Becoming a Conservation Officer

A conservation officer is charged with protecting natural resources, promoting recreational safety, and enforcing environmental protection regulations and laws. Those who enjoy working outdoors and would like a job that doesn’t keep them in a traditional work setting may enjoy becoming a conservation officer. It can be a physically demanding job, and it may even be dangerous, but it can be very rewarding, too. While conservation officers work across the country, their duties can vary greatly. Some can go into specialized areas, while others may be promoted into supervisor positions that do focus more on office work.

What is a Conservation Officer?

A conservation officer shares a number of duties with wildlife officers and fish and game wardens. In fact, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in some places. A conservation officer is a trained and licensed law enforcement officer who is charged with upholding laws, protecting nature, and helping those in need. Some conversation officers work for a state government and patrol specific areas within the state, while others work for the federal government and may work in a larger, multi-state region. At the state level, most work under the Department of Natural Resources or a similarly named department.

A conservation officer may work in state parks and nature reserves or may patrol wetlands, lakes, rivers, beaches, and other areas. They may focus on wildlife protection and nature conservation, environmental crime, or another specialty.

Conservation Officer Job Description and Major Duties

The duties of a conservation officer differ depending on where they work. A conservation officer’s duty to uphold the law and to provide assistance to those in need is a very broad job description, and it can be narrowed down to more specific responsibilities.

  • Law Enforcement – A conservation officer is authorized to enforce all laws and regulations within the jurisdiction of their state in addition to the gaming, conservation, and recreational regulations that are specific to their job. As a certified law enforcement officer, they are have the power to write citations, issue fines, and arrest people who violate the law.
  • Surveillance – Conservation officers may conduct surveillance in order to identify violations and catch the violators who are breaking the law. This is especially true of situations involving poaching, or hunting and fishing in environmentally sensitive areas.
  • Search and Seize – They can also search vehicles with probable cause and seize evidence when necessary. Conservation officers are trained in how to preserve evidence, including how to handle biological evidence and how to use digital photography to record evidence from crime scenes.
  • Investigate Complaints – Conservation officers may be asked to investigate complaints such as pollution, animal attacks, illegal hunting, and more. Any issue that involves wildlife or nature can be handled by a state or federal conservation officer.
  • Conduct Safety Courses – Like game wardens, conservation officers are charged with conducting safety training courses for hunters. They also hold safety and training workshops on recreational vehicle use. They may teach the courses themselves, or they may recruit and train volunteer instructors.
  • Write Reports and Complete Administrative Work – Some conservation officers are in charge of putting together reports detailing the changes that have occurred in the area or doing administrative work.

Where Do Conservation Officers Work?

Conservation officers work outdoors in a number of environments, including parks, mountains, forests, beaches, and other areas. At the state level, they may be assigned to a particular region, a county, or to the entire state. Federal conservation officers may work in a certain region, group of states, or travel the country. There is, of course, some indoor work for conservation officers. Those who host educational or training programs will spend time indoors putting together the training courses and teaching them.

Working Conditions

Work is primarily outdoors. Unlike some outdoor employment, conservation officers are generally outdoors in all types of weather, including heavy rains, snow, and heat. Conservation officers often work alone, and depending on the needs of the department, may work overnight, on weekends, and on holidays.

Conservation officers need to be physically fit and prepared to lift heavy objects and people. They may also need to be prepared to swim, provide CPR, and even handle wounded or scared animals.

Most conservation officer positions today require a bachelor’s degree. For some entry-level positions, an associate’s degree may be acceptable, but those positions are becoming harder and harder to find.

There are a number of different fields you can pursue if you want to become a conservation officer. Some study areas such as biology, geology, wildlife sciences, and ecology. A degree in one of these fields will be helpful for conservation officers who want to focus on fish and wildlife or on conserving natural habitats.

On the other hand, those who want to focus more on law enforcement and safety may want to go into areas like criminal justice or police sciences. These conservation officers will spend more of their time at work patrolling and interacting with people who may or may not be breaking the law.

Both types of conservation officers will be authorized to carry weapons and will have to go through a gun safety course. No matter which area you want to focus on, you’ll need to know how to do some work from the other. For example, even conservation officers who focus mainly on working with wildlife will need to know the laws and how to make arrests, while those who do more with patrolling and law enforcement will need to be able to identify animals and their habitats.

In addition to education, there are a number of different skills that are useful to have as a conservation officer. You should enjoy working outdoors and with animals. You’ll also need to have good written and verbal communication skills, be a very good observer, be able to pay attention to details, and know how to take charge of a situation.

You’ll also need to be in pretty good shape because being a conservation officer does involve having the stamina to patrol on foot for a good amount of time. Those who know how to drive all-terrain vehicles and have knowledge of hunting may also have an edge. Knowing how to swim and how to perform basic first aid is helpful as well.

In some states, you also need to complete a peace officer training course. This course will provide you with a certified peace officer’s license that shows you have been trained to handle firearms. In other states, this training is included in your conservation officer training after you’re hired. Check with the specific state or federal department you’re applying with to see if peace officer training is required.

Conservation Officer Exam- Entrance, Testing and Training Requirements

Before you can become a conservation officer, you have to pass a qualifying exam. This exam, which is usually the Civil Service Commission Exam, is often required of anyone applying to the Department of Natural Resources or other state departments. You will also need to complete a job-fit questionnaire and, if you move forward in the process, pass a physical exam. This exam includes a medical, hearing, and eye exam plus a psychological review.

Once you have been hired as a conservation officer, you will need to go through a training program. This program can be anywhere from 6 to 12 months long, depending on the state and what the training involves. In all cases, it will include a firearms education and training course. This course will teach conservation officers how to use firearms and will, at the end, certify them to carry a weapon.

The different courses will also go over wildlife management, environmental law, specific regulations to the state or area in which you will be working, and more. Training on how to drive ATVs, boats, and other vehicles may also be included.

In many cases, the training done at an academy or other facility will be followed up by field training. Here, new conservation officers will be paired up with veterans to learn more about working in the field. This hands-on training also often includes specialized instruction in working in the particular area where the officer will be stationed.

Important Resources

Most states have a state association for conservation officers that is open to any officer in that state. These associations provide training opportunities, host conferences, and provide information to members.

There are also several national organizations who provide support in the form of professional development, advocacy, training, networking opportunities and important information on current issues impacting the field. A list of notable organizations is provided below:

Associations/OrganizationsContact Information

North American Wildlife Officers Association

P.O. Box 7
Leaf River, IL 61047

California Wildlife Officers Foundation

C/O Blum & Tripp, CPA's, 480
Lytton Ave. Suite 4
Palo Alto, CA 94301

Wyoming Game Warden Association

950 22nd Street North, Suite 765
Birmingham, AL 35203

Federal Wildlife Officers Association

P.O. Box 144
Washington, KS 66968