’s degree, while 17 percent have only a high school education.

Once appointed, you are required to complete Fish and Game Warden Basic Academy Training. There, you learn the skills necessary to do your job as a law enforcement officer working with fish and wildlife.

How to Become a Game Warden

The process of becoming a game warden is time-consuming and lengthy, but it results in a highly sought-after criminal justice career. Not every state or federal agency requires all the listed steps, but completing them enhances the likelihood of your getting hired as a game warden.

Step 1: Check your target agency’s application requirements.

Whether you have your sights set on a federal agency or a state or local department, first become acquainted with their application requirements. Some organizations require you to be 18 years old with a high school diploma; others require you to be at least 21 years old with a minimum of an associate’s degree.

Step 2: Complete the required education.

If your target job requires a college degree, begin coursework in a related field, such as wildlife biology, criminal justice, natural resources, or wildlife conservation.

Step 3: Receive your appointment.

Once you have completed your education and applied for a job with your target agency, you will be appointed a fish and game warden. However, this is not the end of your training process.

Step 4: Complete basic academy training

Since the profession is so wide and varied in scope, basic academic training is intensive. Depending on the department, the training academy can last anywhere from three months to almost eight months. During this time, you are required to complete basic law enforcement training in addition to wildlife officer training. This training includes:

  • Physical fitness
  • Personal defense
  • Firearm use and safety
  • Laws, both state and federal
  • Law enforcement arrest procedures
  • Report writing
  • First aid and CPR
  • Regional requirements, such as operating all-terrain vehicles, boats, rafts, jet-skis, or mountain bikes
  • Training in using night-vision lenses, digital cameras, radar scopes, and GPS units, among other devices

Before you complete your academy training, you are required to pass a swimming test in full uniform and equipment, both with and without floatation devices. You are also required to pass a physical fitness test that assesses your ability to run and perform sit-ups and pullups in an allotted amount of time.

Step 5: Complete on-the-job training

Once you’ve completed basic academy training, you’re assigned to an area where you continue learning the day-to-day duties of a game warden. You may be assigned a mentor who can teach departmental specific policies and procedures, guide you through the bureaucratic requirements, and help you learn the ins and outs of your job.

Similar Occupations in Fish & Wildlife

Becoming a fish and game warden is not your only career option in fish and wildlife. Other fulfilling jobs focus on conservation and research.

Conservation Officer

In some regions, “conservation officer” is another name for game warden. In others, a conservation officer focuses primarily on enforcing the natural resources laws of a particular geographic area. Typically, a conservation officer, who earns a salary of $41,986, may work under the supervision of a game warden.

Environmental Scientist/Ecologist

Whereas game wardens enforce the laws of a conservancy and maintain the environment, an environmental scientist focuses on learning about the natural resources, terrain and wildlife in which game wardens work. They may conduct research for efforts to eliminate pollutants, revitalize endangered species, or reduce hazards to public health. An environmental scientist earns approximately $71,130 a year.  The job requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in environmental science or a related field.

Natural Resources Manager

A natural resources manager protects the wildlife and habitat of a specific area. These professionals usually work for a conservatory, historic site, or a state or national park. They may also work within a regional or state area designated for protection. On average, a natural resources manager makes $123,860 per year, and the job requires a bachelor’s degree in a related field.

Park Ranger

Park rangers often are assigned many of the same tasks as game wardens. Responsible for protecting national and state parks, these professionals may act as law enforcement officers, historians, experts on the environment, and educators. Training and education requirements are similar to that of game wardens.

Wildlife Biologist/Wildlife Zoologist

Wildlife biologists and zoologists study how plants or animals are impacted by their environment. They also study the effects that human interactions have on a particular species or habitat. They earn an average of $64,432 per year, and a bachelor’s degree in biology, zoology, or wildlife conservation is required.

Wildlife Manager

A wildlife manager is charged with maintaining animal populations in a specific area. This may include thinning a deer herd that has outgrown its habitat or protecting threatened or endangered species. They earn an average of $57,710 a year, and the job requirements are similar to those of a fish and game warden.

You don’t have to choose between a career in law enforcement and a career in wildlife conservation. A game warden job combines these fields into a single career that provides the opportunity to impact, not only your local wildlife and environment, but also the members of the public in these areas. Additionally, as a game warden, you are helping to protect the natural world for generations to come. And, it’s a job with a high degree of satisfaction. As one warden stated: “Several times a year, a complete stranger approaches [me] to say, ‘I wish I had your job.’”

Additional Careers in Law Enforcement

Consider these additional careers in law enforcement.

Police Officer
Crime Scene Investigator
FBI Agent
Police Detective
Private Investigator
State Trooper
U.S. Marshal