Become a Conservation Officer: Education and Career Roadmap

Aug 20, 2019

Learn how to become a conservation officer. Research the education requirements, training information, and experience required for starting a career in the field of wildlife conservation.

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Should I Be a Conservation Officer?

Conservation officers, also known as game wardens, wildlife or natural resource managers, nature conservation officers, and peace officers, are law enforcement agents who uphold laws and regulations relating to wildlife and the natural environment. They may work for state or federal governments, as well as natural resource organizations. These officers enforce laws related to hunting and fishing and provide public safety for state parks, trail systems, and other protected areas.

Conservation officers primarily work in the field, patrolling assigned areas by foot, all-terrain vehicle, boat, or other means with minimal supervision. Because this is physically strenuous outdoor work, conservation officers must typically meet physical fitness and background check requirements. Conservation officers carry out their duties in all kinds of weather and patrol a wide variety of terrain. Skillful handling of firearms is essential, because conservation officers may interact with armed hunters and other park and trail visitors, some of whom may be aggressive at times. Shifts can include night, weekend, and holiday work, and some agencies expect their officers to participate in overnight travel.

How to Become a Conservation Officer

Step 1: Obtain Postsecondary Education

Earning a college degree can provide a useful background and strengthen one's application to a state conservation officer training program. In fact, some states require some college coursework, and the majority of all conservation officers hold a bachelor's degree. Examples of relevant training include associate's or bachelor's degree programs in wildlife science or environmental conservation. Courses may cover topics like forest ecology, biology, forest recreation, and water resources. In some states, like Idaho, bachelor's degree holders may find entry-level positions as conservation officers, though government positions in most states typically require additional training.

Students seeking an alternative educational path may complete peace officer training through a community or vocational college. This program may be offered as a stand-alone certificate program or as part of a two-year associate's degree program. Courses cover patrol procedures, basic law enforcement, sociology, and defensive tactics.

Step 2: Ensure Physical Fitness

As law enforcement agents, conservation officers must pass physical fitness tests. These tests ensure that enforcement agents have the agility and fitness levels to make appropriate responses in the field and are often required before entering a formal training program. Tests generally include running, swimming, and other physical exercises. Make sure you are continually able to pass these tests, since it is important to stay in shape throughout training and official employment. Additionally, throughout the training period, trainees may also be called upon at random to demonstrate fitness levels.

Step 3: Complete a State Training Program

Many states require conservation officers to undergo a 6- to 12-month training program. Though prior college work isn't always required, it can be beneficial. Acceptance into a program generally constitutes an offer of employment after a candidate successfully meets all eligibility requirements and completes the training. These programs vary by state, but usually train recruits on environmental law compliance and wildlife management. Specific instruction may include informing the public on wildlife regulations and issues as well as enforcing laws and regulations regarding hunting permits and licenses. Recruits also receive additional training on firearms, boating, and special investigations.

Step 4: Advance Your Career

Conservation officers can advance their career based on years of experience and merit. Jobs for county, state, and federal organizations will usually offer similar advancement structures to police forces, beginning at sergeant and topping out at colonel. Pay scale and level of responsibility increase with title.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Associate's or bachelor's degree; state conservation officer training
Degree Field Wildlife management, natural resource sciences, criminal justice, or police sciences
Experience Entry-level opportunities could be sought after a successful completion of a state conservation officer training program
Licenses Valid driver's license, valid hunting license (some states), valid peace officer license (some states)
Key Skills Physical strength and stamina; willingness to spend time in various natural conditions; problem solving skills; decision-making abilities; ability to work with others; working knowledge of reports creation and filing software, database spreadsheets, word processing software, and mapping software; gun safety and handling knowledge
Median Salary (2018)* $57,710 per year (for all fish and game wardens)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

In most states, conservation officers need to complete a training program and many conservation officers have an associate's or bachelor's degree in a related field, such as wildlife management or natural resource sciences.

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