This month, hundreds of game wardens and conservation officers from around the country and Canada gathered in Cheyenne for the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association’s annual conference. While serious conversations about poaching, large carnivore attacks, and stress were important, the most anticipated event was the Warden Skills Competitions.
“We like to think of it as the Game Warden Olympics,” said Jason Sherwood, a senior game warden from Laramie and this year’s conference chairman.
He said the skills competition has been around for decades. Its purpose is to take teams from across the country and test their prowess in the host state’s environment.
“And,” added Sherwood, “it’s a great way to build comradery.”
Think about when your family visits Wyoming to hike and how tired they get. Now imagine what it would be like for them to take part in a highly competitive physical activity they haven’t trained for. That’s what the 17 five-member teams did at Curt Gowdy State Park.
I followed five guys from Mississippi (or, as they unofficially named their team: “The Redneck Mississippians.”) The team consisted of conservation officers Jason Blaylock, Jacob Brumfield, Keith Bond, retired officer Jock Smith and his son, William Smith, also an officer.
Blaylock said the skills competition is the best part of the week.
“You just get to have a lot of fun with officers that you don’t get to see on an everyday basis,” said Blaylock.
But is this just for fun or are they taking the competition seriously? The guys from the team said they’re hoping to make the top ten.
“We don’t want to be last. Don’t want to be last,” they all shouted.
One thing they had to deal with was the elevation, especially coming from sea level. They pointed out that just walking to their hotel rooms is a task and worried they’d all be doubled over by the end of the day.
The first event was target shooting, using arrows, slingshots, and BB guns. They did well, thwacking arrows into hay and pinging metal targets.
Next was Wyoming wildlife identification. The Mississippians struggled with the Wyoming state reptile, debating whether it was a horned lizard, toad frog, horny toad, or horned toad.
Only one of those is a real animal: the horned lizard, which is in fact the state reptile.
The team identified the sex of a mule deer by its pelvis and the age of a bighorn sheep by its horn. They even knew which department store began in Wyoming (JCPenney).
The last question on the identification sheet gave you the spelling of the notoriously tricky Popo Agie River that runs through Lander and required you to pronounce it. You can’t win them all. (It’s pronounced po-PO-shuh).
Before the next event, Jason read off the rules.
“Teams will be given GPS units and the coordinates and locations of three pieces of equipment needed to capture a deer.”
They ran through the woods, found what they needed with the GPS, then roped, blindfolded, and transported a decoy mule deer to a trailer. Jock roped the deer in one shot, the fastest any of the Wyoming game wardens had seen all day.
Last was the most intricate and involved competition of the day: water skills. In the first part, a team member had to cast a fly from shore into a hula hoop out in the reservoir. William aimed at one about 20 yards away.
The line zipped and whirred overhead. He tried a couple of times, then he hit inside the hoop. Once he finished, two team members put on life jackets and leapt into a canoe. They had to weave it through buoys and collect duck decoys in the water. After furiously paddling back, they handed everything off to the last two team members who went through the buoys again and then reset a trap on shore.
The five men rushed the canoe on shore with a splash and threw in the life jackets. You could hardly hear the time keeper over their panting and shouting.
One of his teammates pointed out that William was soaking wet.
“I don’t care,” he said.
The Mississippi officers all agreed they did pretty well.
“Hopefully, our determination paid off,” said Jason Blaylock.
Determination did pay off for the Redneck Mississippians. They took home third place out of 17 teams.
Laughing, team member and star fly-fisher William said his big takeaway after shooting, running, and casting in the Wyoming mountains:
Will any of these people become better wardens because of the competition? The jury’s out. But we do know that some of them can cast a fly into a hula hoop.