If you prefer the outdoor life to being cooped up in an office 40 hours a week, consider working as either a wildlife officer -- more commonly called a game warden -- or a park ranger. Either career will keep you outdoors most of the time, give you plenty of variety and provide opportunities to protect the natural resources you love.
Game wardens are law enforcement officers, and their beat is the great outdoors. This means you'll need the tools and the skills of any law enforcement officer. In some states, such as California, you’ll be required to carry and use firearms. You may patrol on foot, in a vehicle, by plane or horseback. Your goal is to protect wildlife from poaching, overfishing or excessive hunting, and to enforce other state laws. You might investigate hunting accidents, arrest poachers or seize equipment used in illegal game hunting operations. Game wardens also provide hunter education and may give presentations to schools or civic organizations, according to ONET Online, so you must have public speaking skills to be effective.
Like game wardens, rangers are also in the business of protection and education. But their focus is more on the land rather than the wildlife. Sometimes called naturalists or conservation scientists, rangers are not usually charged with law enforcement, although they may help ensure that park visitors follow the rules of the park. As a ranger, you’ll provide visitor services, conduct field trips and give lectures about park features. You will also work in visitor centers and perform routine maintenance on park buildings or trails, according to ONET Online. In addition, you might spend some time writing newspaper articles or brochures.
One noticeable difference in the two occupations is the basic requirements for the job. Law enforcement officers, including wardens, must be U.S. citizens and usually at least 21 years old, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although you might have education beyond a high school diploma, you’ll still attend the state training academy as well as complete a period of on-job training. Park rangers usually have a bachelor’s degree in ecology, biology, forest management or a related field. Wardens, like other police officers, must meet stiff physical qualifications and be physically fit. Although park rangers might not have to meet these physical requirements, they should also be in decent shape to guide visitors on hikes and to help maintain the grounds.
Rangers and wardens spend much of their time outdoors, although some may also perform desk work. Each deals with the public, usually on a daily basis, and should have good interpersonal and communication skills. Safety and security of both the public and the individual worker are considerations in both occupations, according to ONET Online. Wardens and rangers need to have knowledge of biology and geography to teach others and to travel safely in remote areas.
Life as a warden can be dangerous -- there’s a reason wardens are authorized to use firearms and must pass fitness tests. You may travel alone in remote areas and your backup could be many miles away, so self-reliance is important. Wardens often have much more freedom of movement and independence, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Management, and often have irregular hours. If you really enjoy teaching, on the other hand, rangers do quite a bit of education, particularly in large parks that attract a lot of visitors.
- California Department of Fish and Wildlife: Fish and Wildlife Officer Career
- California Department of Fish and Wildlife: Concerns about Life as a Wildlife Officer
- ONET Online: Summary Report for 33-3031.00 - Fish and Game Wardens
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Police and Detectives
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Conservation Scientists
- ONET Online: Summary Report for 19-1031.03 - Park Naturalists
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