STAR, Texas — For game wardens, the work begins where the pavement ends.
Texas’ all-terrain cops don’t just check deer hunters and fishing licenses anymore.
They’re on call around the clock for everything from picking up the pieces after a NASA shuttle disaster to swift-water rescues and hurricane evacuations.
And whether they’re in the woods or on the water, they could also be dealing with gunmen, domestic disturbances, drunken boaters, poachers or drug dealers hauling a load across the border.
The state’s next wildlife posse is now hip-deep into a grueling seven-month training program.
Culled from a crop of 689 applicants, the 24-member class at the Game Warden Training Center ranges from a 21-year-old college graduate to a retired Texas Ranger captain.
Also among them are four women and three cadets who were game wardens in other states.
When the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s 56th cadet class graduates in July, 532 wardens will be patrolling the back roads, backcountry and backwaters of Texas, said Maj. Danny Shaw, director of the academy.
But those numbers are likely to be reduced and the next academy class delayed as the agency prepares for a 25 percent reduction in state funding in fiscal 2012 and 2013, Director Carter Smith said.
Current cadets are focused on making it through 1,350 hours of training that runs the spectrum from deadly-force options to commercial-fishing regulations and the protocol for checking out a hunting camp with no backup within miles.
They should be prepared for any situation, Shaw said.
“You’re a state-certified peace officer, a patrolman, an investigator, an evidence collector, a boat accident investigator,” he said. “They have to be able to do everything and do it alone.”
Cadets are even tutored in alligator-handling and public speaking.
And their backgrounds are as diverse as the training.
“We’ve had teachers, attorneys, insurance salesmen, mattress salesmen—they come from everywhere,” Shaw said. “The competition is so stiff to get one of these positions that people have been trying for six, eight, 10 years. They have to find something else to do while they are waiting until they get their shot.”
Which is what happened to 50-year-old Jerry Byrne, who retired after 27 years at the Texas Department of Public Safety, including 17 as a Texas Ranger, after missing the cut the first time he applied.
Now, with a wife back in Midland and two daughters in college, he’s living in a 10-man dormitory with guys less than half his age, rolling out of bed for physical training at 6:30 a.m., going to class all day and then finishing with another exercise session.
And in his downtime, he’s studying and preparing his own meals.
The toughest adjustment is trading the family life for dorm life, he said.
“I’m keeping up, but it’s a little bit of a challenge,” he said of the physical demands. “But this is what I wanted to do. I hope I make it to the end.”
He’s not unlike the typical cadet, said Lt. Robert French, one of six instructors.
“It’s a passion,” French said. “Most of them have geared their whole lives to being game wardens.”
Smith calls the training center the “finest conservation academy in the world.”
And to get in is an arduous 10-month process, Shaw said.
Applicants must be at least 21 (there is no upper age limit) and have a bachelor’s degree and a clean criminal history. They then face an interview with three wardens and a physical readiness test.
That process slims the pool down to about 120, who must emerge squeaky-clean from a six- to eight-week background check. Then five agency honchos give another look “to make sure nobody missed anything.”
Finally, Shaw and two top commanders select the class, which varies in size depending on openings.
“We pick the best of the best,” he said.
Jim Schmidt was one of those in 2009 when he swapped a banker’s suit for a warden’s uniform and cowboy hat. He was 60.
The Fort Worth native and former bank executive, who has an MBA in finance, now patrols Richland-Chambers Reservoir and spends the odd all-nighter pursuing people spotlighting deer.
“I had accomplished most of my goals in banking, but I wasn’t ready to retire,” Schmidt said. “I was stepping out of my comfort zone. But it was a significant challenge. Most of my class could have been my children or grandchildren.”
Schmidt’s biggest eye-opener has been the difference in his “clientele.”
“A lot of these people aren’t who I ran into as a banker,” he said. “Some of these folks with prison backgrounds can be a little rough.”
But “99.9 percent” of the people he encounters are glad to see him.
“They want to see somebody out there making sure it’s safe.”
The game warden academy looks like a frontier cavalry outpost in the rolling hills of Central Texas about 75 miles west of Waco.
The 243-acre site, about five miles from the tiny town of Star, was donated to the state by the Police Action League, which used it as a camp for kids.
Before relocating here three years ago, warden training was held for 30 years in an Austin warehouse.
“Our officers need to be trained in a setting they are going to be working in, and this is a perfect location for that,” Smith said.
Except for $3.2 million from the sale of the old site, the academy—expected to cost $20 million to $22 million when completed—was built with private funds.
The Lee Bass Administration Building is the latest addition to a high-tech classroom building, fitness center and dormitory. This spring, construction will start on a firing range, maintenance shop and staff residences. Awaiting funding are dormitory makeovers and an indoor swim/rescue center. Cadets travel to Fort Hood for firearms training and to Tarleton State University in Stephenville for swimming classes. Swift-water rescue training is held on the Comal River.
“If we get the whole vision done, we won’t have to go anywhere,” Shaw said. “This will be a 100-year facility.”
But the curriculum will continue to include field trips with wardens during hunting seasons or holiday weekends on urban lakes. There’s also a full week of training on boats that range from 65 feet to 14 feet.
Cadets receive $2,982 a month, and wardens make $39,096 in their first year and $50,988 annually after four years. The salary tops out at $61,688 with 20 years’ experience.
“None of these people are going to get wealthy doing this job,” Shaw said. “They don’t do it because it’s a glamorous job. They know coming in here that we work on holidays, weekends. You’re on call 24 hours a day.”
The job has evolved with wardens increasingly serving as the state’s first responders to natural disasters. Texas wardens rescued about 5,000 people after Hurricane Katrina, Shaw said.
“We are the law enforcement in Texas off the pavement,” he said. “Game wardens work where other people can’t get.”
And they have the gear to get there.
When they are posted to a duty station—which could be anywhere in the state, and they don’t get to choose—wardens are issued a four-wheel-drive truck and an all-terrain vehicle, and most have boats and Jet Skis and some have kayaks, French said.
When he started in 1988, French patrolled in a Dodge Diplomat sedan.
Cadet Daniel Cantu, 29, would probably drive anything. He’s just happy to be home. A Conroe native, he became a Florida game warden in 2006 when Texas wasn’t hiring after he graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University.
“Texas is considered at the top of the list for game wardens,” he said. “I’ll be happy to go wherever they send me.”
At 29, Chantel Vonutassy, an outgoing soccer player and Navy veteran who was working as a security guard, says she’s found her niche.
“I’m right where I belong. I’m lucky to be here,” she said.
Nicole Leonard, a 23-year-old New Orleans native and former college basketball player, is “a city girl” who was working on a master’s degree in criminal justice at Sam Houston State when she got accepted.
“I wanted to do something I loved, and every time I talked to a game warden they loved what they did,” she said. “I think I’ll enjoy doing this for the rest of my life.”
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