Five Things You Need to Know About Game Wardens

"Good Morning.  Any luck?  May I see your identification and your hunting license?"

For the most part, a hunter's first, and often only, interaction with a game enforcement officer begins with those words, or something similar.  Game officers, or wardens as they are more often called, are the unsung heroes in the wildlife management equation.  They are there to keep things honest and to ensure game and fish are available for future generations.  Many people don't understand the game warden's role, or the warden's world.  As a result, the public can respond inappropriately to these men and women as they execute their sworn duty.  Just how should you behave when contacted by a game warden, and what should you expect from them?

In the Beginning

Game law enforcement has its beginnings in Medieval England where nobles employed men known as "Ghillies" to patrol their forests and apprehend poachers.  Unfortunately, the times what they were, the ghillies employed whatever means they could; punishments for violators were often harsh, even barbaric.  The ghillies' reputation followed them to North America as people from the British Isles displaced Native Americans and built settlements.  Without ancestral lands held by force of arms, the American frontier had little need for game laws or ghillies since the colonists saw wildlife as a public resource there for the taking.

The Push West

As the United States expanded westward across the continent, there were no restraints in place to prevent people from recklessly slaughtering the animals they found there.  By the late nineteenth century, game populations were at critical levels; the bison almost extinct, elk and mule deer pushed into remote mountainous regions, and fish and migratory birds teetered on the brink.  Fortunately, conservationists lead by hunters such as Theodore Roosevelt brought about scientific game management methods, and during the early twentieth century, hunting and fishing became regulated activities.

Modern Day Game Wardens

As in all things though, once laws are put in place to benefit society, some people either can't or won't obey them, which necessitates other people to enforce those laws.  Enter the modern game warden.  Like their ghillie predecessors, game wardens were only tasked with game law enforcement at first.  Some jurisdictions didn't even see the job as a professional law enforcement position.

After World War Two, things began to change and game wardens became fully vested, sworn law enforcement officers in their own right.  Today in many rural states game enforcement officers respond to calls once reserved for traditional police.  They often support county sheriffs, small town police departments, and the state highway patrol, when requested.  Game wardens also perform search and rescue, most often for lost hunters.  Make no mistake, the game warden who contacts you in the field is a highly trained, experienced law enforcement officer who deserves courtesy and respect.

First Contact

Under what circumstances can a hunter or angler expect contact from a game warden?  Assistant Chief of Enforcement for Montana's Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department Ron Jendro says, "More than likely they would be contacted for a routine license compliance check."  A warden may also contact you if they are investigating a reported game law violation; you are either a potential witness, or a person of interest.
Regardless the circumstances, Mr. Jendro has this advice for how you should you conduct yourself when contacted.  "They should act normal and be polite."  Remember, you are most likely armed while hunting, so don't do or say anything which could cause the warden concern for their safety.  Don't fail the "personality test," so to speak.


How You Can Protect Wildlife

Game departments are underfunded and understaffed in most states, so wardens rely on the public for information about suspected game law violations.  Here's what Mr. Jendro suggests if you either witness a game law violation or suspect one has occurred. "They should record and document as much information as possible without putting themselves in danger.  Try to get a license plate and description of the individuals.  The more information that our wardens have, the more likely we can make a case."  Once you have the pertinent information, you should contact your local game department immediately.  Remember, poachers are taking your game animals.  Every poached animal is one less trophy or one less full freezer for you, the honest hunter.

Uh-oh.  Now What?

Game law violations come in two varieties: intentional and unintentional.  Even the most conscientious and skilled hunter can make a mistake.  So what should you do if something unforeseen and unintended happens to you?  Here's Ron's advice. "We understand hunters make mistakes and it is always better to turn yourself in.  If you try to cover up the violation you would get in much more trouble with the law."  He recommends you call the game department or any nearby law enforcement agency as soon as possible if you find yourself in such an unfortunate situation.  Things will run much smoother if you find the warden before the warden finds you.

More Than Just Enforcers

Besides their enforcement duties, game wardens are a wonderful resource for information about wildlife, habitat conservation, and hunting safety.  Ron encourages anyone to contact their local game department with any relevant questions.  Who knows?  They might even give you a tip which helps you bag that next trophy.  They might also become the one person who pressed on through the worst weather to find you after you got lost in the wilderness.

True Professionals

Game wardens: professional, fair, and enthusiastic about hunting and fishing.  They deserve your respect and cooperation.  They are the thin blue line between wildlife and extinction.

-- LJ Bonham