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Sports column by Matt Dickerson: The life of a Vermont game warden

When New Haven native Wes Butler graduated in 2010 from Paul Smith’s College, he had no intention of becoming a game warden. He earned a bachelor’s degree in fish and wildlife science in order to become a wildlife biologist. He concentrated on the wildlife half rather than the fisheries half for fear that a career in fisheries might spoil his lifelong passion for angling. But the most important thing was to be on the biology side of management, and not on the law enforcement side.
In hindsight, the choice to emphasize wildlife probably wasn’t a wise course, at least from a marketability standpoint. While there were a fair number of jobs in fisheries biology, there were far fewer in wildlife. In fact, for Wes there were none. So he took a job working for Middlebury College on the golf course and ski area. And though he kept looking for jobs in wildlife biology, he still didn’t consider law enforcement. Not until the summer of 2011 when Patrick Berry, Vermont’s commissioner of Fish and Wildlife and a Middlebury resident acquainted with Wes through the New Haven River Anglers Association — suggested that Wes, before completely dismissing the possibility, do a “ride-along” with one of the wardens in the area.
Wes consented, spending a day with Lt. George Scribner. And he loved it. So he did it again. And again. He did several ride-alongs over several seasons with Scribner and also with Specialist Dale Whitlock, getting a taste of a wide spectrum of warden activities. The more he saw, the more he was attracted to the job.
“It was eye-opening,” Wes says of the experience. “Even though wardens work in law enforcement, there is so much more to what they do than just trying to catch lawbreakers and issuing citations. I saw them involved in education, for example. Even when folks had broken the law, the wardens were trying to help them understand why what they were doing was unethical or illegal or dangerous. And they were very friendly.”
So, within the year, Wes had begun pursuing a job as a game warden. The problem was, these jobs are difficult to get. Vermont’s chief warden, Col. David LeCours, explained the competitive nature of the application process. When the state advertises an opening, there are typically more than 200 applicants from all over the country — even if there are only four positions. The pool of candidates have a full day of testing, first written exams on fish and wildlife knowledge, then the Vermont State Police Academy entrance exam, and finally the same physical fitness exams as the police academy to test minimum standards for running, pushups, sit-ups. body-fat, bench press, and swimming.
At each stage, roughly half the candidates are eliminated. Those who make it through the first day, which may be as few as 25, then have to return for an oral exam. The details of that exam were something of a trade secret, but LeCours did say what the main point was: “We are testing not just what they know, but also how they think.” LeCours will then take just the top 10 finishers of that oral exam, and he will personally do a final interview to select four who — pending background investigations — will be offered positions.
And at the start of 2013, one of those four candidates whittled down from almost 250 and offered a job as game warden with the state of Vermont was Wes Butler.
The process of becoming a warden does not stop with the application, however. Then the training begins: a full year process. It’s a rigorous training for an important job, Commissioner Berry explains. “Our wardens have full law-enforcement capability with the same training as police, but with all the additional training needed for the fish and wildlife side of the job.” And he adds, for emphasis, “Vermont has the highest participation rates in fish and wildlife activities in lower 48. We are second only to Alaska.”
Usually the training starts with five months at the police academy, where wardens undergo the same training as police officers. Then a month of daily classes in topics including biology, search and rescue, and report writing. The wardens in training then spend the rest of that first year doing one-month rotations with wardens around the state: their field training officers or FTOs.
Wes’ path was a little different as the June starting date of his new job did not coincide with a new session at the police academy. So he began with the month of warden classes, and is now in his third month of training with FTOs. He’ll do his police academy training later.
How is it going so far?
“I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” Wes said. He did qualify that, but only slightly. “It is hard work. But I really enjoy it. I wasn’t sure what to expect at first from the experienced wardens. But everybody has been extremely nice and supportive, and very willing to share their knowledge. I spend my days dealing with enjoyable and interesting people. I get to go hiking in the woods, and there are surprises every day. Every day is different.”
Both Commissioner Berry and Col. LeCours confirm the variety of work wardens do and the daily challenges they encounter. “Just the different hunting and fishing seasons and regulations — small game, bear, moose, archery, turkey, etc. — means the job changes almost daily with a wide variety of skills and knowledge needed,” explains LeCours. “The job is dynamic and the scope of knowledge you need is vast. To be good as a game warden, a foundation in these realms is important.”
And Berry notes, “It is an incredibly diverse job. Game wardens may have a regular patrol with respect to hunting and fishing. Then additionally they handle snowmobile, boating and ATV enforcement. Being out in the woods, they could also come into contact with drug enforcement issues. And they can be pulled in on search and rescue — and may be the best suited for that because of experience in woods and water. They do lots of community relations and outreach.”
And then Berry gets to the point that may have been the aspect of the job Wes had simply not been aware of. “It is a relationship-based job. Wardens focus tremendous amount of time on building long-term relationships, and that is important to effectiveness.” He then adds, “Game wardens work very hard, but they really love their job. They feel blessed to go to work every day doing what they do.
Three months into his new job, Wes confirms that. Not only does he love his job, but his love for fishing and the outdoors is growing rather than shrinking as he gets to taste a broader cross-section of Vermont. Wherever he goes he keeps a notebook of places he wants to return to. He has already ceased to think of this as a job. From his perspective, it has become a career. And a very desirable one.
As to what he was looking forward to in his new job? His answer was simple. “Tomorrow. And then the next day.”

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