Referred to in some states as conservation officers or wildlife officers, game wardens typically serve state and federal agencies as commissioned law enforcement personnel tasked with everything from monitoring and managing wildlife populations to tracking and apprehending poachers.
State game wardens are employed through each state’s fish, parks and wildlife department, while federal game wardens are employed as special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency within the Department of the Interior.
Whether at the state or federal level, the path to becoming a game warden means meeting well-defined requirements specific to education and experience. Each state, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has its own job requirements and training protocols that interested applicants should become familiar with. Though specific requirements vary, most agencies maintain a set of standards similar to those described here.
Step 1. Meet the Minimum Requirements for Employment
Whether at the state or federal level, those interested in learning how to become a fish and game wardens should expect to be able to meet these basic requirements:
Minimum/maximum age requirements: Most state wildlife departments require candidates to be at least 21 years old, with all departments requiring candidates to be at least 18 years old. Individuals applying for federal game warden jobs through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must be between the ages of 21 and 36.
Valid driver’s license: Game wardens must be able to legally operate any type of motor vehicle, from a boat to an all-terrain vehicle to a truck, among others. Experience operating a boat or all-terrain vehicle is a plus. In all cases, a valid driver’s license is required, and a commercial drivers license can be beneficial.
No felony convictions and no misdemeanor convictions for domestic violence: Because game wardens are certified peace officers, they must be able to obtain and maintain firearms certification, which requires a clean criminal background and no felony or misdemeanor domestic violence convictions. Depending on the hiring department, candidates may need to submit to a background check and meet a number of other requirements with regard to criminal history.
United States citizenship: The majority of wildlife departments require individuals to be United States citizens, although some state wildlife departments allow candidates to be legal U.S. residents.
Physical and mental fitness: Becoming a conservation officer is physically and cognitively demanding, with all state wildlife departments, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, requiring candidates to complete a number of assessments. These usually include a physical fitness assessment, a medical evaluation, and a psychologically evaluation.
Step 2. Meet the Education and Experience Requirements
Nearly all state wildlife departments require the completion of some kind of formal education. Some departments require the completion of an associate’s degree (60 credit hours), although many require a bachelor’s degree at minimum. A few state wildlife departments accept experience in lieu of education.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prefers candidates who possess a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field.
Many individuals with aspirations of becoming a game warden choose to complete a degree program related to:
- Natural resource conservation
- Wildlife conservation
- Wildlife biology
- Environmental science
- Fish and wildlife management
- Criminal justice
It’s not uncommon for these types of programs to offer a combination of lecture courses, laboratory work and field experience.
For example, individuals who pursue a Bachelor of Science in Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences must complete extensive coursework in math, physical sciences, fisheries and wildlife, and biology.
Alternately, a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation often provides a multidisciplinary foundation in wildlife ecology and conservation biology, along with a solid framework in the sciences (biology and chemistry). Other coursework focuses on critical issues in the conservation of wildlife, biological resources, and the management and restoration of wildlife.
Step 3. Complete the Training Requirements
Meeting minimum requirements for employment and completing the pre-employment process is only the first step to becoming a fish and game warden. Training is an equally crucial step since it is key to preparing all new game wardens for the demands of the job, regardless of the department through which they are hired.
Federal game warden trainees must complete 20 weeks of basic training at the Federal Law Enforcement Agency in Glynco, Georgia. This program includes study and training in both criminal investigations and wildlife law enforcement, such as firearms training, crime scene identification, and electronic surveillance. Following the successful completion of basic training, all new federal game wardens must then complete 44 weeks of field training at their assigned duty station.
New game wardens at the state level can also expect to complete an extensive training program, although specific requirements vary from one state agency to the next. Many state wildlife department basic training programs last up to eight months, followed by additional extensive field training.
New game wardens in California, for example, must complete 31 weeks of academy training, followed by another 10 weeks of field training. In contrast, new game wardens in Georgia must complete an 11-week basic law enforcement training course, followed by 12 weeks of law enforcement training and then a six-month probationary field training period.