Where Does a Game Warden Work?
A select group of game wardens work as Federal Wildlife Officers and Special Agents for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where they police federally protected lands and investigate crimes related to poaching and natural resource theft. Still, most game wardens serve as conservation officers on state land where they enforce hunting, fishing and trapping laws as employees of a state “Department of Wildlife,” “Department of Natural Resources,” “Department of Fish and Game,” or similar agency.
Whether at the state or federal level, game wardens are almost always sworn police officers that patrol a jurisdiction that can span many hundreds of square miles of protected wilderness areas, parks, waterways, and wetlands. And in all cases, they work to protect and preserve wildlife and natural resources, ensure public safety, enforce hunting, fishing and harvesting laws and cultivate public interest in the outdoors.
Working Conditions and Settings
The daily life of a game warden is busy and rewarding. Often starting before sunrise, and potentially working late into the night, a game warden may perform very different tasks from one day to the next, in a wide array of working conditions.
What you can expect from a career in wildlife conservation:
- Your work will be primarily outdoors.
- You will have to work some nights, weekends, and holidays.
- You may have to work in dangerous conditions, including severe weather.
- Depending on the location, you may spend much of your day patrolling alone.
- Interaction with the public is expected, through community education programs, the issuing of hunting and recreational licenses, and citing individuals who violate gaming code.
- You may visit schools and other groups to make educational presentations.
- You may be required to testify in court.
- You will work with wildlife biologists, park rangers, and ecologiststo collect data on wildlife and natural habitats may be a routine part of your job.
A game warden may work a standard 9:00 am to 5:00 pm shift, but most officers do not have the luxury of working typical hours or a standard work week. Atypical hours are often required due to the nature of the job, which involves extensive travel while patrolling large areas, surveillance at odd hours, data collection early in the morning, and responding to unforeseen emergencies that include everything from tranquilizing a nuisance animal to search and rescue for a lost hiker.
It is very common for officers to patrol at night, on weekends, and on holidays when people are swarming to rivers, lakes and wilderness areas on hunting and fishing trips. Game wardens are also subject to the behavioral patterns of wildlife, which dictate when they can observe wildlife for the purpose of tracking population levels and health.
For example, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources recognizes that game warden careers “can be very disruptive to family life.” The Department also notes that “It is necessary that the officer’s family understand and support the idea that the job must come first.”
Daily Patrol Duties
A game warden’s primary duty is to patrol a defined area and make sure that wildlife regulations are enforced and natural resources are protected. This means that a majority of a game warden's day (or night) will be spent outdoors, either on foot, horseback, on an ATV, in a boat, on a snowmobile, or even in a plane, patrolling an area.
Game wardens may work alone or in teams. The geographic location, expected job duties, difficulty of the natural terrain, and the number of department staff members are just some of the factors that determine whether an officer works alone or with a team member.
For example, Oregon State Police Fish & Wildlife Division’s game wardens patrol solo—one trooper per patrol unit. Patrols that carry certain risks, such as boat, ATV, snowmobile, and horse patrols in wilderness areas, are normally done by two troopers.
Some game wardens may be responsible for an entire county, encompassing thousands of acres of land or coastline. For example, Nevada’s 34 game wardens patrol the state’s 110,000 square miles.
Game wardens patrol the land. This means that there may be days when they will patrol in 100 degree temperatures and days when they patrol in the freezing rain or heavy snow. Even in life-threatening weather conditions—blizzards, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and forest fires, for example—game wardens must be there to respond.
In addition to inclement, sometimes severe, weather conditions, game wardens may have to deal with other dangerous situations, including wrangling wildlife in need of rescue or rehabilitation. Though it isn’t common, these kinds of interactions put game wardens at risk of being bitten, scratched by scared or injured animals.
In some instances, game wardens may also deal with individuals breaking the law. These individuals may be armed and dangerous. Game wardens must be prepared to protect themselves, and exercise good judgment.
Administrative, Educational, and Legal Duties
In addition to working outdoors in their assigned territory (park, beach, mountain, etc.), game wardens must also complete administrative tasks, provide educational programming, and participate in the legal process.
Game wardens promote outreach programs that educate children and adults about gaming laws and regulations along with wildlife conservation and public safety issues. While some of these programs are offered in a visitor’s center or outdoors, others take place in schools, youth centers, and sporting clubs.
They may be asked to deliver educational programs at local schools, talk to high school or college students about becoming a game warden, and give presentations for local organizations like a 4-H group or herpetology society.
If the event they were involved in an arrest, game wardens may be required to appear in court to testify. In this case, they may spend anywhere from a day to several weeks working with the prosecution’s legal team and testifying in court.
