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Conservation Officer: Career Guide

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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.

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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:

  • Licenses
  • 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:

  1. Acquire the education and/or experience needed for the conservation officer job for which you are applying.
  2. Complete a training program offered by the state (optional).
  3. Apply for a conservation officer job.
  4. Undergo a background check.
  5. Take and pass a drug test.
  6. Take and pass a physical fitness test.
  7. Take and pass a polygraph examination.
  8. Be interviewed for the position.
  9. Be hired as a conservation warden.
  10. Get on-the-job training once hired.

Conservation Officer Job Training

The training required for this job 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. Those looking to work as conservation officers with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will complete 31 weeks of training at the Warden Academy, followed by 10 weeks of field 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 cars, trucks, or boats – 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 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the approximately 6,040 fish and game wardens employed in the United States earned an average annual wage of $59,260 in 2017.1 The BLS does not provide job projections for conservation officers, although 6% job growth in the similar career of conservation scientists and foresters is expected through 2026.2 Employment opportunities will depend on local and federal government budgets and vacancies due to retirements.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are there any dangers to conservation officers?

    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.

  • What type of hours do conservation officers typically work?

    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.

  • What are the typical working conditions for conservation officers?

    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.

  • Are there any continuing education requirements?

    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.

Additional Resources

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2017 Occupational Employment and Wages, Fish and Game Wardens: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes333031.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Conservation Scientists and Foresters: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/conservation-scientists.htm

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