COVID outdoor visits keep game wardens busy

Mark Davis, Powell Tribune photo Scott Werbelow, supervisor of game wardens in the Big Horn Basin, glasses a field near Meeteetse during a past hunting season. The pandemic changed the way Wyoming game wardens did business, both limiting public contact in outreach efforts, but also making them more busy as people have rediscovered the outdoors.

POWELL — On the lakes, rivers, in the woods, parks and the desert, business has been brisk. People are rediscovering the great outdoors, one of the positive developments from health officials’ recommendations to be socially distant amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

That’s kept Wyoming’s game wardens busy. 

Across the state, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s law enforcement officers logged more than 53,000 hours and documented just over 4,100 violations last year. 

Game wardens gave out 642 more written warnings, wrote 120 more citations and logged 785 more incidents in 2020 over the previous year. And they keep coming: By most counts, this will be a record year and, unlike most years, it will happen with very few foreign visitors. 

“While much of the world experienced COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders, curfews, and quarantines, the work of protecting Wyoming’s wildlife did not stop,” said Rick King, the department’s chief game warden. 

The department was forced to make decisions on how to proceed when the health orders came down. There was an early COVID outbreak in Lander, temporarily closing down that regional office, but other offices remained open. 

Many employees across the state were able to work from home; others were required to adopt new work rules that encouraged distancing. But with a significant increase in recreational activity, game wardens faced long hours, more contact with the public and bigger piles on their desks. 

The scope of enforcement work — ranging from aquatic invasive species to furbearers and large carnivores — is indicative of the challenge Wyoming’s game wardens face in their effort to protect Wyoming’s rich diversity of wildlife, King said. 

“I don’t know if it’s rediscovering outdoors, or just realizing that being outside hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and all that stuff is pretty good for the soul,” he said. “Our folks have been busy, for sure.” 

Game wardens in the Big Horn Basin travel longer and farther than any region in the state. In 2020, wardens in the Cody Region spent 8,546 hours in trucks and watercraft, traveling 97,512 miles; it’s more difficult to calculate miles in the saddle. 

The job has three equal parts: law enforcement, public outreach and wildlife management, said Cody Region Wildlife Supervisor Dan Smith. While hunting is mostly stable due to the limited number of tags available, the pandemic forced many changes to the way the department contacted the public. Both public and internal meetings moved online, hunter safety classes were canceled and events geared at sharing important information, like Bear Wise Wyoming and outreach efforts in schools, were mostly canceled. 

The Cody Region has 12 law enforcement officers, including nine district game wardens, one access coordinator, one game warden supervisor and one regional wildlife supervisor. They patrol from the Montana state line south to Boysen Reservoir and from Yellowstone National Park’s eastern boundary to the west slope of the Bighorn Mountains. 

Wardens investigated 386 violations within the region last year, issuing 186 citations and 182 warnings while investigating 18 cases in which a suspect was never identified. The most common citations were for hunting on private property without permission, failing to properly tag big or trophy game animals and fishing without a license. Officers in the Cody Region also spent time assisting neighboring wardens. 

Across Wyoming, the most common violations have not changed in recent years. For instance, fishing without a license is consistently the most common infraction; this is due to recreational anglers being the largest user group that game wardens contact in the field during the year.

Failing to stop at aquatic invasive species (AIS) check stations and failing to purchase an annual AIS permit were also in the top 10 violations. There were an additional 179 violations for failure to provide life jackets aboard watercraft. 

All told, the Game and Fish Department has about 80 commissioned officers covering more than 100,000 square-miles. 

“It leaves us spread pretty thin,” King said, but they don’t do it alone. For instance, staff in the field are assisted by office managers, biologists and lab personnel. 

“We continued to serve the public the entire time,” King said. “Our office managers … really they were rock stars.” 

The pandemic also challenged the department’s training program, restricting the amount of hands-on training, King said in the 2020 Law Enforcement statistics report. 

Law enforcement officers must qualify with duty handguns, rifles and shotguns twice a year. They’re also required to demonstrate proficiency with non-deadly force weapons and core skills used for self defense and controlling suspects, such as handcuffing and takedown techniques.

Officers completed their qualifications as required — sometimes turning to online resources — but had to forego some additional training they do in a typical year, King said. 

“We really couldn’t stop our work. We just had to keep going, keep doing what we do,” he said.

King said game wardens had to make some modifications while the department ensured they had the personal protective equipment they needed to mitigate risks as they performed their duties amid the pandemic. 

“Luckily, you know, a lot of the contacts we make are outdoors,” he said.

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