For young people who are thinking about a future career, Game Warden is probably not among the top options that spring to mind. The duties of game wardens are poorly understood, the job is not celebrated for high pay, and game wardens never become pop culture idols.
Still, officers who do this work love it. And last week, they gave 20 youth from Southwest Pennsylvania a hands-on introduction to the job of game warden (aka “conservation warden”) at Junior Game Warden Camp offered by the Pennsylvania Game Commission at the Southwest Region Agency’s office in Bolivar , Westmoreland County.
The day started promptly at 8:30 am, exactly as scheduled, with the young participants donning bright orange Operation Game Thief hats emblazoned with the words “Paid for by a PA poacher.” So dressed, they took their places in orderly rows in the meeting hall and then turned their attention to a row of green-clad speakers at the front.
It didn’t take long for the group to accept the expected response to questions: “Sir, Yes Sir!”
After singing the national anthem together – who knew game wardens could sing? – and some brisk physical fitness exercises outside, the children split into two groups of 10, each led by a supervisor. Each squad went through a series of learning stations manned by different wardens to expose the campers to situations that game wardens might encounter and the skills and knowledge the officers use in each.
“We’re trying to give kids a deeper understanding of what we’re doing here,” said Seth Mesoras, the Game Commission’s Southwest Region information and education officer and former Cambria County game warden. “We want them to learn the importance of preserving wildlife through law enforcement, research and habitat conservation, but also that game wardens are not their enemies.”
This last point was evident in all the overseers’ genuine enthusiasm for working with the children and the group work skills they used to stimulate critical thinking. Squads received forensic lessons at the scene and outdoor simulations that included investigating a bait site and interpreting human footprints – who would have thought there was a lost person behavior manual? — Trapping wild animals for research, K-9 search for evidence and outdoor survival.
Campers seemed naturally adept at the footprint/tracking exercise, perhaps because young people today know more about shoe fashion. Each camper was asked to walk across a sandy surface while the others in the group had their backs turned. Then the group had to identify which tracks were made by each camper.
“It’s Dom’s lead. He wears Crocs,” exclaimed Greg Williams from Blairsville.
“It’s very sharp,” noted Warden Brian Witherite, Somerset County. “Greg took information he already had from everyday life and used that to narrow it down. Nothing wrong with that.”
The endurance of the campers was also impressive. The day was hot, under the unrelenting sun. Everything but the forensic lecture and lunch took place outdoors. Not a single whine or complaint was raised throughout the day. The kids seemed to take cue from their mentors, who were clad in full field gear and unfazed by the heat.
“It takes a lot of staff to set up a camp like this,” Mesoras said. “We had to move about half of our total regional field force here for the day, but they wanted to be a part of it and our goal is to run a more intensive 3-day camp in the years to come.”
One thing the campers weren’t aware of is that a growing number of guards today are women. Circumstances that day made only male officers available as camp instructors, but the game warden ranks are no longer all male.
The campers were impressed that their job involves more than apprehending wildlife violators. They enthusiastically learned how wardens use rocket nets to trap wild turkeys for research and resettlement projects, and they all showed natural dexterity with tranquilizer dart guns, which wardens use to safely handle troublesome bears.
“When I was in second grade, a warden brought a drugged bear into our class, and ever since then I’ve wanted to be a game ranger, so I didn’t want to miss this camp,” said Seth Boring of the Marion Center. Indiana County.
“My mom told me about it and I thought it would be cool,” said Addison VanHorn, also of the Marion Center. “Although I like being in the woods, I’ve never hunted before, but I’ll probably try now.”
After outdoor survival training with a fire-making contest similar to the contestants on the Survivor TV show, the squads regrouped indoors.
“We asked you this morning to band together and function as a team, but also think individually and critically,” said Beaver County warden and squad leader Matt Kramer. “You did it and we are proud of you.”
At the end of the camp, Mesoras explained the history of the warden’s work within the wildlife commission.
“In 1895, you could walk out the door and just photograph whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted,” Mesoras said. “There were no wildlife protection laws and no one would have enforced them if there were laws. But people who cared got together and formed the Pennsylvania Game Commission to preserve wildlife for future generations, and now you know more about how it’s done.
“One of the advantages of this job is that there is no such thing as a routine day. We never know what we’re dealing 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.