It was 6:30 on a sunny Saturday morning when South Fork game warden Grant Gerharter began his patrol.
“In hunting season, we definitely start early,” he said.
During fall hunting season, he said, he might work 100 days in a row.
The green pickup trucks Wyoming Game and Fish officials drive are easily identifiable and on backcountry dirt roads they can be seen from a great distance, though they sometimes get spattered with so much mud the department emblem cannot be read.
Likewise, on the open land, Gerharter can spot solo vehicles and hunters from afar with binoculars and spotting scopes.
It was below freezing at first, but warmed steadily into the low 40s by mid-morning.
This was a four-hour cruise, designed to advertise the presence of game officials to hunters, to answer questions, to check licenses, to make sure no violations of game regulations took place.
“This is so those people who never call the office realize we’re human beings, too,” Gerharter said. “I’m trying to make a little bit of a presence felt.”
The green trucks highlight that Game and Fish is on the job.
“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you notice the cops driving by,” he said.
Game wardens are law enforcement, but that is just part of their duties. Gerharter’s district is thousands of acres, including the Thorofare and the Upper Yellowstone region.
“We can ride for miles in the backcountry and not see it all,” he said.
Gerharter, 43, grew up mostly in Thermopolis, and has worked for G&F for eight years.
“I was in love with hunting when I was young,” he said. “I couldn’t get enough of the outdoors when I was young.”
He later did a little bit of guiding and outfitting, too.
As Gerharter drove, small herds of antelope galloped past along the road, but never in the same place as hunters.
“Little do they know,” Gerharter said of hunters in the distance who were likely searching for those type of animals.
It is not as if Gerharter won’t clue in hunters when he pulls alongside of them to check current licenses, or to just to talk.
Stopping to speak to one driver, he said, “There’s been elk out here. I’m not sure where they are today. There’s a lot of country.”
The surroundings are mountains, the highest domed with snow, yellow grass, rolling hills, some rocky prominences.
Game wardens also spend time in the office writing reports and spend time in the field counting game.
One regular violation hunters are cited for, Gerharter said, is shooting from the road.
“It is unethical,” he said. “It’s not fair chase. It’s dangerous.”
There are more egregious offenses, some which cheat the public and other hunters, such as just keeping antlers.
Gerharter said game wardens are deeply offended when “people waste meat. They just cut the head off. That’s about as serious as it gets.”
He said when confronted, some hunters lie “just like 3-year-olds.”
Cody regional office supervisor Dan Smith said he has been a game warden for 27 years, a decade’s worth of it in Arizona.
“You have to look clear back to the 1800s,” he said. “Hunters are conservationists. They were concerned to do something to protect the animals. Ethics play in there, too. Hunters saw a need, so we have Game and Fish.”
Passing on knowledge from teachers, family members, is important in producing future generations of law-abiding hunters.
“Without that mentoring, it is hard to have those ethics,” Smith said.
North Fork warden
Gerharter’s companion game warden on the North Fork out of the Cody regional office is Travis Crane, 43, and a 15-year agency worker.
Crane gravitated to the game warden position for the same reason Gerharter did – because of a love of hunting and fishing.
“I just didn’t realize I wouldn’t get to do it anymore,” Crane said.
Meaning he is too busy for his own outdoor recreation.
“This time of year we’re out before the sun comes up and we don’t go back before it goes down,” he said.
Law enforcement amounts to only 30 percent of the work load, Crane said, but in the heat of the hunting season “people lose their minds.”
They get so-called buck fever in their excitement to shoot a big bull elk or deer.
“They chase animals down with their vehicles, jump out and shoot,” Crane said.
One satisfying case Crane busted occurred in Wapiti. Through his spotting scope, he watched a hunter, who did not have a license, shoot a deer.
When Crane confronted him, the man denied shooting. Crane took his rifle to compare slugs.
There were footprints near the dead deer and Crane took his boots to compare the imprint.
“It took a little time,” Crane said. “He was standing there in his socks. It wasn’t a good place to be. We want animals taken ethically.”
Another of his important cases, Crane relayed, definitely violated many aspects of ethical, legal hunting.
It took place in 2008 in Gillette, beginning with a tip from a citizen of a mule deer killed and left beside a highway.
Following up, Crane assumed the poacher would strike again and at 3 a.m. one night he saw a repeat infraction. It was another shoot-and-run. But while the perpetrator fled, Crane staked out the area and the shooter returned and was arrested.
