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How to Become a Game Warden: A Comprehensive Guide

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With a love of the outdoors and a desire to preserve wildlife and the beauty of our natural world, game wardens bridge the gap between conservation and law enforcement. The work can be physically demanding. Most jobs are hands-on, boots-on-the-ground. A game warden might need to hike long distances, cover rugged terrain in extreme weather, and physically overpower a suspect resisting arrest.

The career is ideal for those who love hunting, fishing, and the great outdoors. Game wardens make sure people follow laws around outdoor activities. You’ll need to be an expert in hunting, fishing, wildlife regulations and management, camping, and more.

What do game wardens do on a typical day? You might actively patrol your jurisdiction, checking hunting and fishing licenses to ensure compliance. You could also present programs about wildlife management to various groups or provide hunter education courses. Game wardens also participate in biological research projects and conduct long-term criminal investigations.

Much like a police officer, there are many requirements to becoming a game warden, but various paths can lead you to your goal. A combination of education, experience, and mental and physical fitness will give you the best chance of landing a job in the competitive game warden field.

Do you have what it takes? Keep reading to learn more about how to become a game warden.

What is a Game Warden?

Game wardens can go by many different titles – conservation officer, fish and game warden, wildlife officer, forest ranger, gamekeeper, and more. They can work in a wide range of outdoor settings, from oceans to deserts to mountains. All game warden roles have in common the responsibility to manage natural environments and ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations.

As a game warden, you might ensure hunters follow the law, conduct investigations for incidents on state or federal land, or collect data for wildlife research—many job duties related to law enforcement protecting wildlife and natural resources. Game wardens need to know and understand current laws and how to handle themselves as law enforcement officers.

With much of your work happening outdoors and in sometimes remote locations, physical fitness is a vital aspect of the job. You should also have essential survival skills, such as first aid, self-defense, tracking, and firearm usage.

Steps to Becoming a Game Warden

  1. Meet minimum requirements
  2. Complete a college degree in an approved major
  3. Pass physical and mental fitness tests
  4. Successfully pass an approved training program
  5. Undergo any required field training

Game Warden Requirements

Age

Most state-level positions require applicants to be at least 21 years old, although a few departments allow candidates as young as 18. Federal game wardens through the US Fish and Wildlife Service must be between 21 and 37.

Driver’s License

Game wardens need to be able to pilot all types of vehicles, so a driver’s license is essential. You might find yourself behind the wheel of a truck, ATV, or boat. Experience with various types of transportation is a plus, as is a commercial license or any special endorsements.

Clean Criminal Record

As peace officers, game wardens must be eligible for and maintain their firearms certification. That means passing a background check and having no convictions for domestic violence. Many organizations also require applicants to undergo drug testing. Some states additionally bar applicants who have committed a crime of “moral turpitude.” These include any crime where your morals are in question, such as fraud, theft, or violent acts.

US Citizenship

Most wildlife organizations require employees to be citizens of the United States. However, a few state-level wildlife departments do allow legal US residents to apply for game warden positions.

Physical and Mental Fitness

Being a game warden can be demanding on mind and body. State and federal wildlife agencies require candidates to undergo various mental and physical assessments. Some states require you to pass a physical fitness exam with components such as sit-ups, push-ups and running.

College Degrees for Game Wardens

The work of a game warden combines law enforcement with an understanding of and desire to protect natural resources and wildlife. Very few colleges offer programs specifically for game wardens, but there are a few typical paths that interested students can take. Wildlife departments typically look for candidates who have at least a bachelor’s degree in an area related to criminal justice, biology, or environmental science.

Criminal Justice Degrees

A criminal justice degree is a wise choice, with game wardens possessing much of the same authority as police officers. Your job will be to enforce hunting, fishing, and boating laws. On any given day, you may have to issue citations for hunting violations, respond to accidents in your jurisdiction, or investigate property damage caused by wildlife. Courses will prepare you for criminal investigations, courtroom procedures, forensic science, and more. To boost your resume even further, consider a criminal justice major with a biology minor.

Biology Degrees

Game wardens need to be able to understand, investigate, and analyze scientific information. A biology degree offers a solid foundation in scientific knowledge and principles that apply to this job. When tasked with collecting and interpreting biological data, planning for nature conservation, and researching ecological needs, the knowledge you possess from a biology degree will be a crucial asset.

