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Nurturing nature: A day in the life of a game warden

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Game Warden Zach Schuchard inspects the ground for tracks as he patrols the Badlands. (Photography by Nathanial A. Barrera/ The Dickinson Press)

Game Warden Zach Schuchard adjusted his binoculars carefully as he surveyed Patterson Lake’s frozen landscape. After spotting a lone figure stooped over a small hole in the ice, Schuchard started up his work truck and swung around to the other side of the lake, where the angler’s pickup waited in the cold — all of this without being noticed in the slightest.

“I can see who the truck’s owner is, then look on our Game and Fish online licensing system and see if the registered owner has a fishing license,” Schuchard said as he entered the vehicle’s information into his onboard computer. “Looks like this guy does, but let’s go talk to him.”

In an attempt to understand who and what game wardens do for North Dakota’s wildlife and its natural environment, The Press participated in a ridealong with Warden Schuchard on Thursday, Dec. 19, as he made his rounds patrolling the Western Edge.

As the Game and Fish official trekked across the frozen waters of Lake Patterson, the fisherman, finally noticing Schuchard’s presence, began to pull out his license before a word was spoken.

After reviewing the license, which was valid, the pair exchanged cordial observances of the lake and its inhabitants, both human and aquatic, as well as some sporting advice.

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“They’ve been catching some on the other side of that bay, down off the cliff where the weeds meet the rocks over there,” the warden said, pointing to a spot further west on the lake.

“I was there two days ago,” the fisherman replied, shielding his eyes from the light reflecting off the snow. “I caught one big perch, but that was it. Other than that, nothing.”

The pair traded a few short anecdotes before finally parting ways, but the overall positive interaction between the law and the public was indicative of what both Schuchard and his office are hoping to cultivate.

“What I hear from a lot of people is that we’re out to get everybody. We’re not,” Schuchard told the Press, Lake Patterson in his rearview mirror and the Badlands up ahead. “If you’re doing something wrong, then yeah, I’m going to do my job, but my job isn’t to get everyone.”

Snow-covered buttes peaked up from the landscape as wild turkeys and mule deer halted their winter rituals to investigate Schuchard’s truck. From tire marks to human footprints to coyote tracks, the officer left nothing unquestioned as he inspected the Badlands and searched for traps in the cold.

One such inquiry led the warden to a raw, yet heartbreaking discovery: a mother cow, ripped apart by scavengers days before, lay dead in a frosty field, her young calf, lifelessly stiff between her legs.

Although coyote tracks littered the snow all around the unfortunate spectacle, Schuchard was quick to point out that, because of a lack of evidence pointing to a struggle, the pair likely died from disease or weather, rather than from an attack.

The warden, moving on from this natural tragedy, decided it might be a good idea to head back to town with the sun beginning to set on the Western Edge. On the way back to Dickinson proper, he laid out his and his department’s philosophies.

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In so many words, the goals of Game and Fish and the goals of the public are one in the same: to conserve North Dakota’s natural environment so everyone can enjoy it for generations to come. Rather than the citation-happy harriers they are often made out to be, Schuchard and the agency he represents are, in fact, caring and compassionate officers of the law that only want the best for their state inhabitants, be they man or beast.

“It doesn’t matter to me if I write 200 tickets a year or 30,” Schuchard told The Press as the lights of town began to light up just over the horizon. “If I only write 30, then I’m either slacking off or I’m doing my job effectively and people are learning. I didn’t want this job so I could write tickets all day: I’m out here to protect wildlife.”

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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