Sneak Peek: Colorado’s Extreme Jobs

In our May issue, we interview eight Coloradans whose jobs require, shall we say, above-average comfort with risk-taking and extensive safety awareness. Check out "Risky Business" (page 89) for that story—and in the meantime, learn what it takes to be a district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
April 24 2013, 11:45 AM

Name: Dawson Swanson*
Occupation: District wildlife manager, aka game warden
Job Description: 1/3 wildlife management, 1/3 customer service, 1/3 law enforcement
Minimum Qualifications: Degree in wildlife biology or related field

*Note: The mountain lion pictured is very much alive—just sedated for the Front Range Mountain Lion Study.

5280: Tell us about a day in the life of a wildlife manager.

Swanson: When I’m out in the field, I often hear from hunters and anglers that I have the dream job. It’s good for me to remember that, that this career gives me the opportunity to participate in all sorts of activities that most people can only dream of: Spending days on horseback contacting hunters and anglers in the backcountry; electroshocking; helicopter ungulate counts and surveys; capturing and radio-collaring big horn sheep, mountain goats, mountain lions, moose, and turkey and putting GPS units on them; or even spending a day at the range shooting and qualifying with our pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Right now we’re getting ready to start capturing some moose to throw some collars on them. We’re looking at using helicopter net-gunning, because it can be more effective. The other thing we’re going to use there is free-range tranquilizing. Each species is different in how we approach it based on the objectives of the study. The great thing about all that is I actually get paid to do it.

5280: Explain the law enforcement part of your job.

Swanson: We carry a very similar commission as state troopers do; the difference is that we focus on primarily on Title 33, which is wildlife law, while they focus on Title 42, which is traffic law. However, at times, there’s crossover. Over the years I’ve been involved in all sorts of situations pertaining to anything from domestic violence to even homicide investigations. Since we carry the same commission, we can enforce the laws of Colorado.

5280: So, technically speaking, you could pull people over for speeding and give them a ticket.

Swanson: Yes ma’am. Any statute or regulation in the state of Colorado, we can and do enforce. But we primarily focus on wildlife law.

5280: A few years back, there was a rash of game wardens getting shot or into high-speed chases when they approached hunters who were poaching. Have you ever found yourself in a situation like that?

Swanson: Every sportsman I come in contact with, typically, is armed. They have a firearm or a knife or something on them. Most of them are good citizens. But I do deal with people who violate the law, who are armed. It runs the gamut. We’ve gotten involved in just about everything.

5280: You’re out there in mountainous, remote territory, and you’re approaching someone who is armed. How does that go down?

Swanson: Each person reacts differently. Some people can become very aggressive.

5280: Any particularly memorable cases?

Swanson: One case was miserable because the suspect broke just about every law we have in one criminal episode: He used a high-power rifle and shot a large six-by-six bull elk, which qualifies as trophy wildlife; he took the animal out of season, on private property, at night, with the use of lights; he shot across a county road and used an ATV to pursue the wildlife and harass him. Turns out the suspect was a two-time convicted felon. When I got a search warrant for his home, I also found an assortment of other illegally possessed firearms as well as drug paraphernalia and drugs—you name it.

5280: Have you ever felt like your personal safety was at stake?

Swanson: Sure. I did respond to a call at a school where the students and teacher had been taken hostage. These are not the sorts of calls you forget. Fortunately, we train and prepare for these types of calls. I work with a lot of local, city, county, state and  federal officers and agents for all sorts of these situations. I helped out a drug task force to remove a large amount of marijuana that was being grown on one of our state wildlife areas. Once, I was called to respond to what, at the time, was believed to be a fatal attack by a mountain lion on an individual; during the investigation, it quickly turned to a homicide investigation.

5280: So you’re thinking you're responding to death by mountain lion, when really you’re responding to murder. 

Swanson: Exactly. But in terms of wildlife: Within the first year I was assigned to my district, I had the opportunity to remove a mountain lion from the master bedroom of someone’s home. I used nothing but a catchpole—a long stick with a loop at the end—to do it. It worked out fine, but I think in the future, I’d probably use tranquilizer. You’ve got to be a self-motivated person, and also really enjoy problem solving. Some of these calls you get will just blow your mind. When you combine people and wildlife, you just never know what the next call is going to be.

5280: Why do you love this job?

Swanson: I’ve got a great passion for the wildlife resources of Colorado. I always have. My office is hard to beat. It’s pretty dang beautiful. You get out there every day, and it constantly changes; no one day is the same as the next. I wouldn’t do well in a cubicle. I knew that this was what I wanted since the fifth grade.

—Photo courtesy of Dawson Swanson