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Environmental Science Degrees

A degree in environmental science, conservation, or wildlife management teaches you how to maintain natural habitats, a key component of game warden responsibilities. Courses explore how fish and animals interact within the same habitat and what effect humans have on them. You will learn how to create and execute comprehensive environmental management strategies. Most programs allow you to get hands-on experience through outdoor activities, field trips, and lab work.

Game Warden Training Programs

Hopeful game wardens at both the state and federal levels are expected to complete training programs specifically designed for the job duties they are likely to perform. Trainees can expect courses in fish, wildlife, and natural resources management, along with law enforcement knowledge and tactics. Some of the other subjects you can expect to train in include:

  • Water rescue
  • First aid
  • Crime scene processing
  • Homeland security
  • Firearm usage
  • Boat operations
  • Criminal investigations
  • Electronic surveillance

Federal Game Warden Training

Federal game warden trainees must complete a 20-week basic training program at the Federal Law Enforcement Agency in Georgia. The program teaches trainees how to conduct criminal investigations and enforce wildlife laws. After completing this program, new federal game wardens report to their assigned duty station for an additional 44 weeks of field training.

State Game Warden Training

At the state level, prospective game wardens can also expect rigorous training. Requirements vary from state to state, so it is essential to research the process for the state where you plan to work. Some state training programs last up to eight months, with additional field training afterward.

For example, California requires cadets to complete 31 weeks in an academy, followed by ten weeks assigned to three different field officers for additional training and skills development. Indiana’s training program consists of a four-week recruit school, nine weeks of essential training, and 15 weeks at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy. In Texas, you will complete 30 weeks at the Texas Game Warden Training Center before being named a Probationary Game Warden and receiving your first field assignment.

Typical Traits and Characteristics of Game Wardens

The job can be physically and mentally demanding. Wardens also need to know all there is to know about the outdoors and relevant laws. If you grew up hunting, fishing, and spending time in the wilderness, you’ll have a leg up on the competition. A wide variety of people from different backgrounds can make good game wardens, but most will have some of the following qualities in common.

Good People Skills

Your office may be the great outdoors, but you will spend much of your time interacting with other people as a game warden. You will need to ask hunters and anglers to provide proof of licensure. You may lead informational classes for local groups or schools. As part of a criminal investigation, you will need to interview victims, suspects, and witnesses. Each task requires special consideration of the people and circumstances involved to produce the results you need.

Leadership Mindset

A game warden spends a lot of the time on their own out in the field. They need to be able to make decisions quickly and take charge of a situation. Many times, they are the only law enforcement officers in their area.

Physical Fitness

Game wardens have to be physically fit to handle their job responsibilities in various terrains and weather conditions. Many states require applicants to pass the Cooper Physical Fitness Test successfully. Initially designed for the military, this test includes sit-ups, running, push-ups, jumping, and sprinting while carrying a weighted object. Some states also require additional testing in an area such as swimming.

Federal game wardens must pass the Physical Efficiency Battery, the same test given to all federal law enforcement officers. During the test, participants have their body fat measured, and their hearing and vision tested. The test has five major segments:

  • Running 1.5 miles
  • Bench pressing weights in 5-pound increments
  • Flexibility testing
  • Changing directions while running (Illinois Agility Test)

Ethics

As a law enforcement officer, you ensure that others follow the law. To that end, you must have a highly ethical mindset. You make sure the law is upheld, obey all laws yourself, and be fair and respectful. You are responsible for protecting wildlife from unethical game practices. Game wardens must agree to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s standards of ethical conduct. When you are alone and facing a difficult decision, it’s essential to know that you can be counted on to make the right call.

Outdoors Knowledge and Experience

A lack of experience doesn’t automatically disqualify you from becoming a game warden, but you will have some ground to make up. Wardens are experts in hunting, fishing, boating, camping, related laws, and more. At the least, you should start with an understanding of aspects of fish and wildlife management and conservation practice.

Game Warden Career Outlook

According to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), employment for game wardens is expected to remain stable with a slight increase over the next decade. There were 7,500 game wardens in the United States in 2020, and an additional 800 jobs are expected to be created by 2030. Most job openings will come from current employees retiring, being promoted, or transferring out of the field.

