Conservation Officer: Career Guide
Conservation officers (sometimes referred to as fish and game wardens) enforce state and federal laws protecting natural resources, mainly fish and wildlife. Conservation officers are police officers who are often certified to enforce other laws, such as motor vehicle laws and controlled substance statutes, within their jurisdiction. Conservation officers typically find employment with state or federal agencies. Experienced fish and game wardens, especially those who excel in their jobs, may earn advancement to supervisory or administrative positions or may be promoted to the position of field training officer.
Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks
Conservation officers observe hunters, fishermen, and trappers to ensure they comply with state and federal regulations. Fish and game wardens inspect:
- Bag (tag) limits
- Specimens collected
- Equipment used
- The methods used to collect game
- Vehicles and watercraft for compliance with state and federal laws
Officers generally also:
- Conduct educational programs on wildlife preservations
- Enforce state and federal statutes in campgrounds and parks
- Establish and protect the chain of custody of evidence collected during investigations of violations of fish and wildlife statues
- Prepare and present cases in court
- Work closely with other law enforcement agencies in cases involving multi-agency jurisdictions
Steps for Becoming a Conservation Officer
The minimum educational requirement to become a conservation officer or a game warden is an associate’s degree. However, many agencies now require a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, environmental sciences, or biology. Prospective officers must be familiar with state and federal statutes, must possess the ability to perform the duties of a sworn law enforcement officer, and must be able to conduct public presentations. Because these careers are mainly outdoors, they can be very physically demanding. Therefore, most agencies also require conservation officers to be in peak physical condition. Aspiring conservation officers generally must pass several tests, including physical and psychological exams. All candidates must be qualified to carry a handgun and must pass an extensive background investigation. The steps for becoming a conservation officer will depend on the employer, but in general, you should expect steps similar to the following:
- Acquire the education and/or experience needed for the conservation officer job for which you are applying.
- Complete a training program offered by the state (optional).
- Apply for a conservation officer job.
- Undergo a background check.
- Take and pass a drug test.
- Take and pass a physical fitness test.
- Take and pass a polygraph examination.
- Be interviewed for the position.
- Be hired as a conservation warden.
- Get on-the-job training once hired.
Conservation Officer Job Training
The training depends on whether you work for the federal government or the state. Officers hired by the federal government typically complete a 20-week training program, with the first 12 weeks taking place at the Federal Law Enforcement Agency in Glynco, Georgia. Trainees spend the remaining weeks in West Virginia. The training academy focuses on criminal investigations and wildlife law enforcement, including the proper use of firearms and identification of wildlife. Upon the successful completion of the training academy, conservation officers spend the next 10 weeks in the field under the mentorship of a Field Training Officer before moving to their assigned location. Individual states have their own requirements for training. Oklahoma, for example, requires all new hires to complete a 576-hour training program followed by six months of on-the-job training.
Other Helpful Skills and Experience
Conservation officers should be able to work independently. Individuals with the ability to fix mechanical issues with vehicles – whether a car, a truck, or a boat – may find those skills advantageous during the hiring process and in the field. Prospective fish and game wardens with previous experience with wildlife, including as a volunteer or in a paid job, may find it easier to secure employment in this career.
Possible Job Titles for This Career
- Conservation Officer
- Conservation Warden
- Environmental Police Officer
- Fish and Game Warden
- Game Warden
- Natural Resources Officer
- Wildlife Enforcement Officer
- Wildlife Officer
Conservation Officer Salary and Job Outlook
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the approximately 5,630 fish and game wardens employed in the United States earned an average annual wage of $54,970 in 2015.1 The BLS does not provide job projections for fish and game wardens, although 7% job growth in the similar career of conservation scientists and foresters is expected through 2024.2 Employment opportunities will depend on local and federal government budgets and vacancies due to retirements.
Interested in a career similar to a conservation officer? Check out these related careers:
- Criminal Investigator
- FBI Agent
- Fire Investigator
- First-Line Supervisor of Correctional Officers
- Fish and Game Warden
- Homicide Detective
- Narcotics Officer
- Police Officer
- United States Park Police
- US Marshal
- Victims Advocate
- Crime Scene Investigator
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Are there any dangers to conservation officers?
Answer: Yes. In fact, conservation officers can face even more dangers than police officers according to the North East Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs Association, because most of the individuals with whom officers have contact are armed. In addition, fish and game wardens often deal with wildlife, making them prone to animal bites, stings, and other potential injuries.
Question: What type of hours do conservation officers typically work?
Answer: Prospective fish and game wardens should be prepared to work a typical 40-hour workweek, although they may be required to work evenings, weekends, and holidays. Overtime may also be necessary.
Question: What are the typical working conditions for conservation officers?
Answer: There are no typical working conditions. Conservation officers should be prepared to work in different, sometimes extreme, weather conditions and in various terrains, such as forests, woods, deserts, and wetlands. Fish and game wardens spend the majority of their time outdoors.
Question: Are there any continuing education requirements?
Answer: Yes. Because officers enforce the law, conservation officers must be up to date with all changes in state and federal laws and regulations related to their work. Depending on the state, conservation officers may have to meet minimum continuing education requirements each year.
- International Game Warden Magazine – “The world’s leading magazine for conservation law enforcement.”
- North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association – A professional association for conservation officers in the United States and Canada, providing the latest news and resources.
- North East Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs Association – A professional organization for senior conservation officers and chiefs from the northeastern United States and Canada.
- The United States Fish and Wildlife Association – A national organization dedicated to protecting wildlife and to educating the public about wildlife conservation.
1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2015 Occupational Employment and Wages, Fish and Game Wardens: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes333031.htm
2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Conservation Scientists and Foresters: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/conservation-scientists.htm
3. North East Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs Association: https://www.necleca.org/
4. US Fish and Wildlife Service: https://www.fws.gov/northeast/refugelawenforcement/Interested.html
5. Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation: https://www.wildlifedepartment.com/careers/education.htm