Game wardens combine training with vacation

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — A stiff breeze pushed two floating hoops around one of Granite Springs Reservoir’s small coves at Curt Gowdy State Park.

Hiding in what little shade could be found, spectators anxiously watched Nebraska game warden Jeff Jones wind up his first cast.

With a rod and spinning reel, Jones aimed to pitch his fishing rig into the farther of the two hoops, about 60 feet from the bank. Beside him, his team hovered over a canoe, waiting to shoot out into the lake, weave around buoys, collect duck decoys and set a bear trap.

The elaborate course was but one of four events in the Game Warden Games, a sporting event hosted annually during the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association conference.

“About half the officers are paying their own way at the conference,” said Jason Sherwood, Wyoming Game and Fish Laramie Regional access coordinator and Wyoming Game Wardens Association host committee chair. “Most agencies don’t have the funding to send an officer for an entire week to the conference, even if there is training involved. So for many of them, this is their summer vacation, and the games are nice way to make sure everyone gets to enjoy it.”

With only 15 minutes to complete all the tasks laid out in the event, Jones was under pressure to hit his mark as quickly as possible. Thirty-seven seconds later, a judge in a kayak called Jones cast good and the five-man team scrambled to get Nebraska game warden Ray Dierking and retired Canadian game warden Randy Nelson into their life jackets and out onto the water as quickly as possible.

At 4 minutes and 24 seconds, Dierking and Nelson returned with the ducks in hand, switching out of their vests as Jones spun the canoe and Nebraska game wardens Mitch Johnson and Alex Hasenauer hopped in and headed for the bear trap churning the lake with their paddles and chanting “stroke” in unison.

The duo returned triumphant to cheering from their teammates and the crowd, finishing the event in 8 minutes and 8 seconds.

“I was trying to tell (Hasenauer) the paddle is supposed to be in the water, not pouring the lake on the guy behind him,” Johnson said, laughing. “Coming back, my bicep nearly gave out.”

The Game Warden Games differ year to year and are designed by the host association, which abstains from participation to ensure no team has the home advantage, Sherwood explained.

“We try to think up events that combine wildlife skills as well as teamwork,” he said. “But of the more than 400 people at the conference, only about 80 are competing, so we also have to come up with stuff that’s fun to watch.”

Dubbed “Nebraska Eh” in honor of the team’s Canadian member, Dierking’s team was one of 17 trudging across the mountains shooting slingshots and blindfolding deer decoys.

“I like the games, because they are realistic,” said Nelson, who’s attended about 14 conferences across North America. “They incorporate a lot of things we do on the job.”

Hasenauer smiled and shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said, smirking. “I haven’t roped many deer.”

Silent in agreement, the two said no more about the day’s first event, which required the team to find a GPS cache, then lasso a deer decoy, blindfold it and load it into a horse trailer.

“We even parked the trailer on a hill to ensure it was an accurate simulation and add a bit more challenge to it,” Sherwood said, watching another team wrestle with the bent trailer latch.

The teams also tested their marksmanship skills with slingshots, bows and air rifles at one event, and the final event for Nebraska Eh was the identification tent.

“That’s the trickiest part,” Wyoming Game and Fish Senior Game Warden Bill Brinegar said. “We put a lot of standard things on the identification list, but we also add unique species specific to the state.”

Inside the tent, various items lined two tables, including a big horn sheep skull.

“They have to try to determine the age based off the annuli rings on its horns,” Brinegar explained.

When all is said and done, the final test is pronunciation of the popo agie flower.

“Most people try to sound it out enunciating the agie,” Brinegar said. “But, it’s actually pronounced like puh po shuh.”

Bussed in from Little America, game wardens and their families spent most the day in Curt Gowdy.

While many followed the teams from event to event, others used the day to go hiking or mountain biking.

Hay bales were set out with steer heads for children to practice roping, a bounce house was brought out and throughout the day, families and volunteers hosted smaller events.

“Because we’re not participating in the games, many of our local guys are volunteering,” Brinegar said. “We supply water and Gatorade at the events, make sure there’s enough ice in the coolers, judge events and check in on everyone to make sure everything is safe, and everyone is taken care of.”

As the sun neared the western horizon, participants, attendees and volunteers descended upon a large tent in an open field.

Live music was piped through a sound system and the mood was relaxed as the Albany County CattleWomen grilled sirloin steaks for dinner.

Later that evening, the 37th annual North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association conference Game Warden Games winners were announced.

Nebraska Eh placed fourth.

“Game wardens have a different lifestyle than most,” Dierking said, reflecting on the day. “It can be challenging for spouses, so coming to these events help families make friends that can relate to those issues.”

Nelson leaned over a truck bed and watched two children chase each other toward the bounce house.

“You watch kids grow up at these events, and I think we build lifelong friendships,” he said with a hint of a Canadian accent. “The training is real good, but even better is the BSing. Talking to guys from all over North America, you learn new ways to solve old problems.”