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North American Game Warden Museum: Honoring the Heroes of Natural Resource Protection

Posted by Kylie Blanchard, Co-Editor 9/4/2019 8:25:27 AM

The North American Game Warden Museum (NAGWM), located on the U.S. side of the International Peace Garden in Dunseith, is the only museum of its kind in the world. Opened in May 2005, the museum is dedicated to teaching about conservation and honoring the game wardens that work to protect valuable natural resources.

The mission of the NAGWM is to honor the heroes of natural resource protection; remember those who lost their lives in the line of duty; and educate the public about their work. “The wildlife conservation/game warden profession was born with the recognition that natural resources are exhaustible and must be protected,” says Stephanie Lee, NAGWM manager. “Game wardens have been on the front line of wildlife conservation for the past century.” 

 

The Game Warden Profession

Known as game wardens, conservation officers, natural resource officers and many other professional titles, game wardens work to monitor wildlife populations and habitats as well as hunting practices. Game wardens are also the faces of the agencies they represent and work with youth and sportsmen and women to foster respect for nature, conservation and wildlife.

Lee notes the role of natural resource protection is becoming more urgent and broader as the lines between wilderness and civilization blur, as species decline and habitat is lost, as the black market for endangered species escalates, and as remote places become hiding places for criminal elements.

Erik Schmidt, a North Dakota game warden based in Linton and NAGWM board member, says the museum helps to educate the public. “We are law enforcement officers in most states and provinces, and it can be a dangerous job at times and people may not realize that,” he says.

“Many people do not understand our profession,” adds Jonathan Tofteland, North Dakota game warden based in Bottineau and NAGWM board U.S. treasurer. “The museum helps inform the public about what we do and the dangers we face.” 

Tofteland became a game warden in October 2011 and says he grew up hunting, fishing and enjoying the outdoors. “I worked at the local refuge in the summers during high school and really loved working outdoors. I knew I wanted to do something in the wildlife field,” he notes.

Schmidt says he also had a passion for the outdoors and wildlife from a young age. “I get to work outside and interact with people and work with wildlife,” he says. “Every day brings something different.”

Unique Items on Display

Lee says the museum houses a variety of animal pelts, mounted animals, and horns and antlers that were confiscated or seized for a variety of reasons. “The museum also has a 50-state badge collection and an extensive patch collection,” she notes.

Also housed at the museum are ivory pieces from a $2 million ivory collection seized in New York and a duty hat worn by a Conservation Officer from New York City who helped on September 11.

A gift shop with a variety of clothing and memorabilia is also located on site and online. “We get approximately 4,000 to 6,000 people a year coming through the museum,” says Lee. “We see people from all over the world.” 

 

Honoring the Fallen

The museum is home to the Memorial Gardens, which honors fallen game wardens and conservation officers. “This is what I think of first when I think of the museum,” says Schmidt. “This a place that honors those fallen men and women and what they gave for this job and wildlife.” 

Game wardens work primarily alone, at all hours of the day and night, and routinely in remote locations without backup support. As a result, injury and loss of life to game wardens exceeds all other types of law enforcement. “It means a great deal to the officers that personally knew one of the fallen officers on the memorial,” says Tofteland.

 

Supporting the Museum

“The public’s support ensures our values of honor, service and community continue for years to come,” Lee notes of the variety of ways to support the NAGWM. 

The museum holds an annual raffle, with the drawing held at the yearly Del Tibke Memorial Golf Tournament in Valley City. Paver stones can be purchased to memorialize, honor or celebrate a game warden or to show support for the museum, and many benefactors also provide generous donations.

A lifetime membership is available with an initial pledge of $75 dollars and annual pledge of the same amount for the next nine years, and tax-deductible donations to the Game Warden Museum Fund can also be made through the Winnipeg Foundation (www.wpgfdn.org). “Supporters include a number of foundations, corporations and organizations that have committed their resources to partnering with us,” says Lee.

 

Visitors Welcome

“I’d encourage people to come to the museum to see and learn about what wardens do,” says Tofteland. “The kids love seeing the animals displayed and adults love to read the stories with the displays.”

Lee says the NAGWM is committed to being an essential resource for historic information and significant artifacts for the profession. “For that reason, we’re gathering photographs, archival documents, relics and old uniforms for exhibits and files,” she notes.

“The museum is an educational tool for the public,” adds Schmidt. “It is helping them to understand what we do.”

The NAGWM is open from mid-May to mid-September, Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Off-season visits are available through special arrangement. Admission is free, but a $20 fee per vehicle is required to enter the International Peace Garden.

For more information and opportunities to support the NAGWM, call 701-263-4829, email nagwmuseum@hotmail.com or visit www.gamewardenmuseum.org.

 

Memories of a North Dakota Game Warden

Russell Nylen, 90, became a North Dakota game warden in 1964. “The state was advertising for potential game wardens to write an exam in Bismarck,” he says. “At that time, it didn’t require a college degree and there were 70-80 guys writing the exam that day. I felt lucky to have been hired.” 

Nylen was stationed in New Rockford and covered a district consisting of Wells, Eddy, Foster and Nelson counties, as well as portions of the adjacent counties. At the time, there were about 25 wardens in the entire state. “We were involved in everything from land management to enforcement,” he notes. “When we were placed in the field, we were representing Game and Fish in all departments.”

He says he found the job very rewarding, but it wasn’t without its challenges. “The greatest challenge was trying to be fair and not be over authoritative,” Nylen says. “We had our practices and policies that were distinct, and we had to know how far we could extend our authority.”

“We weren’t paid that much and we were on call 24 hours, seven days a week,” he continues. “But it was the satisfaction of accomplishing something and just knowing you were trying to do something for the good of nature.” 

It was also important to build a good rapport with the local law enforcement, he says. “I had a good relationship with the highway patrol, judges and states attorneys in my area, we all got along well,” says Nylen. “We knew about everything that went on in our area. I chased down jail breakers and had a lot of adventures that weren’t necessarily game and fish related.”

He says one of his most memorable experiences with wildlife was when he was called to the scene of two large bucks that had interlocked antlers while fighting. “They were in a wooded area in Griggs County near Red Willow Lake and the owner of the land and I didn’t quite know what to do. One would take the offense then tire and the other would fight back,” he says.

The deer soon slipped down a slope and fell into the water. “I thought about jumping in, but also thought I might become victim number three.”

The entwined deer drown, but the landowner was granted permission to harvest the animals and had the deer uniquely mounted at 90-degree angles with the horns still interlocked.

During his career, Nylen received a Distinguished Service Award from the North Dakota Peace Officers Association for his efforts in saving a 10-year-old boy from drowning in the Sheyenne River. In 1973, he transferred to the Game and Fish Department in Bismarck and worked in land management until his retirement in 1977.

“I am proud of my service as a game warden,” Nylen says. “It was really about doing the best job and most fair job you knew how.”

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