in: Career, Career & Wealth

• Last updated: May 30, 2021

So You Want My Job: Game Warden

Tom McKay standing in home garden.

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 portrait.

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

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