1978 - Game Warden to Peace Officer
Today Idaho Department of Fish & Game (IDFG) Conservation Officers are highly trained as both state Peace Officers and wildlife biologists. To be hired, they must meet rigorous criteria in education, work experience, character, physical fitness and psychological soundness.
The minimum educational requirement just to apply for the job is to have four upper level college courses in wildlife management. But to be competitive, a person needs at least a bachelor's degree in wildlife or fisheries management or a closely related field. In addition to a person’s education, it is their professional field experience that will get them one of the coveted interview slots. Last year there were 220 applicants. Only 40 were invited to be interviewed.
Before being hired a candidate must pass two full background investigations; one by the IDFG and one by the Idaho POST police academy. These are followed by the polygraph test, physical exam, a psychological assessment, and a fitness test that involves a 1.5 mile run, 300 yard sprint, pushups, situps and a vertical jump.
Once hired the new officers must complete the 10 week Idaho POST Police Academy, a two week in-house IDFG Mini-Academy and then another 10 weeks of on-the-job training in the Field Training Officer (FTO) program. After clearing these hurdles a rewarding career of patrolling Idaho’s forests, rivers and plains awaits them.
It wasn’t always this way.
When Charles Arbuckle was appointed as Idaho's first Game Warden in 1899, he tried to find a part-time deputy game warden for each county. These men and women were chosen for their woodsmanship and received little training. Most were like the Montpelier jeweler, E.R. Kammerath, a deputized game warden who worked without pay starting in 1931. Kammerath received half of the fines levied on the poachers that he caught. Since the State Game Warden’s position was political, when Governors changed so did the wardens.
In 1938 a voters’ initiative created the Idaho Fish & Game Commission and established full-time game wardens. Yet, the criteria for hiring these officers remained focused on sportsmanship, horse packing skills and common sense. They learned on the job, with little formal training except firearm instruction alongside the local sheriff or police department personnel. Over the years, game warden responsibilities naturally expanded beyond fish and wildlife regulations. They came to include livestock rustling laws, boating regulations, water resources and state lands statutes. Officers also assisted other law enforcement agencies when requested.
When Idaho opened the Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) police academy in 1970, Conservation Officers (COs)enforcement training leaped forward. They received instruction in Idaho statutes, laws of search, seizure and arrest, firearms and arrest techniques proficiency, emergency vehicle operation, case law, court room testimony, crime scene investigation and evidence collection.
In 1978 COs were granted Idaho Peace Officer status empowering them to enforce all the laws of Idaho. While COs focus on Fish and Game laws they are empowered and trained to address DUIs, drugs, arrest warrants, reckless and dangerous driving violations, and to assist other agencies if necessary.
In 1988 Idaho Fish and Game initiated a program called the Field Training Officer (FTO) to allow new officers to benefit from long-time conservation officers' experience. The program pairs a trainee with three different highly trained veteran officers. There are four phases to the FTO program. During the first three phases the trainee works in the field with a different officer. Each day the trainee is graded on their knowledge and capabilities of over forty different areas including; wildlife laws, officer safety, fish & wildlife identification, investigative and interview techniques, people skills, illegal outfitting, wildlife depredation investigations, policies, report writing, federal laws, and driving. The trainee is evaluated at the end of each phase and either removed from the program, held back for further training in a particular area, or moved to the next phase.
The fourth phase finds the trainee back with his/her first field training officer for a week. This week the trainer is in plain clothes and only observes the trainee on patrol. The trainee has to make all the plans and decisions for the week.
2004 the two week IDFG mini-academy was added to the new officer training regime. This consisted of professional training on wildlife enforcement investigative techniques and protocols. Currently Conservation Officers receive ongoing training and are tested twice a year in firearms proficiency, arrest techniques and the same physical fitness test that they had to endure when they attended the POST police academy. Failure to pass any of these proficiencies can lead to losing their job.
Technological advances have made it important for officers to have training in advanced computer skills to investigate cyber-crimes, social media evidence and wildlife black market sales of wildlife.
The future will demand even more from our conservation officers. Those officers will need to be able to cross reference computer data bases as easily as they can start a fire on a cold wet mountain as darkness sets in. They will be dealing with a larger and more diverse group of people recreating outdoors. The challenge will be to serve all these groups while still preserving, protecting and perpetuating the fish and wildlife of Idaho.
Luckily for all of us, those people are out there. They are the men and women who wear the badge of an Idaho Conservation Officer.
Learn more about Conservation Officers and read the popular Idaho Conservation Officer’s Association magazine here: http://icoaonline.org