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"How can I become a game warden?"
I wish I had one answer for the thousands who ask this question every year. The truth is, the warden service needs people with diverse skills and backgrounds that share two important attributes – love of the outdoors and respect for natural resources.
Some people choose the career at a very young age. Eight-year-old Thomas Harelson lived next to Chauncey Weitz, the game warden in Black River Falls. Harelson was so influenced by Weitz that he told his parents he wanted to be a game warden. Little did Harelson know that he would later serve nine years as a field warden, three years as a warden supervisor, and 11 as a regional warden before becoming chief warden for Wisconsin in 1997.
Whether you are a high school or college student, or well into your 30s and looking for a career change, seek out education and experiences that stress the job's fundamentals: working with the public, gaining knowledge of the outdoors, understanding many kinds of outdoor recreation, staying in decent physical shape, studying resource laws, and learning law enforcement techniques.
"We provide candidates with the training they need to be wardens, but they've got to come to us with excellent people skills or they won't make the cut," says Harelson. "We also want people who have law enforcement experience and a college degree in some natural resource or law enforcement area. We're getting so many candidates who have these qualifications that it's raising the bar."
Many skills can be gained simultaneously. Become active in diverse outdoor activities: Try different types of fishing rather than just going to the same trout stream. Take a trapper education course or attend a turkey hunting clinic. Get involved in sports clubs or the Conservation Congress. Attend demonstrations of outdoor activities to meet the people who train dogs, hunt bear, and the like. Also consider attending some of the annual trips sponsored by the Natural Resources Foundation (see the April issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources for a list) to learn about DNR research and field work.
Learn about boating and outdoor pursuits like bicycling, canoeing and camping. As a warden you will be called upon to work with hunters, anglers, boaters, trappers, snowmobilers, skiers, bicyclists and others. It helps considerably if you can find common ground with these diverse audiences.
Students should look for summer jobs related to outdoor activities. DNR hires many summer helpers in the state parks system. Your college internship office can help you explore positions with resource managers, outdoor recreation firms or law enforcement agencies.
Consider getting a broad background in natural resource management. Colleges like the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point offer degrees in biological sciences and resource management. Learning a foreign language may help you communicate more effectively with members of the public.
Seek certification as a law enforcement officer through a university or a technical college. The training is a minimum entry requirement for a warden position and the contacts you make might help you learn about job vacancies in the law enforcement field.
Stay out of trouble with the law. Dedication to a law enforcement career implies respect for the law and DNR does extensive background checks. A speeding ticket won't disqualify you, but a pattern of violations and citations for drunken driving won't help. Certain offenses, such as domestic violence and felony convictions, disqualify you from service.
DNR receives a large number of qualified applicants for each opening in the warden service. Those people with the best well-rounded backgrounds are selected to be Wisconsin conservation wardens, and begin their careers with a year of training.
Warden recruits spend 14 weeks at the State Patrol Academy at Fort McCoy in classroom and field sessions to learn natural resource laws, special investigative techniques, firearms handling and more. They meet representatives from dozens of conservation, agricultural, environmental, and other groups that can help with particular enforcement problems. Then, for most of the rest of the year, the recruits work at different field stations, learning under veteran wardens and attending training sessions on enforcing waterfowl, bear, trapping, and other regulations. At the end of their training, the new wardens receive their permanent assignments.
"Wardens are expected to enforce a vast array of resource protection, environmental and recreational safety laws," says Jerry Meronk, who has trained warden recruits for seven years and spent 20 years as a field warden. "Today's professional wardens need a solid background to understand what's going on when they see it, and to better understand different user groups. Given a frame of reference from the warden's past experiences and skills learned in warden training sessions, outstanding cases are made."
A warden's training continues throughout his or her career. The public expects a game warden to be knowledgeable about outdoor activities, law, science and psychology (to name a few), so it's important that a warden be willing to learn new skills. Public speaking, for instance. When I was a boy, game warden Larry Miller gave a talk to my Scout troop in Rhinelander. That was what planted the seed for what I view as the best job in the world.
Patrick Harkins began as a conservation warden in 1974 and previously served as training director for DNR's Bureau of Law Enforcement.