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Urban residents may picture a conservation warden as a man or woman in a gray uniform seated behind a desk at a DNR service center. Maybe they met a warden at the State Fair in West Allis, the Sports Show in Milwaukee, or at a regional deer or turkey classic.
That may be true in Milwaukee, Madison or La Crosse, but it's a different story when your beat is Bruce, Hurley, Crandon, Fremont, Random Lake or Rib Lake. Of 153 field wardens, 53 work from home. The warden's "office" phone becomes the home phone, and family or roommates field the messages.
I am one of those wardens. I live in a small Wisconsin community, beautifully unique in its abundant natural resources. I'm attracted to the job, the setting and the people I serve. The county seat where I work has a population of fewer than 1,000, as does the community I live in. There's only one traffic signal in the entire county.
In a small town, being a warden is a high-profile job. Every sportsman's group in the area knows me. (That's no surprise: Most members of the county sportsman's alliance can name every warden that lived in the county since they were 10 years old.) I'm a familiar figure to the students, teachers, and administrators of our rural schools. The small-town warden speaks at club meetings, stays active with outdoors groups, teaches safety programs in schools and writes for the local newspaper.
The warden represents the entire Department of Natural Resources to the rural community. The responsibility is awesome, the questions never-ending: "How's the deer population? Have they groomed the snowmobile trails? When do the turkey permits come out? Are license fees going up? I haven't received my boat registration yet, where is it? How many preference points do I need to get a bear permit? Who has to inspect my septic system?"
Nearly every rural resident has some connection to DNR programs, and the local warden is the link. Chance meetings at a school basketball game, a church lobby, a restaurant, the bowling alley, a bank, the gas station, or the local park generate questions, and there's no better time than the present to ask the warden. How those questions are answered leaves an important impression. Wardens need to stay well informed, and they must be patient, especially when asked questions while "off-duty."
The lack of anonymity in a small community spills over to wardens' families. Everyone knows you, your spouse and your children. They know where you live, where your spouse works and where the kids go to school. They know your hobbies and friends. Sometimes you wonder if this is a good thing. Then you realize it's the same for the local logger, farmer, mechanic, electrician, teacher, preacher and business owner. You're part of the fabric of small-town life, and it is finely woven cloth, indeed.
Warden John Weber lives and works in Alma.