In many regards California cannot be compared to any other state in the country, and this is undoubtedly true when it comes to its variety of natural wildlife resources and the amount of people who interact with them. The fact that California is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, as well as being the most populous state in the nation, while at the same time being home to 17 national forests, around 200 state parks, and 38 national wildlife refuges, all combine to make managing the state’s natural resources a huge responsibility.
California’s game wardens, also known as wildlife officers, bear this responsibility 24 hours a day all year long. From enforcing wildlife laws to ensuring recreation in the outdoors is safe, the state’s game wardens use the latest technology and methodology to get the job done right.
Learning how to become a game warden in California is an important first step all prospective wildlife officers must take.
Becoming a Game Warden with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Education Requirements – Candidates looking at how to become a fish and game warden in California can start by learning about the education requirements for these jobs.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife stipulates that applicants must:
- Have completed two years of college education in areas including or closely related to:
- Biological Sciences
- Law Enforcement
- Police Science
- Crime Scene Investigation
- Wildlife Management
Applying with the California Department of Wildlife – US citizens who are at least 18 years old with no significant criminal record may apply to become a wildlife officer with the California Department of Wildlife. To do this, candidates will need to monitor the Department’s Current Exam Bulletin for a wildlife officer exam announcement. This usually occurs once a year. Once this is posted, a State Examination Application (STD 678) may be submitted to:
California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Human Resource Branch Room 1217B, Attn: Exam Unit
1416 Ninth Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Applicants that meet the minimum requirements will be scheduled to take an exam testing the candidate’s understanding of a game warden’s duties and responsibilities, as well as their problem solving, writing, and reading abilities. The exams are usually scheduled annually in January.
Successful candidates will continue to be invited back to complete successive steps of the hiring process, which take about a year to complete in total:
- Chief’s interview
- Medical evaluation, including vision, sight, and drug tests
- Thorough background investigation, taking an average of three to four weeks to complete
- Psychological evaluation
- Physical ability test:
- 100-yard swim
- Aerobic capacity
- Arm, leg, and back strength
State Game Warden Training – Wildlife officer training takes place in two phases. First is the 31-week Fish and Game Warden Resources Academy. This constitutes the bulk of game warden training with an emphasis on law enforcement procedures, and includes:
- Recognition of hunting, fishing, and trapping gear
- Emergency vehicle operation
- Unarmed self-defense
- Firearms training
- Emergency Spanish
- Drug and narcotics enforcement
- Interrogation and interview techniques
Following completion of this academy is another 10 weeks with three different field training officers at sites across the state. It is during this period that new game wardens will put their freshly developed skills to the test under the supervision of an experienced wildlife officer.
Becoming a Federal Game Warden in California
Game warden positions at the federal level can also be an option for interested candidates. Because these positions are through the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the game warden requirements for employment are slightly different:
- Candidates are preferred who have a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice, Wildlife Management, or another closely related field
- Applications are made for these game warden jobs, known officially as Special Agents with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, through the federal employment website
- Applicants need to be between the ages of 21 and 36
The game warden training for these positions takes place over a two-step process. This begins with a 20-week basic training course in Georgia covering wildlife law enforcement and criminal investigations. This is followed by an additional 44 weeks spent with a field training officer on-location, where new game wardens will receive on-the-job training.
Federal game wardens can assist their state counterparts as requested and are especially important in federally managed areas and iconic tourist hot spots, including:
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Redwood National and State Parks
- Yosemite National Park
- Death Valley National Park
Working as a Game Warden in California
Game wardens in California manage the wildlife and those who enjoy the outdoors throughout the state, in areas including:
- Along 1,100 miles of ocean coastline and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams
- Among more than 1,000 native fish and wildlife species and 6,300 native plant species
- Monitoring over three million permits and licenses issued by the Department of Fish and Wildlife annually
- Patrolling three-quarters of the nation’s desert habitats
This also means enforcing wildlife laws for the sport fishermen who land more than 300 million pounds of commercial fish every year. Game wardens have had to lay the law down in several recent marine poaching cases:
- 13 suspects were arrested on charges relating to abalone poaching off Mendocino and Sonoma beaches. More than 100 game wardens participated in the operation which was the culmination of several weeks of surveillance.
- A Sacramento family of three was recently arrested for illegally selling sport-caught fish. Under California law, only commercial fishing enterprises are allowed to sell fish on the market. Poaching charges were brought after game wardens conducted a month of surveillance on the family.
- A San Francisco-area resident was recently sentenced to pay over $24,000 in fines and restitution fees after being convicted of shark poaching. The details of the man’s scheme involved selling young sharks over the internet, supporting a lucrative exotic pet market.
California Wildlife Officer Salary
Fish and game warden cadets, the newest wildlife officers of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, begin their careers with a salary of between $42,840 and $57,768. From there, fish and game warden salaries are as follows:
- Range A: $46,965-$62,844
- Range B: $56,004-$75,468
Wardens are eligible to move from Range A to Range B once they have met ONE of the following:
- Completed 24 months of experience in Range A
- Earned a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement, the biological sciences, or a closely related field AND completed at least two years of full-time paid law enforcement or technical fish and wildlife experience
- Completed at least 60 semester units of college with a concentration in law enforcement, the biological sciences, or a closely related field AND completed at least two years of full-time paid law enforcement or technical fish and wildlife experience
However, these salary ranges are only part of the compensation picture for California’s fish and game wardens. This is because many of these professionals earn additional monthly stipends, such as:
- General Recruitment and Retention: All wardens within the Department of Fish and Wildlife receive an additional stipend of $175 a month because of the difficulty of recruiting and keeping qualified workers.
- Geographic Recruitment and Retention: Wardens employed in specific counties designated as ‘high cost’ counties earn a monthly stipend of between $200 and $350 based on employee designation. Fish and game wardens in Range A earn a monthly stipend of $220, while fish and game wardens in Range B earn a monthly stipend of $300. High-cost counties include:
- Contra Costa
- Los Angeles
- San Diego
- San Francisco
- San Luis Obispo
- San Mateo
- Santa Barbara
- Santa Clara
- Santa Cruz
- Longevity: The Department of Fish and Wildlife rewards wardens with at least 17 years of service with a monthly stipend that’s determined by a percentage of their base pay:
- 17 and 18 years: 2%
- 19 years: 3%
- 20 years: 4%
- 21 years: 5%
- 22-24 years: 6%
- 25+ years: 8%
- Education: Wardens of the Department of Fish and Wildlife who hold a post-secondary degree or a POST certificate earn a monthly stipend. Those with an associate’s degree or an Intermediate POST certificate earn an additional $50 monthly, while those with a bachelor’s degree or Advanced POST certificate earn an additional $100 monthly.
These monthly differentials can result in a significant increase in salary for some fish and game wardens. For example, if a fish and game warden earns an annual salary of $50,000 but qualifies for the general recruitment and retention, geographic recruitment and retention, and education stipends, his or her annual salary could increase by $7,000 or more.
Salary and employment data compiled by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife – https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Enforcement/Career/Compensation. Figures represent accumulated data for all areas of employment for fish and game wardens. Data represents state salary ranges for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
Salary data accessed in July 2019.