- Associated Press - Monday, June 5, 2017

WILMINGTON, Vt. (AP) - A local game warden named the annual Vermont Game Warden of the Year says the award has made him feel like he has “succeeded in the profession.”

“I was really pleased,” said Vermont State Game Warden Richard Watkin, who’s based out of Wilmington. “You’re essentially going up against other wardens and I think my colleagues are an extremely talented group of individuals with different skills. It’s a really great bunch of folks to work with.”

Gov. Phil Scott presented Watkin with the award in Montpelier on May 24. Watkin also received a certificate from the private wildlife conservation group Shikar-Safari Club International acknowledging the award. The group sponsors these awards in each state of the United States as a way to promote enforcement of laws protecting wildlife.

Watkin wasn’t a hunter but had done some inland fishing in the English Channel growing up so he said he had a lot to learn when taking on the role of game warden.

“I had to put a lot of time in and do my own research, so to speak, to try and understand these cultural past times such as hunting,” he said. “So in order to get from being essentially somewhat naive in some areas to end up getting not only nominated to actually winning the award was a great feeling. I felt like I had succeeded in the profession.”

Watkin’s supervisor Lt. Greg Eckhard called Watkin “knowledgeable in all aspects of the job.”

“He understands the intricacies of fish and wildlife law and has an excellent working knowledge of the wildlife and habitats common to his patrol district,” Eckhardt said in a press release. “Rich is professional, polite, hardworking, dependable, honest and always willing to help others whenever asked. He is highly regarded by his peers and is a great asset to both the Fish and Wildlife Department and the State of Vermont.”

The third time is a charm for Watkin, who had been nominated for the award two other times. He has been with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department since 2006. That was the year Watkin spent four months at the Vermont Police Academy and eight months in field training. He was assigned to the Wilmington area in January 2007.

“I pretty much laid down my routes thereafter,” he said. “I have a young family here.”

Watkin, who has two kids and a wife who works in the Deerfield Valley, said he can see himself completing his career where he is now. Originally, Watkin is from England.

In 2000, he completed his doctorate as a research scientist and held two post-doctoral tenures at the University of Vermont. He worked there for six years.

“I got to a point where the position I was in was getting stressful,” he said. “I was more or less looking at needing to get my own grant money.”

Watkin wanted to stay in New England but he no longer wanted to be a research scientist. Driving along Interstate 91 one day, he noticed a game warden truck. That piqued his interest and eventually he applied for a position.

When offered a job, Watkin was surprised. But his experience with researching molecular changes in human skin cells made him an attractive candidate. The thought was that those skills would be helpful with big game forensics.

Watkin has seen the department switch who handles samples. UVM now gets them.

“Formerly, we used to send samples out of state to be tested,” Watkin said while acknowledging that the current way is cheaper but it also keeps the work in Vermont,.

Of particular enjoyment to Watkin are search and rescue calls.

“It’s one of those things that occurs so randomly but there’s an element of it, where to try and locate somebody who is either missing or compromised due to injury, can be a very gratifying feeling,” he said. “It’s not just the game wardens that called on search and rescue. There’s the state police, and local fire and rescue. But it can be quite an experience to have all these agencies get together with a common goal, with the understanding that they don’t always have a happy ending.”

It’s also the community aspect of the job that keeps Watkin engaged.

“We cover a lot of rural territory that doesn’t tend to see a lot of law enforcement on a regular basis,” he said. “There’s a presence that comes with us patrolling around these rural areas and you get to know your constituents. And whether it’s just conversations, just civility in passing or it’s questions, we get flagged down frequently by people that want to talk for one reason or another. I think it’s important for the work we do that we have this relationship with our communities, because there are so few wardens in the state so we rely on the public to help us do our jobs.”

With promotions and retirements, it can take a year or more to replace a warden who’s left his position. Training takes a year and advertising the job takes some time. Then there’s the interviews and hiring process.

Wardens’ territories tend to expand when a vacancy pops up. Watkin, at the time of the interview, was covering about nine communities including Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Stratton, Somerset, Stamford, Whitingham and Wilmington. Two wardens will soon be added to the state’s roster, in Poultney and Springfield.

“One way or another, we cover the calls regardless,” Watkin said, noting that judgement is used on how to respond as some calls are emergencies and others can wait. “Sometimes it involves traveling a number of towns over.”

Watkin’s responsibilities change with the seasons. In the fall, he’ll tend to work shifts later into the evenings. He might finish up in the early hours of the morning or go in late and work until daybreak. Much of this time is spent on trying to combat wildlife crime, he said.

“Deer jacking” - or illegal hunting - is the main concern. Watkin said he doesn’t see these crimes as often as other districts might.

In the winter, he literally shifts gears via snowmobile enforcement. He also puts in time patrolling ice fishing.

Before the summer, the Department of Fish and Wildlife stocks waters across the state with fish. For now, Watkin will be on the lookout for fishing and boating violations until big game season comes along.

Some jobs can have a certain repetition to them regardless of the time of year, he said. That’s not the case for Watkin.

“I really appreciate the way things change,” he said. “That’s probably one of my favorite parts of having the job.”

In a press release, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commission Louis Porter said Watkin “represents so many of the things that makes our warden force the professional and well-respected institution that it is… (and he) goes out of his way to serve his community, from teaching kids at the local elementary school about wildlife to giving free snowmobile rides to disabled children.”

Watkin recently took on an additional task as a canine handler, something he said he really wanted to do. An 18-month-old yellow lab went through tracking school last year with Watkin to study “human scent trailing.” Now the pair’s training in “gunpowder detection” and “human evidence recovery.”

Watkin called his job “one of the more rewarding careers I can imagine doing.”

“You see so much stuff goes on in the outdoors whether through wildlife behavior or human behavior,” he said. “You start your day out not sure what’s going to happen and a lot of the times it’s the same stuff - checking licenses or driving around patrolling your district. But there’s so many times over the 11 years I’ve been on where stuff just happens, where we either pull up to something or you circumstantially encounter something.”

Watkin said the abnormal events keep him interested and to be issued a snowmobile, boat and kayak “is pretty neat.” But not everything is “rosy,” he admitted.

“We get deployed to any hunter-related shooting that goes on in this state,” he said. “We get deployed to do reconstructions and you can imagine some of these scenes are far from pleasant.”

Sometimes, Watkin said, a search ends in recovery rather than rescue. But those events he accepts as part of his professional duties.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2rXJBT7

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Information from: Brattleboro Reformer, https://www.reformer.com/

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