For young people contemplating future careers, “Game Warden” is not likely among the top choices that spring to mind. Game warden duties are poorly understood, the job is not acclaimed for high pay, and game wardens never become pop culture idols.
Still, officers who do that work love it. And last week they gave 20 adolescents from around southwestern Pennsylvania a hands-on introduction to the game warden (also known as “conservation officer”) profession at the Junior Game Warden Camp offered by the Pennsylvania Game Commission at the agency’s Southwest Region office in Bolivar, Westmoreland County.
The day began at 8:30 a.m. sharp, exactly as indicated on the schedule, with the young participants donning bright orange “Operation Game Thief” caps, emblazoned with the words “Paid for by a PA poacher.” So attired, they took seats in neat rows in the assembly hall, then focused their attention on a series of green-clad speakers at the front.
It didn’t take the group long to embrace the expected response to questions: “Sir, Yes Sir!”
After a group-sing of the National Anthem — who knew game wardens could sing? — and some brisk physical fitness drills outside, the kids split into two squads of 10, each led by a warden. Each squad cycled through a series of learning stations, manned by different wardens, designed to expose campers to situations game wardens might encounter, and the skills and knowledge officers employ in each.
“We’re trying here to give kids a more in-depth understanding of what we do,” said Seth Mesoras, Game Commission Information and Education supervisor in the Southwest Region, and former game warden in Cambria County. “We want them to learn about the importance of conserving wildlife through law enforcement, research, and maintaining habitats, but also that game wardens are not their enemies.”
That last point was evident in every warden’s sincere enthusiasm for working with the kids, and the groupwork skills they used to stimulate critical thinking. The squads got classroom instruction in crime-scene forensics, and outdoor simulations investigating a bait-site, interpreting human footprints — who knew there’s a Manual of Lost Person Behavior? — capturing wildlife for research, K-9 search for evidence, and outdoor survival.
Campers seemed naturally adept in the footprint/tracking exercise, perhaps because young people are more aware of footwear fashion today. Each camper was asked to walk across a sandy surface, while the others in the squad turned their backs. Then, the group had to discern which tracks were made by each camper.
“That’s Dom’s track. He’s wearing crocs,” shouted Greg Williams of Blairsville.
“That’s very sharp,” noted warden Brian Witherite, Somerset County. “Greg took information he already had from day-to-day living and used that to narrow it down. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
The campers’ endurance was also impressive. The day was hot, under relentless sun. Everything except the forensics talk and lunch was outdoors. Not a single whine or complaint was uttered all day. The kids seemed to take a cue from their mentors, dressed in full field-gear, unphased by the heat.
“It takes a lot of personnel to put on a camp like this,” Mesoras said. “We had to pull about half our entire regional field force in here for the day, but they wanted to be part of this, and our goal in future years is to run a more intensive 3-day camp.”
One thing that was not obvious to the campers is that a growing number of wardens today are women. Circumstances that day made only male officers available as camp instructors, but the ranks of game wardens are no longer male-only.
Campers were impressed that the job is about more than apprehending wildlife violators. They learned with enthusiasm how wardens capture wild turkeys with rocket nets for research and relocation projects, and they all showed natural skill in handling tranquilizer-dart-guns wardens use to safely manage nuisance bears.
“When I was in second grade a warden brought a tranquilized bear to our class, and I’ve wanted to be a game warden ever since, so I didn’t want to miss this camp,” said Seth Boring, of Marion Center, Indiana County.
“My mom told me about this, and I thought it would be cool,” said Addison VanHorn, also of Marion Center. “Even though I like being out in the woods, I’ve never gone hunting but I will probably try it now.”
After outdoor survival training featuring a fire-making competition much like contestants on the Survivor television show, the squads reassembled indoors.
“We asked you this morning to team up and function as a team, but also to think individually and critically,” said warden and squad leader Matt Kramer, Beaver County. “You’ve done that, and we are proud of you.”
Summing up at the camp’s conclusion, Mesoras explained the history of warden work within the Game Commission.
“Back in 1895, you could walk out your door and just shoot whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted,” Mesoras said. “There were no laws protecting wildlife, and no one to enforce them had there been laws. But people who cared got together and formed the Pennsylvania Game Commission to conserve wildlife for future generations, and now you know more about how that’s done.
“One of the benefits of this work is there is no such thing as a routine day. We never know what we will deal with when we leave our office.”
Families with young people who might enjoy Junior Game Warden Camp should follow the Game Commission’s Facebook page and website (www.pgc.pa.gov) for future opportunities.