After many years of invisibility, game wardens, “the Thin Green Line,” are getting recognition thanks to several reality TV series including North Woods LawWardens, and Wild Justice, as well as a number of popular fiction and non-fiction books.

Awareness of wardens also jumped this past spring by news coverage of the crucial role the wardens played in the pursuit of Chris Dorner.

One of the reasons why game wardens have been so invisible is that they are a rare species. Out of over 800,000 law enforcement officers in the entire United States, there are approximately 7,100 game wardens, which is less than the police force of most big cities.

To give you a better idea of just how rare game wardens are, today California has one game warden in the field for about every 185,000 residents or 250 in the field for the entire state, and this is up from 180 three years ago. Imagine a town of 185,000 people with one police officer. In contrast, Montana has one warden for every 8,832 residents. Wyoming has one warden for every 8,513, and Alaska has one warden for every 6,980 residents. New Brunswick has one warden for every 7,423 residents. Manitoba has one warden for every 6,755. Newfoundland has one warden for every 3,616 residents. Nunavut Territory, which has a vast amount of land but few people, has one warden for every 882 residents.

Because they’ve been so rare, when a game warden does appear, some sportsmen may cringe because they fear that they may have violated a law they weren’t aware of. To a certain extent that’s understandable. Regulations in many states and provinces are complicated and learning them all is hardly easy, as in addition to the booklets given to each person who buys a license, Fish and Wildlife Codes for each state can be as thick as a phone book. One consequence is that aside from Hunter Education classes that run 10 to 12 hours, there’s no easy way to educate people about wildlife laws. Combine that with the scarcity of game wardens and the vast areas they patrol and you’ve got a potential problem that’s found all across North America.

Remember that game wardens don’t make the laws. They just enforce them.

There are two varieties of game wardens: state and federal. The state game wardens may work in uniform and undercover.

Many of the federal game wardens who work for agencies like the USFWS, NOAA, EPA, and the BLM are called “Special Agents.” Some of their work may involve routine inspections, but a good deal involves covert investigations. Many Special Agents are great character actors.

In addition, there are federal, state, and regional park and forest rangers who enforce wildlife laws as well as criminal laws. Normally, they work in uniform. The USFWS law enforcement officers are nicknamed “LEOs,” which stands for law enforcement officers.

One misconception is that all that game wardens do is to check the fish or game you’ve caught for bag limits and size regulations and to make sure that you have a license and whatever you’re doing is in season on the land where you are. Game wardens actually enforce all criminal and civil laws as well as wildlife law, in addition to performing search and rescue duties.

Typically game wardens work alone, without close backup, under all conditions, and in remote areas. They also work from a home office and are on-call 24/7. They’re like the old-fashioned town sheriff. However, they also conduct their own crime scene investigation, and some are pilots who conduct aerial surveillance. Others may captain boats of various sizes. California game wardens can patrol out to 200 miles offshore, and they were on emergency call on 9/11.

Nearly all the people that game wardens contact have a knife and/or a gun. As a result the wardens are better armed than the average police officer. For example, in California, every game warden is issued two pistols, a shotgun, and a .308 rifle, a larger caliber than the standard police-issue rifle as wardens may have to shoot through brush. They are also trained in martial arts. State game wardens are also the only type of law enforcement officer that teach people how to shoot guns as part of their job, through hunter education programs.

While they may seem like “fish cops” who don’t do much, actually being a game warden is among the most dangerous of all law enforcement jobs. According to California Fish and Game Wardens Association President Jerry Karnow, nine officer-involved shootings (OIS) involving California’s wardens have taken place since Warden Kyle Kroll was shot and nearly killed in an illegal marijuana plot on state lands in 2005. Wardens have been in three OIS in the last eight months (June 2012 through January 2013). Twenty-two California Game Wardens have been killed working in the performance of their duties.

Wardens also increasingly find themselves investigating organized crime. Quietly, the international trade in illegal wildlife has become second only to drugs. In California, thanks to the game warden shortage and the state’s burgeoning population, it’s estimated that the annual black market in wildlife trafficking is worth at least $100 million a year.

Because wildlife trafficking pays little heed to boundaries, there’s enormous need for interstate and international cooperation. To aid cooperation, there’s an international umbrella organization, the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association (NAWEOA). NAWEOA represents game wardens and park and forest rangers in all categories. They meet annually for their international convention and serve as a clearinghouse for news, as well as a coordinating organization.

NAWEOA also runs the Game Warden Museum that’s located in the International Peace Garden on the border between Manitoba and North Dakota. The Museum features displays of vintage gear and mounted animals, a library, classes, and lectures.

If you’re out in the field and see someone breaking a wildlife law, you can report them to your state or province tip line and receive an award if your tip leads to a conviction. There’s a map on the NAWEOA website that provides information on tip lines for every state and province.

Game wardens play an important role in protecting our wildlife. It’s good to see them getting some recognition, and they deserve even more.

