Two game wardens assessing a situation in Pennsylvania.
Getty Images: NurPhoto

Game Warden Authority: What They Can Legally Do to Enforce Game Laws

Game wardens have more authority than you probably realized.

Wildlife conservation officers are often said to have one of the toughest jobs on the planet. These men and women are tasked with the protection of our precious natural resources through the enforcement of game laws.

Wildlife officers are often considerably understaffed and under-funded compared to other forms of law enforcement, and there's a vast amount of wildlife resources out there to protect. This is especially true in those vast western states where there's sometimes a single officer for areas the size of Rhode Island.

Many hunters and fishermen often have questions about conservation officers and the types of authority they have in enforcing wildlife codes.

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The truth is, in most areas, state game wardens have many of the same police powers as other law enforcement, and in some cases, even more than your regular small-town police officer or sheriff's deputy. Here are the details about the authority of game wardens and what everyone should know about their power as a conservation officer.

How much authority do game wardens have?

Most people think game wardens exclusively deal with wildlife laws and spend most of their days simply checking fishing licenses or inspecting deer harvests.

While these are some of their main duties, the fact is that in most states, game wardens are considered full law enforcement officers with the ability to enforce all state laws. For example, it's not uncommon for wardens to bust someone for driving a motor vehicle or boat under the influence of alcohol. They also regularly make arrests of people who are in possession of narcotics. They can and will pull you over if they catch you speeding, and yes, they can write citations for it.

Sometimes they even work on cases you might not expect, like a recent situation in the state of Texas where wardens smashed a huge boat theft crime ring. They recovered $275,000 worth of stolen jet skis in the process!

At their core, most wildlife officers have the same powers as police officers, and they receive the same types of law enforcement training. Just because they witness a violation that does not involve fish or game does not mean they can't arrest the person responsible.

The big difference between game wardens and almost every other law enforcement agency is that wardens usually have a much larger jurisdiction than police or sheriffs. While most have designated areas they regularly patrol, in states like Pennsylvania and Texas, a game warden's jurisdiction is statewide. That means they can cross county lines and work with wardens in other areas to pursue criminal justice if needed.

In Oklahoma, wardens have "super jurisdiction." According to U.S. Law Shield, this means their wardens are considered federal agents as well as being police officers. That means they can enforce federal game laws too.

Can game wardens come on private property?

One of the more controversial aspects of the game wardens is their authority to enter private land and conduct searches. In most states, wardens do have the authority to enter private property to enforce game laws. The Texas Game Wardens are one notable example. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says: "Section 12.103(a), Parks and Wildlife code, allows Texas Game Wardens to enter on any land or water where game or fish are known to range or stray to enforce the game and fish laws of the state."

Along those same lines, notes that in many states wardens do not necessarily need a search warrant when investigating suspected wildlife crime. They can search your truck, your boat, or your coolers if they have probably cause and deem it necessary. This raises concerns about fourth amendment rights protections against unreasonable searches and seizures being violated by a government agency.

There have obviously been legal challenges to these types of search powers. In some cases, the courts system has upheld legal challenges under what's known as the "open field doctrine." According to the Cornell Legal Information Institute, this doctrine means "fourth amendment protection does not extend to open fields. Governmental intrusion and information collection upon open fields do not constitute searches or seizures under the fourth amendment."

It also notes that this doctrine can apply even if there are fences or "no trespassing" signs in place. In some states like Wisconsin, lawmakers have introduced legislation to try and limit the powers of wardens to make these kinds of searches, or for them to enter private land without probable cause.

It's an interesting debate. On one hand you want to protect people's rights and prevent meaningless searches. At the same time, it's a valid argument that it would make it harder for game wardens and conservation officers to investigate things like reports of poaching.

How can officers check hunting licenses for hunters on private land if the officers can't enter? What constitutes "reasonable suspicion" for an officer to enter private land? A lot of these issues are tough to solve and probably will not be fully answered anytime soon.

Check your local laws and regulations.

It's not a bad idea for any hunter or angler to read up on what their wardens can legally do in the field. It will help to avoid negative encounters and misunderstandings with officers who are just trying to do their jobs. Remember that game wardens play a key part in the protection of our lands, water, and wildlife. We should all be on the same side when it comes to the conservation of these natural resources.

Whether they're called a game warden, DNR officer, game and fish, peace officer, or whatever, just remember they are almost always equivalent to law enforcement officers with the same powers as your local police and sheriff's deputies. They may have an extra emphasis on fish and game laws, but they are also there for public safety and to enforce all criminal laws, not just the ones that affect hunting and fishing.

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels