By the time the rising sun illuminated the changing trees in the Greybull River Valley, Scott Werbelow was already on the job. It looked to be a busy day at the office. Werbelow’s office — the entirety of the Big Horn Basin — has one heck of a view.
As game warden supervisor for the Cody Region, Werbelow doesn’t have his own territory. He goes where he’s needed and never knows where he’ll land from day to day. The days are long, especially when he has a call in the Big Horns — the eastern boundary of the region and a three-hour drive from home. Werbelow doesn’t mind.
“I love the job. It’s not like working,” he said.
As deer season opens Oct. 1, life’s about to get a little busier for game wardens. Most of the wardens became interested in the job through a love for hunting and fishing. But hunting takes a back seat to the job this time of year. None will be joining friends on a hunt opening day. Starting Sunday, the number of calls will increase exponentially and Werbelow will be working many long days before he gets a chance to take a deer.
“From Sept. 1 through Nov. 30 it’s tough for the game wardens to get a day off,” he said. “If you’re lucky you’ll get a day every two weeks.”
Confident all was quiet in the valley below, Werbelow continued down the road, interviewing hunters as he moved. Even if the hunters don’t recognize the Meeteetse area resident, they immediately know the neatly pressed, bright red shirt of the game warden’s uniform and his state-green truck.
With each stop, the avid hunter is happy to offer tips. Some of his advice has been collected since sunup and some obtained over the past two decades with the Game and Fish. His demeanor is friendly and respectful. Even after witnessing infractions, he offers his hand to all he meets.
“I treat everyone the way I’d want to be treated,” Werbelow said. “I respect them even if they have a violation. They’re not bad people. They just screwed up.”
Not all are happy to see a red shirt coming down the trail. Working alone in remote areas where everyone has a weapon, and where alcohol is occasionally in the mix, can be tough on the nerves. Werbelow has been cursed and threatened many times — once with an axe while checking licenses in a group of unlicensed fishermen.
“There you are with eight people in a camp after dark and they’re all armed and drunk,” Werbelow said. “I’ve been in some scary situations and have had to back out until I could get help.”
But help is a long wait. Nine game wardens patrol the basin, an area from Yellowstone National Park in the west, the Montana state line to the north, the Big Horn Mountain Range in the east and Boysen Dam to the south.
“You never have backup and if you do call someone, they’re at least an hour away,” he said.
Next stop, Roach Gulch Reservoir and then down a rutted and slippery double track called Fifteen Mile Road to Whistle Berry Hill. Werbelow knows the trails near Meeteetse well but warns that it could become a very long day. He has spent hours in the muck trying to get his truck out of a hole or to change tires. Much of his travels are well out of cell range.
Before heading down Fifteen Mile road, Werbelow came across Jake Brown, a damage technician for the Game and Fish. Brown spends most of his time chasing elk, deer and antelope out of private fields and working with landowners to correct damage made by wildlife — the same job Werbelow had when he started with the department. Brown asked for directions and for trail conditions. By the end of the day, Brown was on the phone to Werbelow asking for help with a broken truck.
Even if there is a cell signal, the last thing a game warden wants is the ribbing that comes when co-workers are called to assist a stuck colleague.
“You don’t ever want to call another game warden for a pull because there’s going to be lots of pictures,” he said.
Since he was a kid, Werbelow has wanted to be a game warden. His father was a poacher, according to Werbelow, and that was partially responsible for him going into the field.
“People say to me, ‘Your father was the biggest poacher in the state and now you’re the warden,’” he said with a laugh.
Werbelow’s father died when he was a young boy and fortunately he had role models who taught him hunting skills and ethics.
Later dissuaded from following his dream of being a game warden by a school adviser — who warned of very few jobs — Werbelow wound up with a teaching degree from Chadron State and went to work as a teacher and coach. But he couldn’t give up on his dream.
Eventually, after several attempts, he was allowed to take the game warden test. More than 450 applied that year, 150 were allowed to take the test, 52 passed the test, 23 were interviewed and Werbelow finished in the top 10. The process took months, but he still didn’t get the job. The following year, Werbelow tried again and finally earned his dream job. Some candidates spend five years just in the testing process.
“If you want something bad enough you can do it,” he said.
Only about a third of a game warden’s time is spent out on patrol. The bulk of a warden’s duties involve wildlife management, making contact with sportsmen, landowners and outfitters and dealing with wildlife damage and conflicts. But during fall, the red shirts will be on the road looking for scofflaws and for those in need of help.
“It’s all hands on deck during hunting season,” Werbelow said.
Editor's note: This version removes incorrect information about the location of the Continental Divide.