[Game Warden Archives]


Author Pat Dunford

He only put off making a decision for one reason . . . so he could come in last . . .

The many changes occurring in government, federally and provincially, are significant to those who work in the public service. We can never really predict the outcome of a reorganization or forecast the result of an employee classification review. By the time you read this, life-altering decisions will have blown through plenty of public service territory in Alberta including the Department of Environmental Protection. The following story is about weighing anchor in a sea of change. A long time ago he worked in the shoe section of a department store. With a young wife who was pregnant and two youngsters underfoot, he knew leaving this job was a tough call to make. Nonetheless, he had to do it. He wanted to be a game warden and he was willing to do whatever it took to do it even if it would all be for nothing.

His boss didn't like the idea. He wouldn't consider giving time off to a young squirt employee just so he could go galavanting around the country. No, the boss's mind was made up. He just had to try for that job, no matter what. He recalled the difficulty he had trying to explain to his wife that he had quit his job to become a game warden. It took awhile but he finally found a senior person in the outfit who gave him a chance. It was all he had hoped for when they recruited him as a Fish and Wildlife officer.

After he landed the job, it really got tough. At $120 a month and $80 rent to pay, there wasn't much left for anything else. Thank goodness a nearby lake was full of fish and the daily limit was liberal.

He recalled that things were quite different in those old days. Many officers patrolled huge districts, often a hundred miles or more across. There were times when he would be away from home for days, sometimes weeks. His duties were dependent upon the time of year. He dealt with problem wildlife incidents, including investigating livestock lost to predators, catching problem bears and working beaver flood control (blowing up beaver dams with dynamite). He assisted biologists, monitored commercial fisheries and investigated poaching incidents.

In the early days, the officer who laid a charge often presented the Crown's case. The court often gave the officer significant recognition as an expert witness when physical evidence was introduced. Many lonely days and nights were spent far from civilization conducting roadside checks of hunters and fishermen or waiting out fish poachers or night hunters. There were innumerable missed meals, missed family birthdays and special occasions and emergency call-outs on days off. Most holidays were spent working.

He patrolled on horseback and by skidoo and other ATVs into isolated areas. These patrols took him far from the roads, checking trappers on registered traplines and contacting remote fishing and hunting camps. Boat patrols took him many miles from a dock. Sometimes horrible and dangerous weather conditions forced an emergency overnight stay in the middle of nowhere. Equipment could break down in isolated areas, often leaving him to his own resources. He remembered sleeping in his truck while stuck in a beaver dam. Many times he offered assistance when other agencies tried to locate a lost hunter or fisherman or had the task of dragging a lake or river for a drowning victim. All these duties were taken in stride. Only another game warden, or the spouse of one, could appreciate these responsibilities and the rarely mentioned strain they put on the officer's family life.

More than once he had escaped violent or potentially violent confrontations with suspects he had caught red-handed. Using his head was critical, for no game warden could rely on backup if he found himself in a tight spot. No type of technology could totally overcome the variety of situations, including weather and terrain, and make radio communications foolproof.

And then there were the inevitable accidents and close calls. He once nearly drove over a cliff while responding to a complaint. There was a bad accident on icy roads; an injury while operating a quad; a near-goring by a moose; a near-mauling by a grizzly. He had many close calls with black bears. These were not unusual incidents.

The violator had changed somewhat too. People were far more mobile than ever before and had better equipment by far. It took them much less time to reach what were once isolated areas. Roads and trails had opened up much of the previously inaccessible land. The strain on limited fish and wildlife resources was dramatic but sometimes good management made up for this. Deer hunting, for instance, was really never better than it is today. All in all, people were people, good and bad. There was little doubt that the compliance rates had improved though. It was far more common today to have people on his side than ever before, people who just wouldn't look the other way when they witnessed a violation.

He had seen the worst in people and the best. A very old lady had, while out walking, rescued an injured great blue heron, wrapped it in her shawl and carried it all the way back to her home. A man had risked his life to free a big bull moose from being caught in a fence. As an officer, he had helped many children by putting a picked-up baby robin back in its nest or returning a found gosling to its goose. He had talked to many landowners about wildlife and fish that needed protection. He spoke with ranchers about why a bear or cougar was seldom a problem. He told them that these creatures were their heritage and that of their descendants, and that respect for them brought out the best in people. He had talked to many classrooms of attentive children, many of whom had attitudes he cherished, with the ecology of the land at heart. He knew that they were the future. And then there were those family considerations. God bless the wife of the game warden. Patience was her virtue. He recalled the many times he had been suddenly notified of a transfer move, advising him he would have to relocate his family to another part of Alberta. Those moves were tough. In the last ten years transfer policy had softened, he thought, with far more consideration given to offering personal choices.

So, in the end he saw the system beginning to evolve. First it was gradual. He didn't know where the system was heading but he knew that change was going to occur. Sometimes small things such as uniform alterations caught his attention. There were significant moves involving reorganization in his department. He noticed it all. With all these changes to be questioned, he sometimes thought it was only dedication that kept him a game warden. But then again, he knew it was pride. He was still in charge of a district of thousands of square miles. When required, he dealt direct with several local governments in representing department interests. He was very well-known in his locale and was someone who people approached with their concerns. All the while he told himself that he was really there to uphold his responsibility to the wild resources. Being a game warden today still has its rewards and he still has far better things to do than selling shoes.

And now the winds of change were blowing even harder. He felt they were looking at him like some kind of hard case because he questioned the direction his department was taking. When promotions came up, his peers encouraged him to apply. They said he would have a good chance. They needed someone like him up there.

However, he knew he was a game warden and nothing more. Those young guys in the outfit didn't look too worried about the way things were going and it seemed likely that the world would always need a game warden. He decided they were right and that was why he had to make sure he came in last for the promotion. He decided he wasn't going to let anyone tell him his attitude was a liability. Yes, he would be around a while yet.

Author's Note: The text and events in this article are all true, but the officer is a fictitious character created from real experiences typical of many Alberta game wardens.

Pat Dunford is Vice President of the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Officers Association in Edmonton.