Special Divisions: Criminal Investigations and Search and Rescue
Some fish and game wardens are part of specialized units that focus solely on criminal investigation or search and rescue missions. These wardens may work with canines, be a part of a scuba diving or aviation team, or serve in an emergency management capacity during severe weather and natural disasters. In these cases, their standard work environments may be very different from other game wardens.
For example, wildlife troopers in Alaska’s Department of Public Safety may apply for special assignments with the Wildlife Investigation Unit (based out of Anchorage), where they receive training to combat everything from poaching operations to crimes committed by or against commercial fisheries.
Wildlife officers with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service may earn promotions to specialized positions in canine units, aviation, dive teams, and field training.
Game wardens working in this capacity are often referred to service special agents. They investigate crimes ranging from wildlife smuggling to unlawful game hunting to illegal guiding operations. Their duties include:
- Collecting evidence
- Interviewing witnesses
- Interrogating subjects
- Conducting surveillance
- Planning raids
- Making arrests
- Preparing cases for court
Salary Expectations for Game Wardens with State Departments and the USFWS
The US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of May 2016, nationwide the average salary for game wardens working for state and local departments of fish and wildlife was $51,730:
- Average for wardens with state agencies – $55,590
- Average for wardens with municipal and county agencies – $49,550
The most experienced game wardens earning within the top 10 percent earned an average of $77,440.
Of course, national averages don’t offer much insight into what prospective wardens in different parts of the country can actually expect to earn. There are wide variances from state to state, which largely reflect the cost of living in different parts of the country and the differences in a warden’s defined role. As state employees with peace officer training and certification, game wardens are often paid in accordance with the salary schedule of state police officers.
In certain areas of the country, game wardens make significantly more than the national average. For example, the California Employment Development reports an annual, average salary of $74,329, as of 2017, with the top 10 percent earning an average salary of $93,765. According to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, fish and game warden cadets earned salaries within the range of $49,972-$67,704 in 2017.
Likewise, conservation officers in Illinois were among the top earners in the country, with a median annual salary of $91,542. The state’s most experienced wardens in the top 10 percent earned $101,214 on average. Entry-level salaries are equally impressive in Illinois, with new conservation officers here earning an average salary of $62,371.
However, in most parts of the country, salaries for game wardens are more reflective of the national average and the local cost of living. For example, entry-level wardens working for Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission earned a starting salary of $36,223, as of 2017, although this may be higher in some areas of Florida with a higher cost of living, such as Monroe County (Florida Keys), where the starting salary is $46,222.
In Arizona, top-earning game wardens with the Arizona Game & Fish Department may earn up to $71,564. Entry-level game wardens with the Department can expect to earn $33,435-$39,983.
Similarly, entry-level game wardens working for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife earned an average annual salary of $39,850, as of 2016. More experienced game wardens with the Department can earn up to $52,130.
Salaries with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
At the federal level, wildlife officers working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earn an annual base pay of between $39,858 (GL-5) and $65,286 (GL-9). However, depending on the area of the country, wildlife officers can earn significantly more based on locality pay.
Special agents, the plainclothes criminal investigators of the USFWS, start their careers at one of three GS (General Schedule) levels based on experience (ranges within each GS level reflect differences in locality pay):
- GS-7 $35,359 - $45,970
- GS-9 $43,251 - $56,229
- GS-11 $52,329 - $68,025
Once fully trained and established in their role, special agents are paid at the GS-12 level ($62,722 - $81,541), and have the opportunity to eventually progress to senior special agent status where they would be paid at the GS-13 level ($74,584 - $96,958).
All GL and GS salary amounts are current as of early 2017.
Benefits are often an important part of a complete compensation package for game wardens. For example, conservation officers through the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission can receive salary incentives of up to $130 per month for certain academic achievements or the completion of career development courses. Conservation officers here also enjoy a state-funded retirement package equaling 97 percent, as well as tuition-free college and group health and life insurance, of which two-thirds of the cost is paid by the state.
Game wardens and wildlife technicians through the Texas Parks & Wildlife receive benefits like longevity pay, merit salary increases, flexible benefits plans, and a 401K retirement plan.
In California, fish and game wardens working for the state receive compensating time off for all time worked over 40 hours per week, as well as a comprehensive fringe benefit package that includes vacations, holiday pay, sick leave, a retirement plan, and partially paid medical and dental insurance.
Wildlife officers with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service enjoy a wide array of federal benefits, including:
- Federal Employee Health Benefits
- Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance
- Flexible Savings Accounts
- Long-Term Care Insurance
- Supplemental Vision and Dental Insurance Program