February 26, 2024
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* Former YCC enrollee now a Texas Game Warden

By Al Barrus, Junior public affairs specialist

The life of a game warden is not for the faint of heart. This is particularly true in Texas where a day’s duty varies widely: from hands-on work wrangling wayward alligators, to more scientific work preventing the spread of game disease, to the social interactions while responding to drunk driving calls – and it can even mean confronting international drug smugglers while patrolling the Rio Grande.

I was 15 working at a wildlife refuge when I realized I wanted to be a biologist or game warden,” said Preston Kleman, the game warden for Lamb, Bailey, and Cochran counties of Texas, northwest of Lubbock. “Working at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) during my high school years confirmed for me that I wanted to pursue a career working outside in the wildlife conservation field.”

Youth Conservation Corps alumni Preston Kleman and Ignacio Gonzales at the maintenance garage at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge back in June 2006.


After completing high school, Preston earned his associate’s degree in criminal justice, then his bachelor’s in conservation law enforcement at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. From there, he attended the academy for one of the United States’ most elite police forces.

“Once the cadets graduate the seven month course at the Game Warden Training Center in Austin, they are certified state peace officers, then they go to their permanent region” said Yoakum County Game Warden Aaron Sims, who oversaw Preston on the job when he was fresh out of the academy beginning August 2017. In January 2018, Preston completed his training, and is now the game warden over a territory that spans some 2,500 square miles.

“It’s a very competitive field, especially here in Texas,” said Sims. “We have about 1.5 million hunters in this state. There are dense forests and bayous with alligators in east Texas, arid deserts in the west near El Paso, flat rural plains here in the north panhandle, and the Gulf side a vast marine coastline.

“Texas game wardens patrol the Rio Grande to remove gill nets from the Texas side of the river. The nets are legal in Mexico, but they aren’t legal here, so we remove them from our jurisdiction. While we are doing that, we run into smugglers illegally trafficking contraband, and we have to confront them.

“Because our work can vary so much day to day, we are one of the most highly trained law enforcement groups in the country. No day is like the next. This isn’t the kind of job where you’re watching the clock. It’s quite the opposite,” said Sims.

“A lot of my work involves regular state police duties, such as stopping drunk drivers,” said Preston. “As a peace officer in a rural area, I’m often the only officer on duty when something like that comes up, and I fill in for the State patrol.”

Courtesy of Preston Kleman
Texas Game Warden Preston Kleman at the Texas State Capitol in Austin for his graduation ceremony in 2017.

While most of Preston’s work involves enforcing state laws, he also continues to foster relationships he made in high school as a YCC student, and his duties often overlap with national wildlife conservation goals.

“I was the refuge biologist when Preston was in YCC,” said Refuge Complex Manager Jude Smith. Jude oversees several refuges in the Texas panhandle and eastern New Mexico. “He was with us for two summers. He helped with the usual construction and maintenance projects.

“Out of the 30 students we’ve had over the years, he always stood out in how he wanted to work in conservation. He was so inquisitive and interested in wildlife biology. He would help with shorebird identification, which is not easy work. He was always asking questions like, ‘Why are we counting these?’ and ‘Why is this work important?’

“More recently we did some work together preventing the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD). It’s a neurological disorder that affects deer,” said Smith.

CWD was first found in Colorado in 1967 and has spread to parts of New Mexico and Oklahoma, and has a foothold in the most northwestern part of the Texas panhandle. It’s a progressive and always fatal disease that affects adult members of the deer family, including mule deer, white-tailed deer, and elk. It can only be diagnosed post mortem, and requires a skilled field biologists to surgically extract lymph nodes to be tested at a lab.

While all hunters must submit their harvested deer for inspection in areas where CWD is known to occur, in the Muleshoe area it’s strictly voluntary. Jude and Preston work together in collecting samples from roadkill and hunters who volunteer. In doing so, they can identify and quarantine any infected populations.

“I help him when he has road kills to process. He helps us by patrolling the refuge when no one else is around. We talk probably once a week. It’s a good working relationship,” said Smith.

Contact your local national wildlife refuges to learn more about Youth Conservation Corps opportunities. Refuges begin accepting YCC applications in April. Applicants should be between 15 and 18 years old, and ready to work, learn, and earn for eight weeks during the summer months.

To see Texas Game Wardens in action, watch the documentary TV series “Lone Star Law” on Animal Planet.

Rhea Gonzales


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