Warden's work is never done

Game warden Dan Melson checks the hunting license of successful deer hunter James Sorrell of Franklinton, La.
Game warden Dan Melson checks the hunting license of successful deer hunter James Sorrell of Franklinton, La. The Wichita Eagle

GREENWOOD COUNTY — Wednesday's opening of firearms deer season found most hunters happy if they had 170 acres of prime country to themselves.

Game warden Dan Melson was looking at about 1,700 square miles of territory — Greenwood and Elk counties — as he headed to work at sunrise.

"You just work hard and do the best you can," Melson said. "These days most of us have multiple counties."

Kevin Jones, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks law-enforcement chief, said the department has reduced its warden staff to 62 field officers and 11 supervisors.

"We have 105 counties and 73 officers, so do the math," he said. "We're on the short end of the stick. It can get pretty stressful on our officers."

Jones said the current force is smaller than it's been in recent years. Several positions are unfilled as wardens have retired or left the job.

Jones said during busy times, like firearms deer and the opening of pheasant seasons, staff from a few other divisions may help.

As with most state agencies, funding has long been a major roadblock for hiring more game wardens for Kansas. Finding qualified candidates is also a growing problem. Jones said most departments require squeaky-clean background checks and a bachelors degree in natural resources or another field.

"When you look nationally, all of the (wildlife agencies) are concerned about finding people that are qualified," Jones said. "If someone goes to college, they may not want to walk out into a job that pays substantially less than something in a high-tech field. You can make a stable living as a game warden but it's not a business you get into to make a lot of money."

There's never a shortage of work.

Melson was only a few miles into Wednesday when he found two hunters parked beside a gravel road.

He did a quick check of deer permits and hunting licenses, chatted for a minute or so and was on the go again.

A few miles down the road he found two trucks. He pulled over and waited to see if anyone came from the woods.

Even thought the truck was stopped, Melson was still at work. His cell phone rang at least 20 times the first two hours of the season.

He had calls from hunters wanting to double-check regulations. Two reported possible violations they'd witnessed.

He was also in contact with other law-enforcement workers concerning cases.

Melson said patrolling to check hunters is easy compared to some recent jobs.

November is a time of late nights for most game wardens, he said, as poachers try to take advantage of trophy bucks engrossed in the rut.

"I got home at 3 a.m. on Thanksgiving," Melson said, referring to one of many times he worked to catch poachers using spotlights at night to find trophy bucks. "Some of these guys have equipment (such as night-vision binoculars) better than we do."

Unlike most game wardens, Melson has a dog working with him. Chase, an eight-year-old Labrador Retriever, is trained for wildlife law-enforcement work.

Melson said one of the dog's main roles has been locating spent rifle shells left by trespassers or poachers illegally shooting from the road.

Chase has tracked down several trespassers.

Helping other law enforcement groups, the dog has tracked drug producers on the run.

Melson wasn't surprised all was calm Wednesday.

"The first two days are usually pretty easy," he said. "Some people start getting antsy Friday through the weekend and things get more lively."

When he didn't find many hunters afield, Melson dropped in on a few of the 15-plus outfitters in his district.

While he checked permits and examined dead deer, Melson visited with the hunters.

"Sportsmen are a pretty good class of citizens," he said. "I think 90 percent that I check are legal or want to be. They typically wave when you drive up and thank you. They appreciate what we're doing for them and the resource."

Make the call — Despite a small staff of game wardens, people are encouraged to make calls when they witness wildlife-related violations.

"One of the best things is to call the county sheriff," Jones said. "A lot of the departments are very good about helping us, especially during the major hunting seasons. If we can't get our officer there, they'll often send out a deputy."

Another option is to call the department's Operation Game Thief hotline at 877-426-3843.

"The operator takes the call and contacts the right people," Jones said. "Depending on the urgency of the call we'll be there as soon as we can.

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