Wheat was born in Pasadena and grew up near Cuero. After graduating from college and the Texas Game Warden Training Center, he was stationed in Tyler County for five years before transferring to Ochiltree and Hansford counties in 1996. He lives in Perryton.
I credit my dad with my love for the outdoors. As a boy, I spent a lot of time with him on his ranch. He taught me to shoot and to hunt, and we’d often camp out together. I’d run traps for furs to make money to buy gifts for Christmas.
But what I knew about wildlife then was just a drop in the bucket compared with what I’ve seen since: eagles, quail, deer, elk, wild turkey, dove, duck, geese, you name it. Texas geography is so varied that you might be responsible for overseeing oysters and shrimp in one county and pronghorn antelope and pheasant in another. When I was at the game warden academy, they’d bring in a bunch of different bird wings or several pounds of fish and you had to identify each animal correctly. The diversity was astounding.
My job is to enforce the state’s game, fish, and water safety laws. I check people’s hunting and fishing licenses; I check their bag limits and that they haven’t killed more than they’re supposed to; I check that they’re hunting during season; I check their boating equipment and that they’re not acting crazy on the lake. Whether I’m tracking pheasant hunters or rowdy jet-skiers depends on the time of year, but I’m on call 24 hours a day. I remember one Thanksgiving, my wife had just gotten everything on the table, and I got a call and had to leave. That happens a lot.
The area I cover is about 1,800 square miles, and when I go out on patrol, I’m looking for people who are abusing our wildlife resources. Texas is unique because so much of it is privately owned—probably about 95 percent—so most of my patrolling is on private territory. Since I can’t be everywhere at once, I depend heavily on landowners to report what they know. I won’t give away my exact tactics, but I can tell you that I look for things that are out of place: gates that are closed when they should be open, strange tracks. People follow the wildlife, so I’ll find where, say, the ducks and geese are feeding this season and scout the area before the hunters get there. That way I’ll know what to look for.
I do a lot of watching and listening. It’s all about patience; it once took me as long as five years to nab some poachers. Often I’ll sit stationary in my ATV or my truck and wait to catch the activity: people moving, traffic, lights, the sound of shots. After sundown, when I’m watching for illegal deer hunting, I’ll use night-vision equipment. There are days when, just because I’m out there, I’ll end up catching other crimes.
Sure, I’ve had people run. Once, there was a guy who bolted on foot, so I had his vehicle towed because I knew he’d come back for it. And, of course, he did. Others hide their weapons or try to hide game; they’ll stick the carcasses in places they think I won’t find them. Or they’ll just refuse to show me their license or equipment. There have been two times that someone pulled a weapon on me. I had to figure out fast how to talk my way out of that.
Generally, though, I’ve found that most people have a conscience and try to do right. Case in point: One time I wrote a guy a ticket for not having a fishing license, and he never got around to paying it, so eventually I got a warrant for his arrest. Well, I knew where he worked but didn’t know the address, so I picked up the phone, called his company, and said to the secretary, “This is the game warden, and I need to know y’all’s address.” When I pulled up, another man came out to meet me. “I want to tell you,” he said, “that when the secretary said you were coming, I dug the deer heads out of the dumpster.” Turns out he had shot two deer illegally. But I had no idea what he was talking about, so I just said, “Okaaay.” And he said, “I just want to know, who called in on me?” I never had the heart to tell him that I’d been looking for somebody else.
I always say that hunting and killing are two different things. You may kill something when you hunt, but most of the times I’ve been out hunting, I haven’t fired a shot. It’s about being outdoors. You know, at least two times a year I teach hunter’s safety classes—if you were born after September 2, 1971, you’re required to take one—and one of the best parts is meeting these young new hunters and then seeing them again outside, in close contact with the land. Hunting is a form of wildlife management. If you’ve ever seen an animal starve to death because of overpopulation, hunting is a whole lot more humane than that. No species has ever become extinct because of legal, regulated hunting—note I said “legal” and “regulated.”
Game wardens are so well-equipped—we each have a boat and a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and most of us have ATVs—that we’re often called upon for search-and-rescue work during natural disasters. This might surprise you, but I was on standby to go to Haiti after its earthquake. I’ve worked a flood in Living-ston with the worst torrential waters I’ve ever seen, and I was sent to Louisiana for Hurricane Katrina. I remember in New Orleans we went by one house where its residents had tied a feather to the end of a broomstick and stuck it out a window as a call for help. They’d been waist-deep in water for five days. It was unnerving; the neighborhoods were so flooded it was like being on a lake. Of course, we work around so many lakes already that we were more prepared than we thought.
When you work to protect the land and its resources and then on top of that you can save somebody’s life, then you know you’re doing what you ought to be doing. For me, there’s also a peace and solitude in the outdoors that I can’t find anywhere else. When my son came home on Christmas break last year, I took him out to see a group of deer. Two bucks were fighting, and he had never seen that before. It was a moment he got to share with his dad, and I know he’ll remember it.