  • Glenn H

    Our new generation of game wardens seem to be much more respectful than the ones from my younger days, 1970’s-1980’s. Back then you were treated as if you had broken some law every time you encountered one and often as not issued a citation that would usually be thrown out in court.
    The problem was that you lost time from work and just the hassle of going to court when you knew you were innocent. This happened to my wife once and I’m still pissed about that one.
    We were hunting some paper company land near our home that was owned by two companies, she had a permit for one but not the other so when we got to the property she had no permission to hunt she left her rifle unloaded on the gun rack behind the truck seat and was 30 yards from the truck entertaining our two small children,(yes we were a young family back then) playing games when the warden approached her and issued her a citation, didn’t check the gun and didn’t care!
    Bogus citation and a trip to to court for what? The warden didn’t even show up to press his case, he knew he didn’t have one!
    Our present warden is very different, he’s helpful, respectful and appears on our local tv show a few times a year to help educate people of the changing laws and how to not find yourself on the wrong side of them, in other words a breath of fresh air!

  • scbane

    Well, I for one think this artivle is so much crap. As a prospector and hunter, my encounters with game officials are less and less cordial each time I am either disarmed and interrogated by Mr Commando, or have to cease dredging or panning to prove I am doing nothing wrong when it was obvious I wasn’t.
    My “respect” for these guys is in the gutter, and with more and more junk science adding with the already overwhelming load of regulation that they CHOOSE to enforce, regardless of the constitutionality issues and lack of common sense in the regulations, I think the number of violent encounters with game officers will increase.
    I’m to the point where I have nothing civil to say to them due to the harassment of prospectors in my state.
    So sing your stupid praises about people whose original job was to safeguard wildlife and wild areas, who are now nothing more than guardians of global warming policy in action against citizens. F*** ’em.

    • Proud Mom

      Scban…….your a dick….! Cry like a baby. With an attitude like that, no wonder you feel harassed. The knowledge and intelligence these Game Wardens have, not to mention the training that they go through, is not to make your pissy ass life miserable. Until you go through all the training and put your life on the line from people like you, maybe you should just “zip it”.

      ~ Proud Mom of a Federal Game Warden ~

    • Proud Warden Wife

      scbane — What is obvious to me is that you have had some run-ins with game wardens that have been unpleasant. Another thing that is obvious to everyone who has any common sense at all is that you have no idea what you are talking about and you are probably a habitual violator who wants to cry like a baby when he gets caught, I will tell you this…..the game warden does not CHOOSE the laws to enforce, but they CHOOSE to put their life on the line to save others! My husband has several life saving awards for his service to the citizens of our state. If you are lost in the woods, hurt in a hunting, fishing or boating accident, a game warden will be the one who will find you, give you the coat off his back and escort you back to your family…..and if you drown.,…he will dive for your body so that your family can have closure and can have peace. You should be ashamed of yourself!!! The very people you curse would give their LIFE for scum like YOU!!

  • gwwife

    My Husband is a Game Warden in another state and I think this article fairly, however briefly, depicts what all they have to do in their jobs. They like any other Law Enforcement Officer leave their homes and families at all hours of the day and night not knowing what they will encounter and if they will return. They have intense training not only in Game and Fish Laws but the search and rescue aspect for the lost, missing and criminals who have escaped or are on the run,I mean who knows the areas better? My husband along with his counterparts also are on the state task force for the active shooter program, trained and willing to protect children and teacher in school shooter situations, along with all the other items mentioned in this article and more. They do not get the respect that they deserve and I completely understand that people get very irritated when their recreation is scrutinized, but I will also say the same individuals who complain are the first to call my home at 2A.M. Because they need help or have a Law Enforcement issue that needs to be handled. Game Wardens don’t want to cause anyone distress but they do have a job to do and most do it very well and respectfully, next time someone has an issue with a “Rude” Game Warden they may want to evaluate their own reaction or tone, these men do not know those who are out to/or willing to hurt them, from those who are not.

  • fishcop126

    In my 35 year career as an Environmental Conservation Officer I dealt with plenty of guys (and occasionally gals) with very poor attitudes and huge chips on their shoulders. They were of the opinion that hunting, fishing, trapping etc was their “right” and any effort made to ensure compliance with the rules was an infringement of that right. Of course we all know that just like driving a car these activities are a privilege and the failure to follow the rules can result in the loss of same. Most of these types thought that fish and wildlife violations were “victim less crimes” and really had little respect for the rules. But I must say that the VAST MAJORITY of people that I interacted with were genuinely honest sportsmen and had no problem following the rules or being checked to ensure compliance. As a rookie officer in the mid 1970’s I worked with a veteran training officer who told me a couple of thing that stuck with me. He said “when your dealing with the public be firm but fair and always be respectful” and “you can’t win a pissing match with a skunk”. His advise served me well for many years!

  • jimdean

    Oh wow some people associated with wardens are offended. Big deal. Power corrupts period and if your ofnpoor character before you will be of loor character after.

  • Ilikethem

    I found this to be very informative. Most of us who don’t hunt didn’t realize the things these officers are confronted with, every hunter is armed and I do remember reading that it was one of these wardens that helped capture Dorner. Good work guys, keep it up.

  • john king

    you must not have met G W Erik Fleet in san diego ca. I filed a citizens complaint against him on 12/05/2012. the dfg did not investigate it. he needs to read the maunal and get a personality and a brain. when i see a warden now i will drop everything and run the other way. if a G W was in need of help in the field i definately not raise a finger to help,, he can call for back up!

  • Bill Meeker

    Yes, I’ve seen several of those shows and they are quite entertaining. I’m also aware of real-life cases of abuse by California game wardens and as it continues unabated, I have to assume this abuse is endorsed by those at the top. I’m glad NOT to live in California.