“Under a Poacher’s Moon – Stories of a Wisconsin Game Warden” by Steven Dewald is a book of 36 true stories that provides a unique perspective into the lives of the men and women who work in conservation law enforcement. The stories range from laughter to tragedy, providing a view of Wisconsin’s outdoors from behind the badge. Several chapters describe Northwoods events of the past, including the peacekeeping efforts during the spearing protests of the late 1980’s when gunfire over the water and mass arrests at boat landings were common place. Other chapters share the challenges to individual officers as they face armed robbers in the woods, investigate fatal hunting accidents, or remove intoxicated boaters from Wisconsin’s waters.
Northernwisconsin.com had the unique opportunity to interview author Steven Dewald, a Wisconsin conservation warden for over 30 years. His many experiences and background in conservation law are the basis for the book he wrote.
NorthernWisconsin.com: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you knew you wanted to be a game warden?
I have lived in Wisconsin all of my life and have always loved the outdoors. Originally I went to college at UW-River Falls to prepare myself to be a manager of a state park. While working at a summer job at a state park during college, I was asked to work law enforcement in the park. I quickly learned law enforcement officers were needed to protect the public from dangerous people and to preserve our sensitive natural areas for future generations. So as a senior in college I applied for a full-time enforcement position with the DNR and was hired in November of 1980.
NorthernWisconsin.com: What type of education and training did you need?
I graduated with a B.S. degree from UW-River Falls with a major in Scientific Land Management. Like other law enforcement officers, I also graduated from a police academy before receiving my certification as a warden. The first year on the job I spent at various training assignments around the state working at a station for 8 weeks before being evaluated and then getting assigned to the next training station. Basically, wardens spend the first year of their career living out of a suitcase.
NorthernWisconsin.com: You were a game warden for over 30 years. Can you tell us how the job changed over the years?
The scope of responsibilities is much broader now than it was in 1980. When I started my career, stopping deer poaching was priority number 1. In the late 1970’s the total deer kill statewide was less than 80,000 deer some years. Now it averages around 350,000 so there are many more deer around now. In 1980 wardens were not doing many things wardens do now such as homeland security, chronic wasting disease control, invasive aquatic species, ATV enforcement, personal watercraft, recycling regulations, or turkey enforcement. Some readers may be surprised to know that we didn’t even introduce turkeys successfully in Wisconsin until the late 1980’s. The technological advances have also changed the job significantly. I worked more than 10 years before I had to use a computer at work. Now wardens have laptop computers in their trucks that can access many databases of information. Likewise, cell phones did not exist in 1980, so if we received a hotline call of a violation in progress, the state patrol would radio us to drive to the nearest town to call the hotline number from a pay phone. Obviously those days are long gone.
NorthernWisconsin.com: Why did you decide to write “Under a Poacher’s Moon“? How long did it take you to write it?
My parents had always suggested that I write down some of the experiences of my career that I had shared with them. I also felt the need to write something down from a family history perspective. My grandfather was an orphan who knew nothing about his parents or family history. Because of that, I wanted to find a way to preserve some of my life experiences so that someday my great grandchildren could read about who I was and what I did with my life. Fortunately, I was in the habit of throwing copies of interesting incident reports into a box at home as a “retirement box” that I could look through at the end of my career. After I retired in spring of 2011, I went through the reports and newspaper clippings and spent about 6 months working on the book full-time before I felt it was complete. Rather than write about how to catch people, I instead tried to focus on what the officers sees and feels so the reader can experience the events with a view from behind the badge.
NorthernWisconsin.com: For those of us less-in-the-know, what exactly is a “poacher’s moon”?
Historically, a “poacher’s moon” was a very bright full moon in November in England. It was the first full moon after the hunting season when poachers would continue to hunt. However, I honestly did not know about that definition until after I wrote the book. As a warden I would sometimes comment to my wife late in the fall when I saw a bright moon in the sky that it was a “poacher’s moon” and that people would be shooting deer that night. My wife usually interpreted that to mean that I would soon be putting on my uniform to work deer shining complaints. There is no second or third shift of wardens in Wisconsin, so if more work is left to be done after a regular shift, the warden simply works longer into the night.
NorthernWisconsin.com: Can you tell us a little about your favorite stories in the book?
The most humorous chapter is called the “Mayfly Woman” which describes a very funny chain of events that takes place in a boat as we escort a scantily clad woman back to a boat landing. The trip takes a strange turn when we ride through a very thick cloud of mayflys that have hatched in the warm July night on the Mississippi River. That is a reader favorite.
Personally, I like the chapter of “What the Local Warden Means to Good People.” Wardens develop a lot of friendships over the years with rural landowners and farmers who are being victimized by poachers. With only one or two wardens per county, these citizens see the amount of time and effort the wardens dedicate to making their farms or land safe again. It is rewarding to help people who really don’t have anyone else to turn to.
From a historical perspective, I also chose to write a chapter of my experiences during the volatile protests over tribal spearing of walleyes on lakes in northern Wisconsin in the late 1980’s. It was a tense time when satellite trucks for television stations from across the country came to broadcast footage of the protests at the boat landings. Wardens had the responsibility of escorting the spearing boats on the water. It led to very scary moments when rifle shots would be fired over the water from the pitch black shorelines.
NorthernWisconsin.com: When you think back over your career, which on-the-job events have had the most significant impact on you? I would imagine you’ve seen the lowest-of-the-low but also some pretty uplifting events as well…
The lowest points of my career usually revolved around death investigation. The chapter, “Death Came at Dawn” explains the toll the 2001 deer gun season took on my team members when we had to investigate 4 separate hunter fatalities on opening weekend of the deer gun season. During a 30 year career investigating hunter fatalities and fatal ATV, boating, and snowmobile accidents, we come to understand how fragile life is.
The high points of the career are the kids. The young smiling faces we see in safety classes when the young people are 12 years old are Wisconsin’s future. To later see these people in the field as adults, a decade later, when they are enjoying the outdoors in a safe and ethical manner is very uplifting, especially when they remember you from their classes many years before. It makes you feel you are doing something meaningful for future generations of Wisconsin’s outdoor users.