Texas Tech University, South Plains College and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department cooperatively worked together to develop the Bachelor of Science in Conservation Law Enforcement, a one-of-a-kind exclusive degree program that can only be obtained from Texas Tech.
Robert Cox, Ph.D., associate professor for the Department of Natural Resources Management and primary advisor for the conservation law enforcement students, said the program is making an impact in the wildlife management industry.
“We have been seeing an increase in the success of getting students in the program to the game warden academy, which means that Texas Tech graduates will now start being farmed out across the state as game wardens, managing the interaction between people and wildlife,” Cox said.
The program requires an associate’s degree in criminal justice from a two-year institution, such as South Plains College. Once students have completed their associate’s degree and begin the conservation law enforcement program at Texas Tech, they then take a series of wildlife courses, such as wildlife management, wildlife anatomy or waterfowl management. Cox said students in those courses learn how to observe, manage and identify wildlife species.
“Think about a game warden,” Cox said, “let’s say they come across a deer carcass. They need to know how to identify what kind of animal that is, how old the animal was, how it was killed, or whether it has evidence of disease, and those are the kinds of things they are learning here.”
The program features courses taught by game wardens in the region. The game wardens instruct students in the conservation law enforcement program on how to be a game warden.
Ride-along hours are required for the program in order for students to get a real experience of the daily life of a game warden. The program prefers the ride-along hours be with a current game warden, but students can complete their hours with any law enforcement official, such as city or state police or even a justice of the peace. Cox said students soon realize law enforcement involves a lot of downtime and paperwork with brief moments of excitement.
The distinguished Texas Game Warden Training Academy is a very competitive program with only 15 to 20 cadets being accepted each year out of hundreds of applicants. There is a rigorous application procedure that includes testing, a series of interviews, background checks, and physical and psychological evaluations. He said Texas Tech generally has one or two students accepted into the academy annually, and most applicants apply for several years before they are accepted.
Preston Kleman, a 2014 Texas Tech graduate from the conservation law enforcement program, is a Texas game warden in Lamb, Bailey, and Cochran counties. Kleman said the program helped him in unique ways that cadets from other programs did not experience prior to entering the game warden academy. Kleman said he had already been introduced to a large portion of the material they went over in the academy because of the thorough curriculum in the conservation law enforcement degree program.
“Not everybody had a criminal justice or wildlife degree in the academy,” Kleman said. “Some of the others had teaching degrees and came from varying backgrounds. I had more exposure to the varying types of experiences game wardens endure than most of the other people in the academy because I was in conservation law. It really stands out to the instructors. It shows you’re interested and you want it.”
Kleman stressed the importance of criminal justice and conservation courses. He said game wardens spend most of their time doing criminal justice work, but the conservation courses come in handy when working on biology or conservation-related duties.
Ride-along hours were a major benefit to Kleman. He said getting to see game wardens in the field doing their duties was a major help while in the academy. During his time, his instructors would give him test scenarios and he would have to figure out how to handle them.
Conservation law enforcement has greatly influenced my future in the game warden profession.
Baylie Halbakken, a senior from Levelland, Texas, said majoring in conservation law can be tough and daunting at times, especially when looking at hiring rates and the probability of being accepted into the game warden academy. However, he believes the program offered by Texas Tech is a major assistance to the participating students, and he believes students who complete the program are at a higher-level than others applying for the game warden academy who do not have the specialized degree.
“Overall, it’s a lot of fun if you take a step back and really look at what you are getting involved in because we get to put our hands in a lot of different things as conservation law students,” Halbakken said. “We get to see the wildlife aspects of it, we get to see changes in animal populations, we get to do and participate in prescribed burns, and we get to participate in the law enforcement aspect of things. We are pretty much covering an entire gamete of areas of expertise that we get to participate in on a daily basis.”
Halbakken said it is the instructors of conservation law enforcement, such as Captain-Major VanderRoest, who have been the most helpful for students in the program. Some instructors are currently in the profession and get to teach the students about what it means to become a game warden and how to be a better game warden. The instructors can also give insight into the process of getting hired, what the job entails, and the ins and outs students could potentially want to know about the career they may partake in.
“Conservation law enforcement is a highly beneficial program,” Halbakken said. “If anyone is looking into it, they should be proactive and look into it now.”