POST Academy and Wildlife Officer Field Training for Game Wardens

The call was the first one to come in that day. The squawk of the radio was thin in the cab of Vermont game warden Mike Scott’s truck. It was barely warmed up yet but there was even more of a chill in the dispatcher’s voice.

“Can you respond to Blueberry Point on Lake Willoughby? Fisherman on ice heard yelling for help. Caller can't see him.”

The lake was eight miles away down a twisty two-lane road, but Scott covered it in eight minutes flat. He knew the lake well, knew the ice was thin on that January morning in 2017, and he knew many of the fishermen out on it.

One of them had gone in.

Scott had never performed an ice rescue before, but he carried a float suit and rope in the rig and—more importantly—had been trained how to use them. He wriggled into the suit and set off along the lone set of tracks leading out onto the lake that morning without hesitation.

Unfortunately, the fisherman had been in too long already—Scott was able to pull him out and paramedics administered CPR… but tragically, it was too late.

The unsuccessful rescue attempt stands as a painful reminder of the dangers of winter recreation, but also exemplified how training allowed a warden who had never performed an ice rescue to arrive at the scene and check off every step in the protocol without a second thought … and without a single wasted second. Time was the enemy of this drowning victim before Scott had even arrived at the scene, but based on witness reports Scott can be sure he did everything possible– and he did it in the shortest amount of time possible.

The ice rescue training Scott received had allowed him to act quickly and recover the victim without becoming a victim himself—the first rule of rescue.

Wardens across the country deal with similar emergency situations every day, and similar training keeps them safe in all kinds of scenarios, from rescues to arrests to animal capture.

Game Warden Training is Police Training… on Steroids

The vast majority of training hours a new game warden will have to put in will be to meet POST requirements (Peace Officer Standards and Training) in their state.

Wardens are responsible for enforcing fish and game laws and they are certified as fully-fledged law enforcement officers with the ability to enforce all laws in their jurisdictions. Consequently, they are required to go through the same standard training as any other police officer in the state.

POST Training with State Police Academies

This training is usually defined by state POST standards, which dictate the topics, class hours, and minimum qualifications for each candidate. These standards cover a broad variety of subjects, including:

  • Constitutional law and the history of policing
  • State laws and legal procedure
  • Firearms training
  • Tactical driving
  • Arrest and use of force procedures and standards
  • Conflict resolution
  • First aid
  • Interview and interrogation techniques

This training and testing is almost always performed at an academy. Students may be required to stay in barracks at the academy and eat on-site, their movements restricted and carefully managed until graduation. Courses typically last around three or four months.

In most states, wardens attend the same academy that other police officer candidates attend. State police agencies commonly run an academy that trains their own personnel, as well as new hires from municipal police departments, country sheriff’s offices and other agencies throughout the state that are too small to have their own academies.

Academy Training Specifically for Game Wardens

Some states have training academies specifically for wardens that have just been hired on with the state’s fish and wildlife agency, as is the case with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Game Warden Training Center and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Warden Academy.

These academies teach all of the POST standards, but also provide warden-specific training such as:

  • Animal handling
  • Terrain-specific vehicle and navigation (snowmobile, watercraft, or ATV training)
  • Search and rescue
  • Additional instruction on game laws
  • Species-recognition and information

Additionally, the POST training often has a warden-specific tilt, such as tactical considerations in hunting areas, or for self-defense in the water—arrests on small boats sometimes go bad.

Most of the folks game wardens will approach in the course of their day will be armed… whether with filet knives or hunting rifles. They will often be in groups and the warden will usually be alone. It’s the nature of the job, but it requires special training in officer safety and de-escalation tactics to handle those situations safely.

The additional instruction at warden academies also means they usually last longer than POST-only training, and can involve as much as eight months at the academy.

No matter what type of academy a state has, the experience is paramilitary in nature. Mandatory physical exercise and team-building are usually involved. Instructors must be addressed respectfully, and some sort of individual or group punishment system may be used to instill discipline.

States that do not have a separate warden academy may have a post-academy training program specifically for wardens to cover the specific job skills not handled in regular police training.

Training with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Perhaps surprisingly, this is also the approach taken for wildlife officers working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

All Federal Wildlife Officers and Special Agents with the USFWS go to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers in Glynco, Georgia, going through a 17-week (20-weeks for Special Agents) course alongside candidates from 91 other federal agencies.

Afterward, federal wildlife officers go on to an advanced wildlife officer training course at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia to complete their FWS-specific training. Here, they will take courses on wildlife laws, fire management, and job-specific topics such as dam safety, diving, watercraft operation, bear safety, and others.

Because the National Refuge system is so diverse, Wildlife Officers and Special Agents have to prepare for a degree of biodiversity and climate that most state wardens never have to deal with. The agency’s responsibilities for wildfire response and management also exceed those of most state wildlife agencies, which means that officers have to prepare to integrate with Incident Command System teams on active fires in their area.

A Lot of Training Happens On The Job

Graduation doesn’t end the training process; newly minted wardens usually enter a probationary period, where they will be paired with a training officer for valuable field training under the guidance of an experienced warden.

In many agencies this period extends for one year. For Wildlife Officers with the USFWS, the period is only 10 weeks; for Special Agents, it is 44 weeks.

Experienced wardens usually hang back and let the rookie take the lead, giving them a taste of what life will be like when there is no one else along with them.

This period allows an opportunity for additional instruction, but also evaluation. Supervisors want to see how new wardens hold up in field conditions, under the stress and uncertainty of real-world challenges.

But it’s not a pass or fail process. Trainers use opportunities created by rookie mistakes to hone the skills and teach new lessons that will last throughout their careers.