Applicants will find themselves in a highly competitive job market. Candidates need to possess the ideal mix of skills and qualities to land an entry-level position. The hiring process can be exhaustive, taking place over many months and including multiple stages of interviews, testing, and training before being offered a probationary position.

Your ability to find an open game warden position might also depend on where you’re looking. Nearly twice as many game wardens work in Florida as in any other state, with 900 federal, state, and local positions. Other top-hiring states include Texas, New York, Tennessee, and California.

Game Warden Salary

Chances are, you want to be a game warden because it fits your interests and sounds like an exciting job, but will it pay the bills? The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2020, the median salary for a game warden in the United States was $58,040. That comes out to almost $28 per hour. While that may be the average wage, income can vary greatly, with the lowest 10% of earning just $29,990 and the top 10% bringing in more than $81,960.

Location can play a significant role in your expected earnings as well. The annual mean wage in California is $88,150. While jobs may be plentiful in Florida, the mean yearly earnings are only $28,460. New Jersey, Illinois, Washington, and Iowa are other areas offering great pay.

Professional Organizations for Game Wardens

Joining a professional organization can help you in many ways. Whether you are a student interested in learning more about the field, searching for your first job, or looking for camaraderie as a professional, professional organization can help you with your goals. Members can stay on top of current developments in the field and prepare for advancement opportunities. Below are a few of the options available.

State Game Warden Associations

Typically, if there are game wardens or conservation officers in a state, a state-level professional organization is dedicated to their support. Groups may offer scholarships for students pursuing degrees in wildlife law enforcement or conservation. Some organizations also seek lobbying efforts, host annual conferences or banquets, and offer grants for professional development.

Below are just a few of the organizations available across the country:

  • Texas Game Warden Association
  • Iowa Fish and Game Conservation Officers Association
  • Oklahoma State Game Warden Association
  • Montana Game Wardens’ Association
  • Missouri Conservation Agents Association
  • North Dakota Game Wardens Association
  • California Fish and Game Warden Supervisors and Managers Association
  • Wisconsin Conservation Warden Association

Federal Wildlife Officers Association

FWOA consists of current and retired federal conservation agents. The group seeks to help support wildlife resources as well as the people who enjoy them. Some of the ways the association has helped officers over the years include providing death benefits to family members and awarding college scholarships to students interested in this career.

North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association

The NAWEOA encourages professionalism and excellence in the game warden field through training and networking opportunities and professional recognition. The organization accepts members from both the United States and Canada. Members can enjoy the International Game Warden magazine, attend annual conferences, and visit the North American Game Warden Museum.

Wildlife Conservation Society

The Wildlife Conservation Society seeks to protect wildlife and natural spaces worldwide through science, conservation, and education as a global organization. Over the group’s 100-year history, it has established long-term conservation measures in wild areas of the Americas, Asia, Oceania, and Africa. Membership options include complimentary admission to the organization’s four zoos and aquarium in New York City.

National Association of Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs

Membership to NACLEC is only open to state or federal officers responsible for enforcing conservation laws and who hold the position of chief, colonel, or equivalent. Some of the group’s goals include facilitating networking, developing future leaders in the game warden field, providing education, and increasing public support for conservation. The organization promotes a wide range of safe and enjoyable outdoor activities.

If you’re not entirely sure that becoming a game warden is the right career choice for you, consider some of these occupations that share many of the same qualities:

  • Forester – Manage and help protect forests and their natural resources
  • Security Guard – Help protect properties from theft, illegal entry, and vandalism
  • Conservation Scientist – Monitor and manage the land quality of forests, parks, and rangelands
  • Police Officer – Ensure that people follow laws and patrol your community to help maintain order
  • Border Patrol Agent – Prevent people, drugs, and weapons from illegally entering the country
  • Forensic Science Technician – Collect and analyze physical evidence related to criminal investigations

Find Out More About How To Become A Game Warden

Game wardens get to enjoy the beautiful scenery and keep the natural environment safe for both people and wildlife. If you want a job that challenges you both mentally and physically, becoming a game warden may be the perfect choice for you. The hiring process may seem long and intimidating, but with the right combination of education and physical fitness, you will soon be on your way to a job where you won’t have to stare at a wall in a cubicle all day. Your office will be the great outdoors! Take the first step toward the exciting and rewarding career by researching online degree options today.

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