For Officer Amanda Nevel, there is no such thing as a typical shift.
On this cold November morning it starts at sunrise. Nevel is on her way to organize a hunt for disabled sportsmen at the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and I am along for the ride. We are only on the road a few minutes when she gets a report of an injured bird, followed by a call from a hunter who has harvested a buck showing signs of disease. Over the next eight hours, Nevel will traverse two counties, cover close to two hundred miles, and end her day deep in the woods, dropping cameras where she suspects illegal baiting. This is crunch time, when hunting and rockfish seasons intersect, and no two shifts are the same.
“Normally I start off with a plan, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” she laughs. “You never know what’s going to happen when you go on duty. That’s why I like it.”
Nevel is one of only 153 conservation police officers (CPOs) tasked with enforcing Virginia’s hunting, fishing, and boating laws across the Commonwealth’s 42,775 square miles of land and more than 49,000 miles of river. But she is also part of an elite subset because of her gender. The state employs only nine female CPOs (formerly known as game wardens), making up about six percent of the Department of Wildlife Resources force.
Nationwide, women currently earn nearly half of all undergraduate degrees in law enforcement and more than half of the degrees awarded in biology, agriculture, and natural resources programs. Any of these majors could easily lead to a career in conservation resource policing, but few women consider it as an option. It just isn’t on their radar, according to Nevel, because they haven’t grown up seeing women CPOs. She’s working to change that by teaching hunter education classes to women and young girls. She says participants are often surprised to see her there.
“They tell me they didn’t know ladies could be game wardens,” Nevel explains.
Her experience is echoed by her sister officers. Many say they were the first female CPOs their communities had ever seen.
“I remember when I was still in training,” say Senior Officer Beth Garrett, now in her 22nd year. “I was in a 7-11 store in the Northern Neck, and this guy just kept following me around, staring at me. I finally turned asked if I could help him. He said, ‘I heard tell there was a female game warden down here, but I wouldn’t believe it till I laid eyes on you.’”
She laughs. “I twirled around in front of him and said ‘Well, you can believe it now.’”
I hear her story—and those of the others—at the Osbourne Boat Landing on the James River, thanks to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. The agency has orchestrated a rare gathering of the state’s nine female CPOs for an interview and photo shoot that quickly takes on the feel of a family reunion. Faces light up as each new vehicle arrives, and soon the parking lot is filled with the sound of excited voices and laughter. Everyone is eager to pet Grace, a Labrador retriever puppy who is also Officer Bonnie Braziel’s new partner. Grace is the only dog paired with a female CPO as part of the canine program. It is just one of many firsts for this group that is changing the face of the VDWR. Though they come from diverse backgrounds—a family history of public service; a stint in the military; two, four, or even six years of college—they share a common bond: They are committed to preserving and protecting nature for future generations, and they hate to sit still.
“It’s my parents’ fault,” jokes Garrett, who grew up camping and boating. “I got out of school, took an office job, and I hated it.”
In addition to a love of the outdoors, these women say it is the fast pace and variety of the work that drew them to conservation policing.
“It’s always something different,” explains Senior Officer Beth McGuire, who considered other law enforcement careers before joining the VDWR. “We’re not stuck to the pavement.”
“I can be on a boat one minute, and in the woods searching for a lost two-year-old the next,” says Sergeant Jessica Whirley agrees. “You never get tired of it.”
All that variety can lead to some memorable moments, from calls about bears trespassing in trailers to naked boaters—the latter of which apparently happens more often than you might think. Everyone who has worked the water seems to have a story about nudity. Officer Katiana (Kat) Quarles recalls a couple boating in the buff on a very crowded Lake Anna. When stopped, they insisted they weren’t doing anything wrong because they were too far out for the walkers to see from the shore.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she laughs. “I pointed all around them and said, ‘What about all the other boats?’”
There are also more serious calls for boating accidents, missing persons, and recovering the bodies of drowning victims. CPOs often go undercover to track down illegal smuggling of animal parts and even assist local police in murder investigations. They serve as deputy U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers, crossing state lines to investigate violations of federal law. To prepare, every candidate must complete the 26-week Basic Law Enforcement Academy followed by a 15-week field training. CPOs go to driving school to hone off-road and fast-track pursuit skills, and they take ongoing defensive tactics and weapons training. It is a rigorous program, and one that Officer Krista Adams credits with instilling in CPOs a sense of mutual respect. Because they are all held to the highest standards, she says, “the guys see us as equals.”
That is not always the case with the public. The women joke about how often they are called “honey,” “sweetheart,” or “darlin” while on duty.
“Sometimes you let it go,” says McGuire. “You understand, especially with older gentlemen, it’s not meant as disrespect, it’s just how they grew up.”
But there are also times when the terms are intended to be condescending and demeaning, Adams points out. “That’s when you have to call them on it.”
“I say they need to use ‘Officer’ or ‘Ms.’ because those other names are reserved for my husband,” McGuire says with a smile. “That usually takes care of it.”
Learning to maintain professionalism in the face of rude or insulting behavior is an essential skill, according to the VDWR. That is because conservation policing has a higher inherent level of danger.
“If you think about it, nearly every person I am in contact with is armed,” observes Nevel. “They either have a loaded gun or a knife, and I’m usually approaching them in an isolated environment.”
It is in these challenging circumstances, she says, that being a woman can be an asset. Officer Krista Adams agrees.
“Females have a different perspective,” she notes. “We understand how to defuse a situation. Even if we’re not as physically strong, we bring this other skill to the table.”
These aren’t just opinions. They are borne out by forty years of research showing women have a less authoritarian style of policing, are better communicators, and are less reliant on physical force than their male counterparts. More importantly, female officers are less likely to escalate volatile confrontations. It is a scenario I watch play out during my ride along with Officer Nevel.
We are out at Windmill Point, in the driveway of a hunter who violated regulations by transporting his deer home to process before tagging it. From the front passenger seat of the officer’s SUV, I can hear his voice rising. Nevel continues to talk in a soothing voice, even when he shouts about how much he hates game wardens. When he finally winds down enough to take a breath, she responds sweetly, “Now sir, that’s not nice. I don’t feel that way about you.”
His anger evaporates. He even gives Nevel a tip on a poacher after receiving his ticket.
The same level of professionalism and heart to serve are apparent in all nine of the female officers. They take enforcing the law seriously, but they strive to execute their duty with both humor and compassion. It is a credo summed up best by Officer Krista Adams.
“The goal at the end, regardless of the interaction—even if I’m writing someone a summons—is to leave them with a smile.”