It’s 10 below zero and half an hour before most people head for work. There he is, pulling a hapless hunter out of a snowbank. That’s not his job. He just does it because it needs to be done. That’s the way Nick Roberts is. He has been Evanston’s game warden since 2014.
I ask if he’s running a towing service on the side. He just smiles while we share a memory of him pulling my son out of the same bank. Three groups of late-season elk hunters had just watched the day break from the ridge near Don Proffit’s grave. Strangers who had just met talked easily and worked together in the hope of a successful hunt.
Success means different things to different people. To the hunters, it might mean putting lean meat in the freezer or teaching a son how to respect the land. To the ranchers it means keeping the wild herds from destroying thousands of dollars’ worth of carefully cultivated feed. To the taxpayers of Wyoming, successful management of wildlife means fewer dollars spent compensating ranchers, plus healthy, abundant wildlife.
The game warden keeps a pulse on all these needs and many more. He, with his dog Blue, is the face of local game management. Policies may be set in Cheyenne, but they are carried out by a solitary man in the field. He is responsible not merely to enforce a book filled with regulations. He is there to bring the policies to life and to strike the balance that the lawmakers intended.
Although much of their work takes place on federal land, game wardens are not federal officers and do not enforce any federal laws. As employees of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, they have the responsibility to enforce wildlife and boating statutes passed by our state’s legislature, as well as regulations determined by the Game and Fish Commission.
At minimum, wardens must have a bachelor’s degree in a field related to wildlife management. They must pass a standardized warden examination and maintain certification as a Wyoming peace officer.
For Roberts, his path began at Iowa State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife management. After graduation, he worked seasonally in wildlife positions and construction for a number of years until he decided to become a warden.
After passing the Game Warden Examination and various criminal and psychological background checks, he was hired by Game and Fish in 2010 and spent three months at the Law Enforcement Academy in Douglas. That, and training in the field, qualified him to be a warden. He served in Cody, Alpine and Cheyenne before he was promoted to Senior Warden and assigned to the Evanston district.
A senior warden has to be a self-starter. With minimal supervision, he is “responsible for fish, wildlife and watercraft law enforcement; wildlife management data collection, interpretation and decisions; addresses human-wildlife conflict resolution, wildlife depredation investigations and injured wildlife calls,” according to the state’s job description.
All of this requires him to be knowledgeable both in the habits of wildlife and in the intricacies of Wyoming law. But that is only part of the job. As the primary representative of the Game and Fish Department, he deals with a wide array of people and a diverse set of issues. Competent in skills ranging from horsemanship to firearm safety, he must work as easily with a weekend hunter as with other law-enforcement officials. With such a wide range of duties — and the need for discretion and decision-making — a warden can make, or break, the public’s confidence in state competency.
To be a competent officer of the state begins with understanding what the state is. One must know both its source of authority as well as how that authority is to be used.
Broadly speaking, God Himself is the source of all authority. As St. Paul puts it, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1 ESV). The proper use of this authority is “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14).
This, immediately, raises the topic of moral judgments. Categories of good and evil are not arbitrary proclamations. They are objective realities — tied to the reality of God Himself. Just governments do not decree what is good or evil, they discern it. Whether it be the state legislature, the Game and Fish Commission, or the warden in the field, government’s responsibility is to understand the objective good and to govern accordingly.
For the Department of Game and Fish, this begins by acknowledging that God has given humankind responsibility to care for the land and the creatures that inhabit it. Within this management, principles such as equitably sharing resources, preventing cruelty and respecting personal property all come into play.
While there is no divine decree about the number of hunting licenses to be issued, or the compensation owed to a rancher who loses hay to a herd of hungry elk, we are not free to make laws and regulations about these things that contradict the principles at stake.
Just as it is vital to understand these parameters on lawmaking, it is also necessary for peace officers to understand their place in the chain of command. Unlike the military, governments do not operate by a top-down hierarchy.
Rather, the foundational building block of every government is the family unit. Fathers, mothers and children originally had the management responsibility for the land and the animals that roamed on it. When families come together in community, they see the need for cooperation among households. This is the reason for governments.
Hence, this is the reason that governments are best understood as exercising the coordinated authority of the families in its jurisdiction. That makes government officers much more like fathers than like dictators.
Unlike an arbitrary dictator that imposes decrees from afar, the best governmental officers know each, and every, family that they serve. They understand their diverse needs and their temptations. Most of all, they care about them, like neighbors and relatives, because the officers are part of the community themselves.
From this standpoint, local officers understand state laws as a framework for service and not as a platform of power. We pay them a salary because we appreciate what they do for the entire community. They treat people with respect and love because what is good for one is good for the whole community.
This is the way governments are supposed to work. Governmental institutions may be necessary evils, but the people who serve them are not evil. Properly understood, officers and the citizens they serve are not antagonists, but friends.
Nick Roberts exemplifies this kind of community service. He will likely be embarrassed for me to say so, but that is only because it is genuine. I appreciate his fatherly approach. I believe the ranchers do, as well. Even if you have never met him, I hope you will feel better knowing that he is looking out for your interests behind the scenes.
Many rightly bristle at governments that act like overlords. Some citizens react by despising government itself and adopting a hostile attitude toward anyone who works for the state.
There is a better way. I have talked about one exemplary individual. Look around yourself and consider other faithful servants. Take heart and be encouraged. Thank them and encourage them, as well. They are a gift from God.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.