So You Want My Job: Game Warden

by Brett & Kate McKay on February 25, 2009 · 23 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job


Tom McKay, New Mexico State Game Warden, 1975

Today we return to our “So You Want My Job” series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable man jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can finally become what they always wanted to be when they grew up.

For this installment, we interviewed my dad, Tom McKay.  Tom is a retired Special Agent with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He began his career in wildlife management as a state game warden of New Mexico in 1971. In 1976 he made the move to federal service with the United State Fish and Wildlife Service. He retired in 2005 after nearly 30 years of service.  While he’s retired from the service, Tom continues to work doing oil field inspections for the Environmental Protection Agency. Many thanks to my dad for taking the time to answer these questions. Also, thanks to my mom, Helen McKay, for supplying the image.

1. Why do most game wardens decide to become game wardens?

Most guys become game wardens because they like the outdoors and fish and wildlife in general. In my case, it ran in the family as your Grandad, Larry Glover, was a game warden.

2. What kind of things does a game warden do? Can the job be physically demanding?

Game wardens patrol for fish and wildlife violations and conduct investigations regarding these offenses, both state and federal. Some game wardens also conduct biological duties such as fish creel censuses, deer/elk/antelope population surveys, and migratory bird aerial surveys.  The typical state game warden serves in one county and is responsive to all fish and wildlife issues there-in. A federal game warden can be in charge of an entire region of a state. I was never home for very long periods because there was so many duties I had to fulfill.  The job is demanding both physically and mentally. I could be “breaking the ice” to check duck hunters in the frozen marsh one day and wearing a coat and tie to testify in court the next day. I told the young agents that I supervised, “It’s not a job but a way of life.”

3. If a man wants to become a game warden, how should he best prepare? Is there a difference of preparation on the state and federal level? Any majors he should pursue in college?

Most game wardens I know majored in Wildlife Management or Criminal Justice while in college. My degree was in Wildlife Management. Most states now require a degree for entry level game warden positions. Federal game wardens usually have several years of state experience prior to coming on board.

4. How competitive is it to get a job as a game warden? Is the level of competition different on the state and federal level?

The competition is extremely tough both at the state and federal level. Even when I came on as a New Mexico Game Warden back in 1971, it was tough. I waited for several months after applying to several states and only got on because my dad knew the New Mexico Director of Game & Fish. Even then, I started out as a lowly beaver trapper and worked my way up to district game warden supervisor. I left the New Mexico State Game and Fish Department for federal game warden service in 1976.

5. Any tips on getting hired as a game warden?

Get your degree, take any position available in the game department, work any law enforcement job available while waiting (police officer, deputy sheriff, etc.) for the experience, get to know your local game warden, and don’t violate any fish and game laws.


Tom McKay, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent

6. What is the average salary for a game warden on the state and federal level?

Oklahoma state game wardens are paid very poorly. It’s  about $30K/year. Texas wardens are paid much better- about $52K/year. On the federal level, Special Agents with the US Fish & Wildlife Service usually start as GS-7 on the federal pay scale, which is about $40K/year. Plus you get Law Enforcement Availability Pay (LEAP) which is 25% of your base grade or about another $10K. You can work your way up to Journeyman Special Agent. It’s a GS-12 on the federal pay scale, which is about $100K/year.

7. What is the best part of the job?

The best part of the job is the field work and camaraderie with fellow officers, both state and federal. These guys become your “brothers” with friendships that last a lifetime.

8. What is the worst part of the job?

The worst part of the job is the administrative requirements such as personnel and investigative reports. You may work a week on a case and several weeks preparing it for prosecution. Also, the supervisory responsibilities (if you go that high) are trying and time-consuming. Always hated that aspect of my job.

9. What is the biggest misconception people have about the job?

The biggest misconception is that game wardens spend all their time hunting and fishing. The good wardens and agents have no time for this as they are in the field managing the other nimrods out there during hunting season. I hunted and fished much more before I became a game warden, not at all after I became one.

10. What is the work/family balance like?

As you observed, Brett, the work/family balance is horrible. Never home, always on the road or in the field on a case. However, that’s how I grew up with my Dad and your Mom with her father (Editor’s Note: My mom’s dad was a forester). So, we were used to it, but it doesn’t make it right. I still regret the time I missed with you boys and your sister.

11. Are there ways to move-up in the job, or in other words, what is the hierarchy like?

The promotion potential is great in federal service. If you do a good job and are willing to move, the promotion potential is likely. However, anything higher then a Journeyman Special Agent (GS-12) usually requires a 2-year stint in Washington, DC headquarters as a desk agent. I never chose to do this, but was lucky to obtain the Resident Agent In Charge (RAC) position, which increased my pay to a GS-13. That’s the position I had when I retired. The hierarchy for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement is: Special Agent, Resident Agent in Charge, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Special Agent in Charge, and Chief of Law Enforcement (along with several division chiefs under him).

Editor’s Note: My dad recommended a few books to read for individuals interested in pursuing a career as a game warden. They’re written by a retired state and federal game warden and provide some insight on what a life of a game warden is like.

Wildlife Wars: The Life and Times of a Fish and Game Warden by Terry Grosz

For Love of Wildness: The Journal of a U.S. Game Management Agent by Terry Grosz

Also, if you want to search for U.S. Fish and Wildlife jobs available near you, check out USAJobs

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Man Overboard February 26, 2009 at 6:24 am

That is one awesomely manly job! That is what I call an office.

2 Shannon February 26, 2009 at 6:50 am

Good article Brett! It was fun and interesting to read because I didn’t know alot of the stuff that Dad did before Oklahoma. Game Warden is a pretty “manly” job!

3 Uberhack February 26, 2009 at 7:59 am

Good read Brett. Thanks to your Dad.

Epic moustache on the man, by the way.

4 Rich February 26, 2009 at 10:51 am

I couldnt be a game warden. Props to those who are, but aint mah style.

5 mike February 26, 2009 at 1:20 pm

These “So You Want My Job” postings are the most consistently interesting and provide a perspective not found elsewhere. The more the better!


6 Brett February 26, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Dear “Meh.”

Your comments were not deleted because I don’t agree with them, but because I’m tired of the incessant whiners on this site and I’m cracking down. “No whining” is part of our comment policy and I’m afraid you violated it. We welcome criticism, but complaining simply because a post doesn’t line up with your interests is immature grousing. Take note sir, the world, and this blog, do not revolve around you. You also must give a legitimate email address to comment, and while I’m sure you find noway@f** incredibly clever, it doesn’t meet the requirement. See ya!

7 Cory February 26, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Great article. I think Game Warden is the most demanding job in Law Enforcement. Almost everyone encountered is armed, sometimes no backup for miles, and you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere. A most noble and manly profession.

8 granata February 26, 2009 at 5:25 pm

I agree with mike. This series is really fun to read. I can’t wait for the trucker post *hint*.

9 Tom March 9, 2009 at 5:42 am

Tom McKay is one of the best Special Agent/Game Wardens I have ever known, and worked with, a man’s man. He has been my mentor and a great friend for years, great article. Its a tough job, but I love it.
The moustache however, is the classic 1970s Fed/Cop look!! with the three piece suit. Classic!!

10 Logan October 15, 2009 at 9:22 pm

I am going to school to hopefully become a game warden one day and i found this extremely informative. There aren’t a whole of websites out there that have as much information as this one. I really appreciate you posting this and it made me even more excited about my future career.

11 Carl October 17, 2009 at 1:18 pm

My father was also a gamewarden and I actually interview tomorrow for a warden postion. Great job.

12 Bart Russell November 10, 2009 at 10:49 pm

I missed your dad’s retirement party because I was like always…out of town. He is a great Agent and friend. Please have him e-mail me, I would like to visit with him. Great tribute!!

13 Kian June 22, 2010 at 8:14 pm

I am really interested in becoming a Game Warden in California. Ever since I was 5-years-old I enjoy working with and helping out wildlife. I am currently going to school for my associate degree in criminal justice at ITT Tech. I have a 3.2 grade averave and I am people friendly. Do you think I have a good chance at get into this career?

14 Nate Horn August 7, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Is Wildlife Wars ( Terry Grosz ) ever going to be on tv again.

15 Cameron Mower December 3, 2012 at 8:21 pm

This was sure a fun article to read. I looked at that first picture and thought, “huh, that guy’s uniform sure looks a lot like our wardens here in NM.” I guess after growing up in the Villagra Building with my own dad working for NM Game and Fish I can spot that uniform pretty fast.

16 timmybryant April 23, 2013 at 10:50 am

i’m currently working on my degree in criminal justice,i’m very interested in becoming a game warden.i love the out doors.what all is required to become a game warden even after you get your degree?will their be any more physical training or anymore classes or education involved?

17 payne king July 17, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Hey I’m from oklahoma and still in highschool . Iwant to be a game warden so bad this website gave me a lot of information thanks

18 Brittany July 30, 2013 at 4:50 am

This is a great article!!! I as well as many others in the comments above me, I also would like to become a Texas Game Warden. I seek every opportunity to build my résumé just for the simple fact of the application into the academy. I’m in the right field as far as college goes, I only work in jobs that will give me experience in either the wildlife side or the law enforcement side just for the simple fact that I can learn something. I have done all sorts of opportunities from joining the volunteer fire department so that I could put the volunteer hours down. I have gotten to go on pronghorn captures as far as mule deer captures with my school, with many other things in between. I have built this résumé because I don’t want there to be any doubt that this is the job for me, and in hopes that the fact that I max out at 5 foot 1 is over looked. If anyone has any more advice on what else I could possibly do please let me know!

19 Jacob October 22, 2013 at 8:09 am

This has been very helpful! I hope to obtain a job as a Georgia game warden. I needed these steps and recommendations for future knowledge. I appreciate it

20 Naomi January 10, 2014 at 2:46 pm

I want to be a game warden, I’m going to graduate from high school in a couple months and I need some advice on what to do.

21 Martin embry February 4, 2014 at 9:18 pm

Hey I really enjoyed the article… I just graduated from college in physical education/recreation.Mydad andI would go fishing every was then and now something that I love to do. How can I get and internship

22 Lt. Bill Browne March 6, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Hello everyone. My name is Lt. Bill Browne. I am the recruiter for Indiana Conservation Officers and we are hiring. Take a look at our Becoming a Conservation Officer website at:
Feel free to send me an e-mail and I will let you know how you can achieve this amazing and rewarding career.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter