Few jobs in the state are as iconic as a Wyoming game warden. They’re the law enforcement arm of the Game and Fish Department, also known as “red shirts.” These men and women …
Few jobs in the state are as iconic as a Wyoming game warden. They’re the law enforcement arm of the Game and Fish Department, also known as “red shirts.” These men and women aren’t just there to check your fishing or hunting license. Most are biologists who have cross-trained for law enforcement — complete with a gun on their hip. They also need to be well-versed in public relations.
Powell-area game warden Jordan Winter often travels the backcountry mountain ranges north of town. Senior game warden districts range from 1,000 square miles up to 4,400 square miles (the Rock Springs District). They average about 1,800 square miles per warden, much of it inaccessible with a company-issued truck. Not all districts call for horses, but those that do compensate wardens for the use of their horses in the same way a company might pay mileage on a personal vehicle used for business purposes. Winters patrols a four-horse district.
Besides having graduated from the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy, Winter has a degree from the University of Wyoming in wildlife and fisheries biology management. He works with biologists on multiple projects, from fisheries to large carnivore programs. Yet, no matter what he’s doing, he starts each duty with one credo: “Be kind.”
“You can write a ticket and be kind. You can, if the violation is bad enough, take their equipment and be kind. You can arrest somebody and still be kind,” he said.
There are some situations where Winter needs to be more authoritative. Cases of poaching or driving drunk in a boat can test his patience, but he tries to stick to his public relations guns regardless of the situation.
“I still feel like you can be kind in the way that you do it,” he said.
Winter started his career with Game and Fish as Cody Region access coordinator. The job is also a law enforcement position. There are 51 game warden districts in the state and five access coordinator positions. The problem for the state is keeping wardens and coordinators with the department.
Competition for employees
They are highly sought after employees, and there’s a war being fought for their services by many state and federal agencies, as well as private companies. To win a war you need sound strategies; the more competition there is the more aggressive you have to be. Game and Fish officials are playing to win, starting recruitment in schools and continuing after employees have been hired with aggressive retention programs. Once they get a good employee, they take retention very seriously, said Rick King, chief of wildlife and chief game warden for the department.
Unfortunately, eight game warden positions are vacant while the department looks for replacements and one access position is open — the one left vacant when Winter was promoted.
Previously a wildlife-related biology degree was required. But with several openings for senior game wardens within the 51 districts — and due to the stiff competition for the highly trained prospective students — the department has softened its requirements a bit and doubled down on nationwide searches for qualified candidates. Instead of insisting on wildlife-related biology degrees, the department now only requires 20 hours of “wildlife-related” coursework.
“It’s really important for us right now,” King said during the September commission meeting in Gillette. “We currently have eight senior district vacancies in the state. A couple of those have been open for way too long. It’s pretty frustrating for us.”
Game wardens at the department are well-paid positions. Entry level game wardens make $5,000/month ($60,000 annually) and senior game wardens make around $6,200/month ($74,400 annually). State employees did receive a raise in 2022 and again in 2023.
“I appreciate the governor and the Legislature providing these raises — it should help recruit and retain game wardens,” King said.
But other agencies, especially federal, as well as private industries, can offer higher pay and the department sometimes loses its employees. Considering the size and range of the job, recruiting, training and retaining game wardens is a priority for the department. Even at full staff levels, the department needs more, King said.
“Just using the geographic area of responsibility as a metric, yes, we have too few game wardens,” he said. “When you consider other metrics, such as the scope of responsibilities and our agency’s strong desire to meet the expectations of our constituents, yes, again, we have too few game wardens.”
So far this year, the department has hired seven entry level game wardens; two are in the field training program, three are attending the law enforcement academy and two will be attending the academy in January. Three of the seven are female candidates, who will join five women already on the job.
The work is diverse — no two days look alike for a game warden. The job is full of challenges — there is no such thing as a mundane day in the life of a red shirt. They get paid to talk to people who have as much passion for wildlife as they do.
“I like to quote Teddy Roosevelt when talking to our newly hired game wardens ... ‘far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing,’” King said. “For me, that sums it up pretty well — it is work worth doing.”
To get an early start on recruitment, Game and Fish encourages students interested in a career as a game warden to volunteer for their programs or to take seasonal jobs within the department while seeking an education. It’s a simple test that will, over time, answer the tough questions: Do I have what it takes to be a game warden, including physically, mentally and being capable of great flexibility?
Volunteering with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is a great way to learn and support conservation while enjoying the outdoors. Volunteers can “help conserve and support Wyoming’s wildlife and their habitats for future generations to enjoy,” the department says in its volunteering brochure.
King suggests some introspection regarding students’ motivation.
“Many envision a career working independently with wildlife in wild places and the job certainly entails all of those things,” he said. “It also entails long hours and irregular and unpredictable schedules, dealing with difficult, often irate individuals and challenging circumstances. And the work can be tough to get away from — in many communities, you are the local game warden 24/7 whether you are wearing your red shirt or not.”
An honest self-assessment is important. Does your passion for wildlife and your desire to serve people run deep enough to approach this as a career and not just a job?
If so, pursue a college degree and seek out relevant work experience along the way, King said.
To quote former Chief Game Warden Jay Lawson, “People don’t just happen — they construct their lives.” The candidates who are successful in Game and Fish Department hiring process are those who have set a goal to become a game warden and then go about building up their knowledge, skills, and abilities to achieve that goal. They are also honest in their personal assessments in all aspects of the job — especially dealing with the public, he said.
“I tell our new employees that working with wildlife is easy, working with people is a little more challenging. In order to accomplish anything good for wildlife, you have to be able to work with people.”
And every day, the best way to deal with people is to start with kindness.
“We are so fortunate in Wyoming,” King said. “The wildlife resource, landscape, and people of this state have no equal. We are unique, our resource is unrivaled, and the interest in wildlife among the people who live and recreate in the state is unmatched.”
For a list of current volunteer opportunities, visit its volunteer project catalog at wgfd.volunteermatters.org/project-catalog or call the Cody Region office at 307-527-7125.