There was much more to the case, with accomplices, search warrants, hand-written confessions, meat and antlers being carried into South Dakota, and finally, a last round-up with violators hit with fines, restitution payments and loss of hunting privileges.
Current G&F director Brian Nesvik was a game warden and head of the Wildlife Division as he worked his way up.
In a legendary departmental case near Big Piney, Nesvik and Scott Werbelow, both of whom later were stationed in Cody, solved a 2006 violation that began with the poaching of a mule deer abandoned with its head and antlers removed.
Dropped shell casings, a boot print, and discarded coffee cup led to arrests.
The case was nicknamed “The Cappuccino Caper” because the coffee cup proved pivotal, traced to its place of origin and a repeat customer.
Wyoming being a hunting state with residents very invested in the future of the game animals that live in the state, Nesvik said the public cares deeply when individuals breach the regulations.
He has said, “The public doesn’t like to see those guys cheating.”
Ironically, since it is fiction, one way citizens can learn how game wardens operate is by following the exploits of Joe Pickett.
Pickett does not exist. He is a character created by best-selling Wyoming author C.J. Box. Pickett’s cases involve far more violence and action than game wardens deal with, but Box often acknowledges real-life game wardens for their advice
Real game wardens say they follow Joe Pickett, but unlike the made-up cases, they rarely, if ever, have to draw their weapons.
The good hunter
The entire Wyoming hunting system works because the huge majority of hunters follow the rules, obtain licenses, do not illegally chase game and do not take more animals than the legal limit.
That means no spotlighting animals in the dark, no herding animals with vehicles, no aerial assistance, no taking game out of season and respecting boundary lines of property and hunting areas.
“They care about their sport,” Smith said. “It’s still going to come back to ethics and fair chase.”
Jim Olson is a third area game warden, stationed in Meeteetse for the last 21 years. Like Pickett, Olson’s office is his home in the small Park County community.
Olson, 56, does more backcountry horseback patrolling than his Cody counterparts, but he is like them in that he was an outdoor enthusiast as a youth.
He is from Oregon, passed through Idaho, and found his calling in Wyoming.
“I always dreamed of having an outdoor kind of job,” Olson said.
He was a water safety contract worker first, then was instantly taken with Meeteetse when he saw it and can’t imagine a better job.
“It is the variety of stuff and not just going out and writing out tickets all the time,” Olson said. “You get your feet on the ground.”
He visits area landowners, works on season setting and is responsible for assessing livestock damage from predators.
Olson is disheartened encountering more and more hunters whom he believes are in the field merely for trophies, not to fill freezers.
“It used to be all about the meat,” he said.
He senses young people are not getting enough shooting instruction, either.
“If we shot an animal anywhere but the head or the neck, my dad would slap us,” Olson said.
There are times – as Crane indicated – when a game warden must be a detective.
In a Meeteetse case about 10 years ago, Olson said he received a report of an abandoned killed cow elk.
It was December, about 18 degrees below zero, when he walked the scene and determined nine elk had been shot on private land, the meat left behind.
Olson discovered rifle casings. He traced tracks in the snow. Eventually, he decided a large group of hunters participated.
He checked with the landowner, who said some out of state hunters asked for permission to hunt in a 5 a.m. phone call, but were not seen in person. However, they did turn in a land owner coupon and Olson was able to trace names to different states. An associate in Montana interviewed a hunter in his home there.
Five men faced charges of wanton destruction of meat and killing over their limit.
Restitution was paid on some elk, fines were levied, but the defendants pled down the charges.
Olson was satisfied to break the case, but disappointed the hunters were not more severely punished.
There was no such drama on Gerharter’s patrol.
Still, he does solve such cases of poachers and road shooters.
“Sometimes, it’s just opportunistic,” he said. “For the most part, we deal with a lot of good people.”
Many times, law-abiding sportsmen inform game wardens about violations they witness. Wyoming has an 800-number tip line.
“Is it accidental, or is there intent?” Gerharter said of incidents. “I put a lot of thought into violations.”
Wyoming is one of the most desirable hunting destinations in the country.
“I have the best district in Wyoming and the Lower 48,” Gerharter said. “This backcountry is amazing.”
It was a slow day, but the miles of beautiful land stretched out in front of him beneath the high peaks.