Texas game warden finds variety of challenges on the job

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Houston Chronicle

ANAHUAC, Texas (AP) — On a recent Friday afternoon, Dustin Dockery’s shift began in the parking lot of the Chambers County Courthouse when a man pulled up to retrieve a rifle that had been taken away from him.

Dockery, a four-year veteran Texas game warden, confiscated the firearm in late July when he caught the man shooting at giant swamp rats called nutria from a boat on the Trinity River.

“It’s no different than on a public roadway,” Dockery said. “You can’t ride around on a boat and shoot at them.”

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The small-caliber varmint rifle was seized as evidence. Dockery returned it after the man settled the issue at the local justice of the peace court.

“He took it well,” Dockery said. “For the most part, that’s how most offenders act — it’s a lesson learned.”

The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/2ckAJ1A ) reports for Dockery and the state’s 550 game wardens, the job is anything but predictable as they patrol the vast open spaces of Texas. They can just as easily find themselves uncovering a marijuana growing operation secreted deep in the woods as ticketing anglers for fishing without a license.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” said Dockery on this hot night as he regularly doused himself with industrial-strength spray to ward off clouds of bugs.

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The wardens are members of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s law enforcement division and are deployed throughout the state. Each Texas county is covered by at least one warden. Dockery is one of four assigned to Chambers County.

Texas game wardens have a dual mission: like the more familiar troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety, they are state law enforcement officers. But then there’s the other task — preserving and protecting Texas’ natural resources, which includes wildlife.

His business with the nutria rat shooter completed, Dockery, 32, climbed into his four-wheel drive state-issued pickup and headed out on patrol. He would add about 160 miles to the odometer during the shift while crisscrossing Chambers County.

Dockery was born and raised in Baytown. He is married with one child — a daughter — and earned a business degree from Stephen F. Austin State University. Before he got into law enforcement, Dockery spent time as a professional minor league baseball umpire and as a salesman. He became a Texas game warden in 2012.

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“I grew up duck hunting and fishing these waters,” Dockery said as the truck barreled along one of the gravel roads. “You won’t find people who love their jobs more than game wardens.”

As his truck barreled past one of the many rice fields around Chambers County, Dockery said the plan that evening was to be visible as a deterrent. He wanted to remind any potential poachers that the game warden was in the area.

“Sometimes you’re more covert and sometimes you’re overt,” he said. “They know you’re out there. They’ll get on the (cell) phone and tell everyone.”

At one point, Dockery spotted a van parked along a back country road and pulled out a pair of binoculars to investigate. A law enforcement officer in a rural area can’t rely on the kind of quick backup their city counterparts have available, so the shotgun and Colt M-4 carbine locked between the front seats of his truck help to even the odds.

The truck rolls forward when he spots a man named Pat Gaspard sitting on a cooler in a field of weeds fishing in a bar ditch running along the road. Dockery recognized him.

“He’s always around, and he’s always fishing,” Dockery said. “These are the kind of guys who give you good information — and he likes to talk.”

Dockery said Gaspard called 911 on Aug. 14 when a kayaker named Chadd Burke was stuck against the saltwater barrier on Spindletop Bayou on the border between Jefferson County and Chambers County. Dockery went to the scene to assist and performed CPR when the man was pulled to shore. But Burke died when he arrived at the hospital.

Dockery recently returned to the spot. It was the first time he had been back since Burke’s death.

“It was one of the worst calls,” Dockery said. “We’re humans just like anyone else. You just want to go home to your wife and your kid and just hug them a little tighter.”

Back on patrol, Dockery spots a pickup slowly moving down the road. He pulls alongside and casually chit-chats with the driver.

“We’re just riding around,” the driver of the pickup tells him before they drive away.

Later, Dockery said what seemed to be friendly banter was actually part of the process of determining if the people were up to no good.

“He had no idea I was actually interviewing him,” Dockery said.

In recent years, Texas game wardens have been more of a presence in the region between Texas and Mexico. “I’ve made five deployment trips down to the border,” Dockery said.

He has spent time in boats cruising along Rio Grande as well as in trucks patrolling the area between the river and the main highways. Because of their increased mission, the state has added more wardens to the roster.

“The border is tasking us with a lot of extra hands down there,” he said. “It takes the wardens out of the community.”

With hunting season starting, Texas Parks & Wildlife wardens like Dockery will soon be out enforcing the state’s game regulations, such as the size and bag limit. They immediately confiscate any game that was taken in violation of the state regulations. When that happens, Dockery will either donate the meat to a food bank or use it as a reward for confidential informants.

“If I keep a guy and his family fed, he’s going to give me every tip he comes across,” Dockery said.

Dockery is a bit of a celebrity among the ranks of law enforcement officers in Chambers County. He is one of the cast members of “Lone Star Law,” a reality show on the Animal Planet network about Texas game wardens. Dockery admitted being a bit skeptical at first when he heard about the project.

“A lot of people don’t know what game wardens do. This has really helped to bridge that gap,” he said.

The shift continued on that night with little excitement. Dockery said it might be because everyone in town was at the high school football game. This is Texas, and it was Friday, after all. He drove along Interstate 10 for a few minutes, searching for a truck that was reported to be swerving. But it was long gone.

Dockery gave a warning to a man fishing along a stretch of the Trinity River without a fishing license. Toward the end of his shift, he spotted a couple trying to manhandle a fishing boat onto a trailer at a dock on the Trinity River. Their state-sanctioned inspection authority gives Texas game wardens the right to search boats and ice chests for any illicit fish. He finds a couple of catfish in the boat. The woman did not have a license. Because they were still alive, Dockery opted not to cite her for the violation.

“If I can put them back in the water, I’m good with that,” he said.

But that was only one of their problems. The man was ticketed because the boat wasn’t registered. When the man acknowledged they had been drinking a few beers while fishing, Dockery asked where the cans were. The man said his father had always taught him that cutting the cans open and dropping them in the water provides a home for minnows.

Dockery reminded the man that littering is not the answer to a lack of minnow housing but also cut them slack. Because the man lacked insurance for the truck pulling the boat trailer, Dockery said they could not take the vehicle onto the roadway.

“They were a hot mess,” he later said.

Dockery did not make any arrests that night but said no two shifts turn out the same. And with hunting season kicking in, anything is possible for game wardens.

“The resources of Texas belong to the people of Texas,” he said. “We are the stewards of those resources.”