From an early age Johnstown-native Christopher Bence, 23, knew he wanted to be in law enforcement. He had the advantage of finding out what the career entailed from his father, a police officer at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Bence also loves the outdoors and is an avid hunter, trapper and fisherman. That’s one of the reasons he took elective classes in biology, ecology and the environment at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in criminology and homeland security.
“In my junior year, a game officer came into a biology class and spoke about the life of a game warden,” Bence said. “I was really fascinated and fell in love with the job.”
Shortly before graduating college in May of 2017, he applied for the position of game warden with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the year-long application process began.
On Feb. 23, 2019 Bence graduated from the Ross Lefler School of Conservation in Harrisburg. He received his game warden certification, badge and credentials.
Calling the academy a police as well as a conservation school, he said took law classes with a concentration on Title 34 game laws as well as the Title 18 criminal code. He also took habitat, wildlife, wilderness, wildlife disease and habitat classes and trained in defensive tactics, martial arts and fire arms. Field work outdoors included the study of trees, birds, wildlife and human tracking.
Before graduating from the academy, the recruits were given a list of counties with vacancies and encouraged to come up with a wish list of their top five choices. A friend who worked in Greene County told Bence how nice the area is. Through researching, Bence discovered it was both rural and beautiful.
“I didn’t want to relocate to an area that was highly populated and Greene County made my top five list,” he said.
Bence arrived in Waynesburg on Feb. 27, 2019 where he’s been living in a motel until he finds permanent housing. He said his first impression of the county was that it’s everything he’d hoped for.
“It’s breathtaking, beautiful and I love it,” he said.
Bence said the state is broken down into game districts and the counties are usually halved to form those districts. He is assigned to the western half of Greene County and splits supervision of the eastern half with the game warden assigned to the western half of Fayette County.
His duties as a police officer is to enforce all the laws of the state and focus on the Title 34 game laws. Typically, he said he does a lot of patrolling of the townships and state game lands with the motto “Protect that which can’t protect itself,” namely people and wildlife resources.
In the field, he’s required to wear his uniform, body armor, duty belt, badge and gun. As a sworn-in police officer, he can also serve as backup to the state and local police.
In addition to his enforcement responsibilities, he also leads educational events such as wildlife and hunting safety classes in schools and clubs. Because the educational aspect of his job is typically curtailed during hunting season, the optimal time for classes runs from February to September. Bence also said he’s open to those interested in riding with him to see what the life of a game warden or deputy game warden is all about.
According to Bence, since the inception of the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 1895, there have been fewer than 1,000 game wardens.
“The position is hard to get, and it’s a prestigious one,” he said.
After applying for the game warden position and taking a civil service test, Bence drove to Harrisburg for oral, physical, swimming and psychological exams. He also went through a thorough background check that gave him the necessary clearances. His final step was going before the Game Commission Board and its commissioner, who posed several scenarios Bence might face on the job.
As an example, Bence mentioned one scenario of receiving a dispatch call about a raccoon being held in a resident’s home, which is against Pennsylvania law. He had to explain to the board how he’d respond to the call, taking all the necessary steps like placing the animal in a cage and taking it to a veterinarian for rabies testing.
On March 4, 2018, nearly two months after applying, Bence got the word that he’d been accepted to the Ross Lefler School of Conservation in Harrisburg, adjacent to Game Commission headquarters. Given a list of things to bring along (a black shirt, black socks and khaki pants), he started 51 weeks of training along with 27 other recruits.
Issued a green uniform and black boots, he attended class five days a week. His day often started at 3 or 4 a.m. with physical training followed by detail, which he said were chores like cleaning latrines, sinks and showers, dusting and cleaning the classrooms, shoveling snow and sweeping sidewalks.
“We also had to make sure our beds were made correctly and tight and that we showered and shaved each day,” he said.
At 7 a.m., the recruits sat down to breakfast, which lasted no more than 20 minutes. By 8 a.m. they were in the classroom.
As part of one wilderness survival exercise, he spent two days and one night in the woods in winter with a piece of plastic and some string to make a shelter. He also had some flint, steel, cotton balls and petroleum jelly to make a fire.
At week 30, he was deputized and worked in the field for 10 weeks with three different game officers.
On weekends, he had Saturdays off, but had to report back to the academy by 9 p.m. Sunday evening.
“I like to say the training at the academy was the longest, shortest, worst and best year of my life,” Bence said. “I became good friends with my classmates. We spent long nights together studying for the law exams and ran seven miles together in the cold of winter.”
Those interested in becoming a game warden or wanting to schedule an educational session should phone 724-238-9523.