Fish and game wardens, also called wildlife officers, are law enforcement officers who specialize in enforcing hunting, fishing, and boating laws and managing land, lakes, and wildlife programs. Their work environments include forests, mountains, coastal regions, lakes, and other natural settings. Whether they are preventing hunters from illegally killing game, investigating hunting accidents and reports of property damage caused by wildlife, or collecting biological data, fish and game wardens work to preserve the health and safety of natural environments and wildlife.
People who are interested in learning how to become a fish and game warden often share similar traits. They have an appreciation for the natural world, a commitment to protecting wildlife, and strong people skills. They may also know how to use key tools of the trade, such as global positioning systems (GPS), radar equipment, and all-terrain vehicles to navigate rugged outdoor areas.
What Does a Fish and Game Warden Do?
Primarily employed at the federal and state levels, fish and game wardens are law enforcement officers who enforce laws that protect fish, wildlife, and other natural resources. This means individuals researching how to become a fish and game warden should check into the training requirements to meet federal and state mandates and regulations.
Fish and game wardens are expected to be in fit physical condition. They need to know how to use firearms, self-defense tactics, and first aid. At every level, fish and game wardens must stay current on relevant laws (state and/or federal) and law enforcement procedures.
So, what does a fish and game warden do? Responsibilities may vary by geographic region and climate, but generally, they protect natural environments where wildlife and fish thrive by enforcing conservation laws. They inspect fishing and hunting licenses, collect and analyze wildlife specimens, conduct wildlife conservation educational programs, and perform other activities to fulfill their responsibilities.
Since the job involves wildlife, many people think fish and game wardens work in rural areas. This is true for many, but they may also be employed in more populated and even urban regions where there are campgrounds and parks.
Fish and game wardens may place people under arrest. In some states, a warden can stop a moving vehicle and conduct a search if there is reasonable suspicion of a crime. As with any law enforcement professional, fish and game wardens may encounter resistance. If circumstances merit it, they can use defensive and offensive tactics to detain individuals suspected of crimes.
In addition to law enforcement responsibilities, fish and game wardens often have up-close encounters with wildlife. Sometimes these animals can be unpredictable. This means fish and game wardens can potentially receive bites, scratches, and other more serious injuries, so they must be vigilant while on patrol or as they conduct surveillance operations. Part of what fish and game wardens do involves potentially dangerous activities, such as relocating sick or potentially threatening animals.
Part of the challenge of being a fish and game warden is striking a balance between enforcing conservation laws in areas where people congregate and supervising wildlife in remote areas. Successful fish and game wardens interact with people, yet ideally they also feel comfortable working alone. This means they are typically adept at being self-sufficient, using GPS equipment, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, watercraft, aircraft, and even horses to get around.
Working in a broad range of protected natural areas on land or sea, fish and game wardens can enroll in training programs to specialize in areas such as environmental crime investigation and marine search and rescue.
Steps to Become a Fish and Game Warden
Prospective fish and game wardens are expected to be in good physical shape. The ability to hike in rough terrain, chase down poachers, and conduct search and rescue operations in all kinds of weather is typically a prerequisite. Federal wildlife officers are also required to carry firearms, so training in the safe use of guns and self-defense is important, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Step 1: Meet Education Requirements
Education requirements to become a fish and game warden vary by state and agency. While a high school diploma and relevant experience is sufficient in some jurisdictions, some states require at least an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, according to The Houston Chronicle. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prefers candidates who have 2- or 4-year degrees, but they also allow applicants to substitute applicable experience for education.
Degrees in areas related to law enforcement, environmental science, or biology can be beneficial to those pursuing a career as a fish and game warden. For example, an online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice can provide students with a background in legal concepts, criminology, and quantitative skills that can help them qualify for positions in this field.
Step 2: Train at an Academy
Fish and game wardens must meet training mandates established at the federal or state level (or both) to work in the field. Many recruits who are accepted into wildlife agencies must then train at an academy to gain any further skills or knowledge they may need in their new jobs, according to The Houston Chronicle. These programs include training in self-defense, firearms, physical fitness, equipment use, and methods for investigating accidents and fish and game law violations. Additional formal training programs offer instruction in areas such as hazardous material (HAZMAT) handling, arrest procedures, field laboratory exercises, and emergency response.
Federal wildlife officers must complete four phases of academy training over the course of several months, including an orientation, land management police training, federal wildlife officer basic school, and a field training and evaluation program.
Step 3: Complete On-the-Job Training and Advanced Training Programs
Newly hired fish and game wardens typically work closely with experienced professionals, and they ultimately report to a higher-ranking officer such as a lieutenant or sergeant. Partnering with veteran wardens allows new recruits to receive direct guidance as situations unfold in the field.
To advance in their careers, fish and game wardens continually refine their skills on the job, and they often participate in advanced training and education programs offered through their agencies. These programs may include classroom instruction and field exercises that help wardens sharpen their skills and stay current on new developments that affect their work. For example, training may cover subjects such as survival techniques or recent changes in conservation law. By completing these sessions, wardens may develop the analytical, quantitative, decision-making, and interpersonal skills to position themselves for leadership roles that carry more responsibilities.
Fish and Game Warden Salaries
Fish and game warden salaries can vary widely depending on many factors, including geographic region, additional skills, and previous experience in law enforcement. The median annual salary for fish and game wardens was $57,710 in 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS also notes that compensation can range from about $40,000 per year on the low end to about $80,000 for top earners.
Employment Outlook for Fish and Game Wardens
Employment of fish and game wardens is expected to grow by about 4% from 2016 to 2026, according to the BLS. States that employed the highest numbers of these professionals include Texas, New York, California, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Employment opportunities largely depend on the availability of state and federal government budget resources. With increased public attention to climate change and its impact on wildlife, there could be a growing need for knowledgeable fish and game wardens in the years ahead.
The Journey to Becoming a Fish and Game Warden
Maryville University is dedicated to helping students on their journey to become fish and game wardens by offering an online bachelor’s of criminal justice program. The curriculum combines theoretical learning with professional field-based education to provide students with a comprehensive academic experience.
Fish and game wardens can apply a background in criminal justice to enforce laws designed to protect the world’s natural environments. If you love the outdoors and want to make an impact on society and our natural world, here’s your chance to get started.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2018”
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook: Police and Detectives
Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, “Land Management Police Training”
HeinOnline, “The Fourth Amendment, Game Wardens, and Hunters”
Houston Chronicle, “Game Warden Educational Requirements”
John Hopkins University Press, “State Wildlife Management and Conservation”
Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, “Becoming a Game Warden: Motivations for Choosing a Career in Wildlife Law Enforcement”
O*Net Online, “Summary Report for Fish and Game Wardens”
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “Qualifications for a Federal Wildlife Officer”
Photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Image Gallery